Tuesday 1 April 2003, A level Year 1, Surrey, England

“I cannot believe how dumb these people are. The stuff is so obvious, and they still don’t get it”, declared the prodigy girl today during study time. The speed at which her teacher covered the syllabus clearly was not to her satisfaction. And she never hid it. Such complaints from her were so predictable that they had become part of our daily routine. Everyone simply smiled upon hearing it again.  

The prodigy girl was also from China. It was often said in China the Chinese and the Jews were the cleverest people in the world. I guessed that was not based on GDP per capita. From what I had learned in economics in the past year, China was still a relatively poor country. If there was any foundation to this belief, it was probably based on how well Chinese students did in various exams internationally.

To me, that was expected. After all, I and my Chinese classmates were trained to be professionals exam takers since a young age. Exam was the only thing that mattered in China. Extra-curriculum activities or even the non-examed part of the curriculum were simply axed. It almost didn’t matter what the exams were on: we could handle anything and everything. The story was there were students in China who would take GRE, the American graduate school entrance exam, and scored well in it during high school.

In comparison, the children from other countries were often amateurs or semi-pros at best. I had never seen PE, arts or musical class got cancelled for English or Maths in England like they often did in China. Instead, all of these other classes were highly encouraged. The school week was also only five days rather than six days and half. When you had one hand tied behind your back like that, it was hard to be very good at a task. On the other hand, if I had a choice, I would want my hand to be tied like that as well. That kind of life seemed so much more interesting.

The prodigy girl clearly had a different interpretation of that cleverness statement. She believed it was mainly a difference in IQ. And on that front, she was also confident that her IQ was way above everyone else, Chinese or not. To her credit, she never hid that feeling neither. She made it well known that she always got the highest grade in all her subjects. And that was why she was the prodigy.

Today, after letting everyone know about her frustration with the class, she turned to the few of us who were reading that day’s FT, “Why did you guys study economics or business? That is just equally dumb. It takes you an hour to read one page, you will never be able to go to Oxbridge studying that. That is why I don’t choose those subjects.”

“Didn’t you get highest grades in all the subjects you studied? If you can get A* in GCSE English, this should be a piece of cake, prodigy,”, I enquired.  

“When I say I get highest grade, of course those English related subjects don’t count. That is such common sense, don’t you get it? I have only learned English for a few years. Only the other subjects count!”, the prodigy grew even more frustrated after hearing my question.

I see. That is a positive way of thinking about life. We are all prodigies in something and everything else just doesn’t count!

PS: I sometimes feel very sorry for the prodigy girl. That nickname and reputation seemed to have tied both of her hands up. On the one hand, she seemed to be afraid of trying new things as that might ruin her reputation of being the smartest girl in the room. That is almost the worst one can do to oneself early on as such exploration gets increasingly harder later in life. On the other hand, the reputation also makes life seem so unfair to her. Some “dumb” guys somehow made it to Oxbridge and but she did not. In university, she had no choice but to take some essay-based subjects. Those results were not pretty but surely it was not her fault. And once she started working, her world was turned upside down. Incredibly, she had to be compared to those who had a huge advantage to her whether in terms of English language, family background or even drinking skills. Couldn’t we all sit a Maths exam to decide who gets that promotion or pay rise just like we always do in school?