I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by people who are smarter than me. My mom’s a doctor who reads a new book every week. My best friend, Shawn, ended up leaving Blue Bluff to go to an Ivy League college. My dad’s probably the smartest person I’ve ever met. Despite the fact that his own father was a deadbeat alcoholic, my dad put himself through business school. He made enough money in his climb of the corporate ladder that he was able to retire before he turned fifty. Of course, he decided to retire to Blue Bluff. So, maybe he wasn’t that smart.
Meanwhile, there’s me: a twenty-four-year-old who couldn’t get into college and works at a pizza shop. I’m not sure how a pair of intelligent, hard-working people like my parents managed to have a kid like me. Maybe their Type-A personalities were so strong that they just cancelled each other out. Maybe the genes from my dumbass grandpa skipped a generation.
For most of my life, I’ve had a scapegoat to explain away my shortcomings. I was diagnosed with dyslexia at an early age. It wasn’t easy growing up around such intelligent people when I could only read in slow-motion and spell like English was my second language. To deal with this problem, I did what I do best. I brushed off the situation with humor.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve laughed at my dyslexia. I still have a poster in my room that says “Dyslexics of the World, Untie!” Right after I was diagnosed, my mom bought me a book called “Dyslexia for Kids.” The first time I read the title, I intentionally mispronounced it as “Dyslexia for Dicks.” Laughing about my disability was an easy way for me to get past awkward moments in grade school where I had to write on the board or read out loud, but jokes like these have gotten less funny since I entered my twenties. With so many of my friends having gone to college, it’s easy to feel self-conscious as a grown man who can only read ten words-per-minute.
I had to face this anxiety during my time in Brazil. I stayed in the city of Manaus, located in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Once there, I signed up for a two-day hiking tour of the Amazon. Aside from myself and the two local Brazilians who led the tour, we were accompanied by two, young, American men around my age and an Israeli couple in their late twenties.
The trip began with a motorboat ride down the Amazon river. We followed the dark, muddy water for miles. Along the way, we could see caimans and fish swimming in the water. Birds and sloths populated the dense trees that surrounded the river on either side. At one point, we even saw dolphins jumping out of the water. After a few hours, we disembarked and continued to the campsite on foot. That trek down the Amazon river remains one of my favorite memories of my entire trip. It probably would have been my all-time favorite if it hadn’t been for goddamn Benny.
Benny was one of the Americans on the trek. A few months prior, he had graduated from Berkeley with a 3.9 GPA. Despite having a double major in mathematics and political economy, he had gotten his degree a year early. After this vacation, he would return home to San Diego, where he would work in software design. At least, I think it was software design. Benny’s job description was pretty complex and I had a tough time understanding it. Of course, my failure to understand did not deter Benny, and he had no problem with explaining it to me again and again and again. Each explanation seemed to get even more detailed and utilized even more acronyms.
Benny also took it upon himself to fact check our guides. More than once, he got into an argument with the Brazilians about what plants could be used to produce certain products. At one point, a disagreement over the taxonomy of sloths became so heated that Benny took it upon himself to speak to the Brazilians in Portuguese. He would tell us later that it was the only way he could be sure to get his point across.
Apparently, the guides didn’t appreciate Benny’s input. Later that day, we trekked inland until we reached a small waterfall. While we were all swimming at the base of the waterfall, our guides gathered up a few pineapples. They opened up the shell and pulled off tiny chunks of yellow fruit. The two Brazilians tossed the fruit at the water near Benny’s head, causing gentle splashes of water. Before Benny could ask what they were doing, the water erupted in activity all around him.
The waterfall had distorted the surface of the water, and we couldn’t see the hundreds of fish that were swimming all around us. As the pineapples struck the water, the fish leapt to the surface to fight over the fruit.
“Jesus Christ!” Benny yelled as finger-sized fish jumped all around him. “Piranha!”
“No, Mr Benny!” the guides laughed. “They aren’t piranha!”
“Yes they are!” he insisted, trying to paddle back to shore. “You can tell by their flat shape and jaw structure!
“Mr Benny, piranhas attack humans! These pacu will not hurt you!”
I found it pretty impressive that these guides were still able to accurately throw pineapple at Benny’s head even as they were doubled over with laughter. To Benny’s credit, he managed to give a pretty well-structured argument for why the fish were actually piranha, even as he swam for his life.
It took us longer than expected to reach the campsite. By the time we arrived, the sun had almost set and the mosquitos had woken up. As we set up our camp, the bugs swarmed us, leaving fierce bites that began to itch almost right away. Once the tents were finally set up, I received more bad news. The three Americans were sharing a tent. This gave Benny a chance to teach us about the constellations.
At one point, Benny finally took a break from talking about himself and asked if we had gone to college. My stomach dropped, as is usually the case when people start talking about how educated they are. Jack, the other American in the tent, was entering his last year at UC Santa Barbara. Benny sneered at that and joked about how UCSB was just a party school. Before the conversation could come around to me, I realized that I hadn’t said anything for a few minutes. When Benny asked me the same question, I just closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep.
We woke up early the next morning. Every tourist in the group had at least half a dozen bug bites that we had gotten while setting up camp. We sat around the morning campfire, itching away at our bites as our guides made tea. Benny pulled a thick, green leaf from a tree and scraped it against his bites.
“Don’t worry,” Benny told the guides. “I know what I’m doing. These leaves have a chemical in them that reduces itching.”
“Those plants?” one of the guides asked. “You are mistaken. They are good for repelling bugs but not for treating a bug bite.”
“Trust me, I’d recognize these things anywhere.”
“No, no, no,” the guide said, passing cups of tea around the fireplace. “Just take the spoon from your teacup and place it on your skin for a few seconds. Be careful,” he said as the Israeli man flinched in pain. “You only need to leave it on for a little while, and it will stop your skin from itching.”
Despite Benny’s protests, I took the metal spoon from my cup of tea and pressed it against my bug bite for a few seconds. I grimaced as the hot metal made contact with my ankle. To my surprise, the itch disappeared within a minute.
A few minutes later, Benny found himself in another stupid argument with the guides. I can’t remember the details about that one, but I think it was about tarantulas. As soon as the conversation began, Jack and I chugged our tea and volunteered to disassemble the tents. After almost twenty-four hours of listening to Benny talk, I was eager to get to spend time with somebody else.
“Do you think there are any jaguars in these forests?” I asked Jack as we rolled up sleeping bags.
“I’m not sure,” Jack replied. “But I have a pretty good idea of who might know,” he joked, nodding back at the campfire.
“I think I’d rather not know,” I said, grinning.
“Tell you what. I was just reading about Amazon predators in that guidebook.” Jack pointed at an open book by my feet. “Does it say anything about jaguars?”
I swore under my breath as I picked up the book. I looked at the page and began to piece the sentences together.
The. Amazon. Rainforest. Hosts. A. Varying… no that’s not right…. Variety. Of. Jungle. Cats. Incline… inducing… including….
“Actually,” I said after squinting at the page for several seconds, “do you think you could read it? I… uh… got sunscreen in my eyes.”
“I thought you had forgotten your sunscreen.”
“I mean sweat. I’ve got sweat in my eyes. Really stings.”
“Alright,” Jack said, picking up the book. “On second thought, it might have been on page 131. I think I can find that page if you’ve got twenty minutes to spare,” he said with a laugh.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m dyslexic… or… dyscalculic or something. Whichever one messes up the way you see numbers. I can read the book fine, it’ll just take me a long-ass time to find the page number.”
“No kidding. I’m actually dyslexic, too.”
“Yeah. I’ve used the ‘sunscreen in the eyes’ excuse, too. Accidentally used it in the middle of winter once.”
“How about I find page 131 and you tell me if we need to worry about getting eaten by jaguars.”
“Alright!” he said, passing me the book. “Dyslexics of the world, untie!”
“Hey, what do you get if you cross an insomniac, an agnostic, and a dyslexic?”
“A guy who stays up all night wondering if there’s a dog,” he laughed. “I’ve heard that one in every math class I’ve ever taken.”
“Things turned out pretty well for you, though,” I said. “You managed to get into a UC.”
“Yeah, but it’s still tough. It took the best tutors money could buy to get me through those math requirements. It makes it pretty damn tough to feel proud of yourself when you’re an adult who struggles with long division. You know what I mean?”
“I definitely know what you mean. But, if it’s any consolation, I’m proud of you. I couldn’t even get myself into college but you got yourself into a great one. I’ll never understand how you managed to do it.”
“It all comes down to accepting your limitations. In high school, I had to face the fact that I was in a pre-algebra class when the rest of my classmates were taking pre-calculus. I knew that I would struggle with numbers for the rest of my life, but I also knew that I had other strengths. I wasn’t going to be president of the math club, but I could put sentences together. So, I worked my ass off, became the editor of my high school newspaper, volunteered for a couple different charities, and did my best in class. I’m just lucky that the admissions team at UCSB thought my best work was good enough.
“But everybody’s got limitations,” Jack continued. “Look at Benny over there. He’s got enough book smarts to kick ass at inventing software or…. whatever his job is. I never figured out what the hell he was talking about. But, if his job requires him to talk to other people, he might as well not be able to count. If Benny spoke to his boss the way he’s speaking to those guides, he’d be fired in a second. The guy’s social intelligence is so low that the only way he can keep his job is if he’s locked up in a cubicle where his personality won’t get in the way of his talent.
“And look at where we are! Book smarts aren’t that useful out here. That’s why we have those two guides. We need people who have enough experience to know how to treat a bug bite and recognize the difference between fish that eat meat and fish that eat pineapple.
“That’s the great thing about being an adult. In high school, there were standardized tests which graded everybody on the same scale. Real life doesn’t work that way. I believe that no matter who you are or what you’re good at, there’s a job out there that needs someone with your particular set of talents and weaknesses.”
“Have you found that job yet?” I asked him as I handed over the book.
“Not quite yet,” Jack said with his eyes on the book. “Not that it matters much, now. We’re in the heart of jaguar territory. We probably won’t make it home alive.”
After disassembling the tents, Jack and I returned to the campfire as two, untied dyslexics.
The story continues in...Unprompted, Episode 13: