Clark’s Mom

29 Sep

Our society emphasizes   intelligence to such an extent  that almost everyone has   been afraid that other people  might think they’re stupid.  This  fear is one of the main reasons that we often don’t ask questions, even when we don’t understand things.  Ironically  some of the most foolish things we do, are specifically intended to try to keep other people from thinking we are stupid.

Nothing feels worse than having someone think  that you’re incompetent, when there is nothing you can do about it. There are times when people will judge you unfairly,  based on  appearance or some random behavior.   The accompanying feelings of  frustration and hopelessness may give us all some small inkling of what  discrimination really feels like.  

Back when our  youngest son was playing little league baseball, we received a notice that  parents were expected to volunteer at the baseball park. The next Saturday my wife Diane signed up to work  the refreshment stand and I volunteered to do the scoreboard. In high school I ran the basketball scoreboard, so I thought I could figure  out  how to do it. Since I  expected to do this all alone, I was looking especially shabby and unkempt that day, despite Diane’s warning.   I climbed up to the room where the scoreboard console  was located to practice  before the game started. After a few minutes an immaculately dressed woman, looking quite severe, came marching into the room. She gave me an expression of disgust, usually reserved for hobos, and   hesitatingly introduced herself as “Clark’s mom”.  She said that she too had been assigned to the scoreboard. She eyed me suspiciously at the console and asked me if I knew what I was doing. I told her that I was sure I could figure it out. Scrutinizing my uncombed hair, raggedy jeans,  dirty tennis shoes and day old stubble, she looked even more doubtful.  I started randomly punching buttons on the control box, to see what they did and this seemed to upset her even more.  She announced decisively  that she was going for help. But she spoke  in  that exaggerated calm  manner, used when telling a small child, or perhaps a maniac,  exactly what you intend to do, so as not to startle them.  It was then that it  dawned on me that she had concluded that I was too stupid to  operate the scoreboard, and quite possibly  dangerous.  I leaned forward to reassure her that I could handle it, but she jumped back and insisted that we needed  help. As she left I felt a mixture of  anger and despair,  realizing  that  I was never going to convince this woman that I was competent. I was thinking of ways that  I  could bring up the fact that I had graduated from college, but she wouldn’t believe me. Maybe I could run home, shave  and bring back my diploma.  I considered asking Diane to vouch for me, but I was afraid she might see it as a teasing opportunity and  whip upClark’s mom even more.   

By the time Clark’s mom returned with one of the coaches,  I had already  discovered the rudiments of  operating  the scoreboard,  but she wasn’t  impressed and insisted on running the scoreboard  herself. To this day, the phrase ”Clark’s mom”  is  Stawar family code for someone who treats you like an idiot for no  apparent reason.      

Since we are all fallible, there are obviously  times,  when our judgment is inadequate. Usually we hope we can slide our missteps by others without notice. This, of course, is easier if you are not closely supervised or married. But if you happened to pull one of these boners, just when someone  is evaluating you,  the “Clark’s mom” phenomena  is always a possibility.      

There are some  people who are so arrogant  that they automatically  think that everyone else is stupid, so there is no  escaping their judgment. Humorist  P.J. O’Rourke  is a case in point.  Psychologists are always trying to fit people into categories, like thinkers or feelers, introverts or extroverts, or  Type A or Type B.  O’Rourke bases his classification system on the Three Stooges. He claims that you can sort everyone you meet into one of three categories:  1. Stupid (like Larry) 2. Stupid and Mean (like Moe) or 3. Really Stupid (Like Curly).   ToClark’s mom,  I  was undoubtedly a level three Curly.

There may occasionally be some advantages in being “misunderestmated” as former president George W.  Bush once said. I had an acquaintance  named  Bob, who, when we would play poker,  would ask a lot of questions.  “Does a straight  beat a flush?”, he would innocently  ask.   I was usually hooked  and would go out of my way explaining poker hands to him. It was a gratifying  way to show off my expertise.  But then I notice that Bob kept asking these same questions. It was an old hustler’s trick– a devious and subtle way to get others to underestimate his playing ability. He  must have been greatly amused hearing me explain poker to him.  

  There is occasionally  that   rare instance when there is  an inverse of the Clark’s mom experience and someone attributes greater wisdom to you, than you deserve. Jean Shepard’s short story  Lost at C, describes such a  situation. Jean was taking  high school algebra and as he famously said,   “The class wasn’t 30 seconds old and I was already six weeks behind.” 

Algebra  refused to yield to  his  bluff-your-way-through approach to school  and  he was about to be exposed as phony. His teacher wrote a complicated equation on the blackboard and called on Jean to solve it. Totally baffled, he looked around the classroom and saw the number 3 on some kid’s football jersey and lamely gave that as his answer.  Of course, that turned out to be the correct response and the teacher  concluded that he was a math prodigy.

I have known many people who simply by luck  or some irrelevant aspect of their  status,  are always given the benefit of the doubt. Even when they do something completely inane, others  still  believe it is unfathomable  genius at work.  This is neatly portrayed   in Peter Seller’s  film, Being There, in which he  plays a simple-minded  gardener,  whose solemn  pronouncements about gardening are metaphorically interpreted  by others  as an indication of his brilliance.

I suppose we have all  taken advantage of “dumb luck” to booster our own credibility,  when the opportunity presents itself. Years ago, for example, I was using hypnosis with a client and I gave a standard suggestion that the client might feel a slight sensation in one of their shoulders. Just as soon as I spoke, from nowhere, a tiny spider fell from the ceiling onto the client’s bare shoulder.  I knew exactly how Jean Shepard felt.

You have to use every advantage you can,  since you never know when a “Clark’s mom” might be lurking nearby.

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