The Riddle in the Front Row

Pugnacious, pimply, intentionally offensive—why won’t the smartest student try to fit in?


| September-October 2008


When he handed me his first in-class writing for a composition class, Keenan explained that he had dysgraphia—a condition caused by slower-than-normal development of his small-muscle coordination. I skimmed his paper. The letters, huge and blocky like a child’s, sprawled erratically across the pages.

“I’ve had many problems,” he said. This was evident in his palpable isolation from other students and the slash scars on his forearms. His obese face was peppered with pimples, his nose bridge pushed in, and his lips blubbery. He waddled with splayed feet and wore dirty clothes.

He continued, “I have neutralized most of my problems. I am too smart to let handwriting pull me down. I always study hard and know a lot.”

I tried to believe him, but his pronouncement sounded like a mixture of good intentions and blind hope.

At first the class snickered at his raspy voice. They soon stopped, and I paid closer attention. Politics, etymology, women’s rights, energy issues—Keenan knew his stuff and displayed it. Classes often rally behind students with disabilities, but Keenan’s class loathed him. He flouted a fundamental principle of social mythology: that intelligence correlates with hygiene, manners, likability, and looks. The repulsive are supposed to be dull and cringingly apologetic, but Keenan offered no shy, pleading smiles to hang sympathy on. He didn’t give a damn if the other students liked him. He scratched his crotch as he walked, and his unshampooed hair resembled a ragged carpet swatch. When he sneezed without covering his nose, as he often did, it sounded like a tub of margarine exploding. Yet he was the only one in class who knew who Harold Stassen was, the story of Isaac and Abraham, and what John L. Lewis meant for unions.

 






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