My brother, the 'top 1 percent' learner

Updated: May 17

My brother benefited from my absence once I had a newfound interest in church. I had started to dig some deep channels to make space for the guilt I felt from bullying him. My brother and I spent my remaining time at home mostly peaceful, and I tried my best to reconcile for damage done in the years before.

First step toward my brother's inner peace: Being the 'smart' one

My mom’s new boyfriend (after the worthless one) had taken a strong interest in my brother. He was suffering and would isolate in his room. His hygiene was awful. My mom would find bottles of cough medication empty, learning that he was abusing them for a high. The few friends he had at school were troubled kids who were smoking, drinking and doing drugs.

However, my brother had always been profoundly intelligent. I remember a couple instances vividly where I felt equal parts amazed by him and immediately jealous at the same time. The first was as I was learning to read. My grandma had spent the day going through a book with me, and we practiced word-by-word until I was finally able to read it front to back. It was a book about a bee.

I was so proud of myself and immediately felt the need to share this new skill with my brother who was probably 2 or 3 years old at the time. I sat with him on the floor, pointing to words and sounding them out for him. And in what felt like minutes, he was reading. His reading skills were always above average. I remember him reading novels toward the end of elementary school, and I usually couldn’t make it more than a chapter or two in any book without feeling like I might die if I had to finish it. I liked to blame that on the reading disability, but really, I just felt like it was a waste of my time, and I didn’t have the patience.

The second instance was in middle school as I was learning algebra. The more advanced equations with multiple variables were blowing my mind. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. I remember working on homework after school and lamenting how awful my homework was. My brother offered to help me. I laughed and told him this wasn’t something a third grader could do. He asked to see it and I handed him my book, amused at the idea that he thought he would even understand what I was looking at.

I watched as he read over the explanation page, flipping through a few pages and then he asked for paper. He started writing in numbers. He didn’t try to solve it on paper. He just put in the answers. I laughed, “You are just writing down numbers. You can’t just pick a number.” He told me, “I’m not. These are the answers.”

He handed it back to me and I shook my head, both amused and frustrated that he had wasted my time with this. My schoolbook had an index in the back to check the odd-numbered question and answers. Just out of curiosity, I flipped to the back. The first question he did was right. I went to the next one, right. And the next one, right again. It was like a magic trick had just played on me, and I couldn’t figure out how it happened.

I immediately began interrogating him on how he did that. He told me it was easy, those were just the numbers that solved the problem. He could see it in his head. So he spent the next hour teaching me how to do my algebra homework. Of course, this was the timeframe where I was being extra awful to him. So more afternoons than not, I’d just make him do my math homework for me instead.

Second step toward my brother's inner peace: Mom's new boyfriend

As mentioned above, my mom had started a new relationship during my early church years. She was bringing him around the house a lot. That was all the more reason I wanted to stay away. I wasn’t interested in getting to know him. My instinct was that he would just be another disappointment and future hurt.

He annoyed me quite a bit initially, always trying to psychoanalyze me. He would try to prod about how I arrived at my decisions or how I felt. Dude, just leave me alone. He would ask questions, and it was like a game of mental gymnastics. As my self-confidence had grown over the last couple of years, I started to see myself as fairly intelligent.

I could tell from our handful of conversations that this guy was very smart, and I likely could learn from him. As he would try to challenge my pre-teen outbursts over something, I knew what answer he was fishing for, so I would purposely go the opposite direction. He’d adjust and try again from another angle, and I’d pivot again. It was a fun little dance and probably one of our early bonding moments (at least for me). He probably was left feeling quite frustrated by obstinance. But it made me feel like he cared, even if he thought he wasn’t teaching me anything at the moment.

He was an engineer by trade, but had spent a decade in therapy and studying psychology. He also worked extensively with kids through Boy Scouts of America. He was kind, steady, dependable and definitely quirky. He made my mom happy, and I remember feeling a sense of relief that she had someone to take care of her.

He was also the first male that had taken a strong interest in my brother. My dad had moved out when my brother was 2, and they never really bonded. My dad and I still had a strong bond. I think from a young age, my brother always knew he was the odd man out. My mom’s last live-in boyfriend disliked him and wanted him out of sight all the time. So here was this kind and intelligent man, seeing my brother struggling, but he knew how intelligent my brother was.

Third step toward my brother's inner peace: Math

I remember coming home for “breaks” when I wasn’t at my new friend Cindy’s house. I would go into the bathroom, and there would be mad math scribble on the mirror. They had hung up a full-length mirror on the door as well—filled with math.

I remember asking my mom what that was about, and she said her boyfriend was leaving math problems for my brother to solve when he went to the bathroom. Apparently they were exchanging problems and answers on a regular basis. I remember feeling a sense of relief that someone was showing him that kind of attention and care. I knew it was good for my brother.

The whiteboard moment: When inner peace for my brother became stress for me

My mom’s boyfriend tried to assist me with my math homework. It was the curse of my middle school years. I wanted fast and easy help, like when my brother would do my homework for me. But this man wanted to actually teach me. Ugh.

I knew if I asked for help, it was going to turn into a one-to-two hour ordeal. Despite that, there were times I knew I had no choice but to ask for help. He was always willing to give me the time, but man would I be angry at him for it. I would try to rush him along, and he wouldn’t allow it. He would make me do problems that were not the problems on my worksheet, which always infuriated me.

He had installed a whiteboard in our kitchen, specifically to work on math problems with me. So he would stand at the whiteboard, demonstrating and explaining, and then he would want me to come up and solve the problem. “Can we PLEASE just do my homework?” I would groan. But as stubborn as I was, he was more stubborn at times. I remember early on being frustrated that we had spent at least an hour on a concept, and it just was not sinking in.

It was late. We hadn’t even started on my homework. My patience was dwindling and I said, “I’m not smart enough to get this. Can you please just help me do this worksheet so I can go to bed?” He erased the board, and I thought I had won. I hoped he had given up and was just going to walk me through my worksheet. But instead he started drawing on the board again. I sank into my chair, likely lamenting my frustration with him out loud as most 12-year-olds would.

He asked me if I knew what a bell curve was. I didn’t. So he drew a bell curve on the board and began to make dotted intersections at either end. He explained the concept where the majority of people fall into the middle but then he pointed to the smallest point on one end and said, “This is the top 1 percent of people with the highest IQ.” He even had the IQ numbers to correspond with it off the top of his head. Then he pointed to the next line, telling me that it was the top 2 percent of people in the world, and their IQ range, then the top 5 percent and so on.

He pointed to the top 2 percent line and said, “I’ve worked with a lot of kids and lot of adults. I can tell you that you are about here on this curve.” That moment hit me stronger than probably any other compliment I had received in my life up to that point. I felt smart. I felt special. I felt unique. I felt capable. I was flooded with all these feelings that were mostly foreign to me. He told me that he was in that same range as well, which is part of how he knows. It felt like a bonding moment. We were special together. We had an understanding.

But as with all good things, they don’t last forever. So the next moment, he points to the 1 percent section and I begin to fortune tell, expecting him to tell me that if I apply myself, I can be at the top of the chain. Instead he said, “And your little brother is here.” Ugh!

Immediate competitiveness and jealousy hit. I had those insecurities of my brother being able to do things with ease that I struggled with. I already was competitive, but that set off a new wave of me feeling a need to best my brother in any way possible. I wanted to be the best at everything. I needed to be in that top percent too. It was the beginning hints of my Type A personality bubbling to the surface. To this day, I take IQ tests for “fun” and get angry when I can’t reach the 150 threshold.

Despite evidence of my intelligence found throughout my life, my career progressions, people’s comments and even testing, I instead have created a rolodex of every failing, every time someone did better, every time I was wrong and like to convince myself that I’m fraud. Sometimes I believe I’m moments away from being “found out” by my work, my spouse, my friends, etc. All these people who place value on my intelligence are bound to be disappointed when they find out I’m really not smart. That’s healthy, right?

When I begin to ruminate on my failings or insecurities, my mind frequently returns to that whiteboard moment—despite being envious of my brother and how “seen” I felt in that moment. I recall the confidence it gave me. Then I try to pull back those thoughts and get back to work again.


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