When my husband, Flash, was growing up, he didn’t think he was smart. School was a struggle, especially taking tests. After we married, we had many conversations about his comparing himself to people he assumed were smarter than he was.
“What are you talking about?” I would ask. “You’re smart. I know nothing about computers, and you can fix them with your eyes closed and one hand behind your back.”
“Computers – that’s all I know. What about everything else?” he’d reply.
“You make more money than I ever would’ve with my journalism degree.”
“But I don’t have a degree.”
Nothing I said helped. Deep inside, he’d always wanted to finish college.
When he was in high school, Flash was a fast runner. He could’ve been a star on the school’s track team. Instead, he was busy working, at young age, to help his mom pay bills after his parents divorced. After high school, he’d attended a county college in New Jersey, studying hotel and restaurant management, but knew that wasn’t what he wanted to do. Next, he completed a nine-month certification program at a technical school, learning to be a word processing specialist, and achieving 90-words-per-minute in typing. But in his computer technology studies, he’d found his niche. Even so, decades later, that wasn’t enough, even though he’d made a career doing what he loved – working in Information Technology.
During our early years of marriage, Flash told me, “I don’t like to read books. I can’t make it through them. It’s too much; I can’t concentrate.”
I was stunned. I’d never heard of anyone not interested in reading books.
In the evenings, Flash often watched TV while I was talking to him. Not uncommon with the male species, but it seemed excessive. “Flash, can you look at me while I talk, instead of watching TV?” I’d ask, regularly.
“I can hear you,” he’d reply. Then he’d repeat back to me what I’d just said.
“I know you heard me, but did you listen?”
Again, he’d repeat my words, adding, “I can hear you better when I’m not looking at you.” I wasn’t sure if that meant I was overwhelmingly gorgeous or absolutely repulsive. Either way, I felt unappreciated and unheard.
One day, he walked in from work with a life-changing revelation. “I took an on-line questionnaire today,” he said. “I have attention deficit disorder. All these years, I never knew.”
“Flash, how can you be sure? Some of those on-line assessments aren’t accurate.”
“I know it’s correct. And I scored a 9 out of a possible 10.”
“Wow. Are you sad?”
“No. Relieved,” he replied.
He promptly made an appointment with a doctor to discuss his findings; they were confirmed, and he started medication to increase focus. Later, he found an article explaining how people with ADD often can listen better if they’re not looking at the person speaking to them. He felt validated; I felt suspicious.
How much did he pay that psychologist to write that? I wondered.
Through the years, he’s found other things that help him focus. When he drinks coffee, it helps, but makes him more hyper-focused and keeps him revved up. And grouchy, per his own admission. On Saturday mornings, when he’s flitting around the house like a bumble bee on speed, not wanting anyone or anything to interfere with his agenda and snapping at me like a turtle, I know he’s had coffee.
A few years ago, Flash announced that he wanted to go back to college and finally get a degree by taking courses on line. He was delusional.
“Flash, we can’t do that. It’ll be too hard with Cowboy here.” That was during the Dark Years of Cowboy’s autism. Because Cowboy's brain never stopped, he often had trouble going to sleep, and would’ve had difficulty leaving Flash alone to study at night. And, by the time Flash got home from work each evening, I was ready for a break.
“You need to let Flash have some down time when he gets home from work, before he takes over with Cowboy,” was the only marriage advice Mom ever gave me. I knew she was right, but I was a desperate woman by the time 5:30 rolled around; on bad days, poor Flash went from one job to the next with only a few minutes in between.
But in December 2010, life dramatically improved. Through supplementation that balanced Cowboy’s cortisol, our son calmed down. He was happy again, and we had more peace than we’d had in seven years.
The next time Flash commented on wishing he could get his degree, I said, “Do it.”
“I thought we’d decided it wouldn’t work.”
“That was then. I think we can handle it now.”
“What about the money?” he asked. I told him to research tuition costs, and I reviewed our budget.
“I think we can do it,” I replied, after seeing the cost. “We’ll use a payment plan each semester to make it easier.”
In the fall of 2012, three months before he turned 50, Flash went back to college. This was in addition to working full-time, giving Cowboy and me support and attention, staying active in a theology class at church, and still maintaining any household repairs along the way. Two months after starting his first semester, Flash went to Russia for a two-week, work-related trip, but still kept up with his studies. Some semesters, two classes were as many as he could manage, due to the heavy workload doled out by the professors. I’m not sure if on-line classes are always more demanding, but I’d never seen so much work required per course. He studied three to four hours a night, often six nights of every week, for six years. During this time, he morphed into the biggest “A” hog in the history of post-secondary education. Nothing less than an “A” would do; his GPA became an obsession, making me look like I’d been a slacker in college. At the beginning of his last semester, he’d had a 4.0 in every previous semester. But he was weary of the late nights; he was ready to be done.
“I’m taking two classes this semester,” he announced last December. “My last core classes, geology and art appreciation.”
“Oh my gosh, Flash. Geology was hard; I took that. And I’ve heard art appreciation can be tough, also. With Mom on hospice now, I’ll be with her a lot more. Please take only one class.”
But he was determined to finish before his motivation retired. It was his toughest semester. Even so, he was here for me, Cowboy, and Mom. He visited her and helped her anytime she needed him. He’ll never know what that meant to me; even pursuing his dream didn’t keep him from doing what he’d always done – treating her like a mom to him. Only two and a half weeks after the semester started, Mom died. It was a huge blow to all of us, and Flash’s grief was deep. He was a constant source of comfort to me and Cowboy, helped me clean out her room in the assisted living facility, took off work several days, created a beautiful slide show for her memorial service, and sacrificed much study time to be with extended family.
When he returned to his nightly routine, he caught up quickly. But his assignments became more difficult. At one point, Flash couldn’t take the pressure. He was exhausted. The workload was unprecedented. “I can’t do this. Maybe I’ll quit. I don’t think I’ll make an “A” in both classes. I’ll ruin my 4.0. And what good is this degree going to do for me, anyway?”
I’d reply, “You can’t quit. You’ve come too far.” But by the fifteenth time of hearing his complaints, I replied, “Okay. Do it. Just quit. Or drop a class. I told you to not take two classes. So drop one.” There’s something about a spouse's telling you to go ahead and give up, or saying “I told you so,” that reignites the smoldering coals of motivation. His grumbling ceased, and he was at full-speed again.
Both of his professors made extra credit projects available. Projects that, at the time he decided to do them, had tight deadlines. For his art class, he had to contrast two pieces of art. Knowing his irreverence for some art, I thought it would be entertaining to join him in the quest. We couldn’t get out of that first gallery fast enough, wondering what on earth some of the artists were thinking when they created those pieces; some looked as if a child had doodled on a wall. But we were running out of time, so after driving around and looking at sculptures around town, we returned to that particular gallery. When Flash went in, Cowboy and I stayed in the car. Since Flash wasn’t happy with the art he’d be writing about, I googled “art galleries near me.” Nineteen other galleries popped up within our immediate area. I visited each one’s website until I found something I knew he’d love.
“Come back to the car,” I texted Flash. “I found normal stuff.”
We sped to the William Reaves/Sarah Foltz Fine Art Gallery in Houston. When we walked in, we were mesmerized by works of various artists. Even Cowboy was drawn to them, particularly the exhibit Wings: The Ways of Waterbirds by Debbie Stevens. We spent an hour and a half enjoying the peaceful beauty around us, and talking with the owner. Flash made his selections, gathered information on the artists, and we vowed to visit again.
As we drove away, Flash commented, “Well, at least I’ll have extra credit in my art class.”
That translated as, “I really wish I could do the extra credit project for geology.” That project entailed visiting the Wiess Energy Hall at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, then writing a paper on what he learned that applied to his class.
I glanced at the clock. It was 3:45 p.m., and the Museum of Natural Science didn’t close until 5; it was right down the road from us. “We can make it to the energy hall in time,” I said.
We quickly parked, sprinted to the door, and walked up to the ticket counter. “My husband has a project for college, and we just need to get to the fourth floor.”
“Okay, but you have nine minutes,” he explained. “You don’t need a ticket. Just go down the hall, turn right at the next hall, and go to the elevator.”
“Nine minutes? I thought the museum closed at 5,” I said, bewildered.
“Yes. It’s 4:51.”
“But the clock in the car said 3:49 when we parked. Is there a time tunnel at the entrance?”
Then it dawned on me; we’d never changed the car clock the week before when we had to “spring forward” for daylight saving time. We wouldn’t get a 4.0 GPA in time management. We ran to the elevators. Unfortunately, there were several hallways to choose from, and more than one elevator.
“C’mon, Flash. We can make it,” I said, as we searched for the right path. “We have four minutes. Let’s do this.”
“It’s too late,” he lamented.
“We’ll find it, Nemo. Just keep walking. Just keep walking.”
But soon the bell tolled, in the form of an announcement that the museum was closed.
Because of Flash’s quest to earn the highest grade in the history of geology, we returned a few days later, using Central Standard Time. Flash scored over 100 on both of his extra credit projects, and one of the highlights of his life was his art professor’s commenting, “You are a scholar, sir.”
On every assignment throughout the last six years, Flash excelled, often doing more work than was required. But, more amazing was his falling in love with learning. The man who’d thought he wasn’t smart, absorbed what he read. He relished new topics. On our drive to the Texas Hill Country several weeks ago, he explained every rock formation we saw, and lectured about the layers of the earth, on the trip there and back.
“Oh my gosh. I’m married to Ross now,” I said, referring to Ross Geller on the Friends sitcom. “But instead of dinosaurs, you talk about rocks all the time.”
Artwork that previously went unnoticed now draws his attention, followed by a verbal dissertation on details about the artists’ techniques. It’s impressive.
I never knew how smart Flash was – how capable of learning. Because he’d compared himself to others, and fallen short in his opinion of himself, I was also unsure of his abilities when it came to learning from books. How we present ourselves greatly influences others’ perceptions. But I don’t believe intelligence is measured by a number, be it an IQ or a GPA or an SAT score. Rather, intelligence is the ability to apply what we have learned, to life. I see that ability in both Flash and Cowboy. Their brains retain what they’ve learned, and they apply it – Flash through reading or hearing the information; Cowboy through hearing and his photographic memory.
As the night of Flash’s final exam came, he was nervous. “I’m going in,” he announced, as he sat down to take his last geology test. His 4.0 could be destroyed in one fell swoop, and he knew it.
Fifty minutes later, I got a text while sitting on the couch watching TV. With a picture attached of a person jumping in the air, it read, “4.0, baby!” I was ecstatic. I knew that Flash’s GPA represented more than a number. It showed that he was able to focus on his studies, something that was excruciating in his childhood. He had overcome. He had conquered his false beliefs about himself. I walked back to the bedroom, hugged him, and said, “I have a little present for you. Do you want it now or after graduation?”
“Now,” he answered.
“Okay,” I said, as I led him to the living room, and he sat down on the couch. “You did it. You persevered. You worked hard. And I am so proud of you.” I kneeled, then pulled out a little blue box from behind my back. Flash looked confused.
Through tears I continued, “Happy graduation, and will you marry me again?”
I opened the box, and Flash said, “You got me a ring?”
“Yes. It’s your graduation and early 25th anniversary ring. I bought the star sapphire 15 years ago, but got a little sidetracked in having the ring made.”
“I love it even more than my wedding band.” He made sure it was sized the next day, so he could wear it to his commencement.
Flash’s graduation was one of the best nights of my life. He texted me, as well as several other friends, from behind the stage at the NRG Stadium in Houston before the ceremony started. People from several cities and states watched on line to see his dream come true; I had the honor of watching it from the stands, screaming as loudly as I could when his name was called to walk across that glorious stage.
When a faculty member said, “Please stand if you maintained a 4.0 throughout your studies,” my scholar stood.
“If you were working while you got your degree, please stand.” My man who gives 110 percent every day at work, providing for us, stood.
“If you are a parent, please stand.” One of the best fathers on earth stood.
“If you are the first member of your family to get a post-secondary degree, please stand.” My dreamer, the epitome of “never say never,” stood.
Earning an Associates of Applied Sciences Degree, Flash learned more than what his courses taught him; he learned about himself, about possibilities, about dreams. Three days after graduation, he looked a little lost while walking around the house.
“You miss it, don’t you?” I asked, referring to his nightly studies.
“A little,” he replied.
“I knew you would.” I smiled. Being a knowledge lover too, I understand.
“I’m thinking of getting a certification in theology,” he informed me.
“Seriously, Flash? That’s a ton of work,” I commented. Then I realize to whom I was speaking. “But I’m sure you can do it; your mind is a sponge.”
He’s already talking about possibly pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree. But only after a break. After all, intelligence is also about knowing when to celebrate. And that time has come. Let’s get this party started, Flash.