She smiled. “I don’t think so.” She tried to change the subject.
“How about a 9.0 quake?” I asked. “Could that make the stadium fall down?”
“Tim,” she said. “We’ve got a lot to cover today.”
But it was as if I hadn’t heard her. “What’s the largest earthquake in history? Has there ever been a 10.0?”
I was in my usual front-row seat; suddenly I realized that her gaze had frozen completely on me. “Stop interrupting,” she said.
This was one of the first times I’d witnessed her tone change so abruptly. I understood why, which of course was upsetting—more than anything I wanted her to like me—and as she went on to talk about all the catching up we’d need to do after missing so much school, I sulked at my desk.
When it was time for recess Mrs. Parsons called me to her desk. “I spoke harshly earlier,” she explained, “because I didn’t think you’d heard what I had to say. There are more than thirty children in this class. I can only answer so many of your questions.”
I nodded. All of a sudden I was on the verge of tears, which made me even more upset; ten-year-olds weren’t supposed to cry so easily.
“Listen,” she said. “Why don’t you do your science fair project on earthquakes? That way you can find the answers to all these questions yourself!”
* * *
Throughout my childhood, each school year tended to cast its distinct shadow over the next. This was especially true when I started fourth grade. Previous teachers had conflated all of my classroom decisions into a matter of willpower—my lack thereof. But Betty Parsons was able to separate behavioral issues from academic ones, so that a slower progress with the former didn’t necessarily relate to the latter.
This difference might seem obvious enough, but up until the twentieth century, willpower and intelligence were often considered indistinguishable. One of the first doctors to question their relationship in children happened to be our favorite cape-wearing Victorian: Sir George Frederic Still.
In the same 1902 lecture in which he identified many of the symptoms of what we now call ADHD, he asked: “Is a morbid defect of moral control compatible with a perfectly normal state of the intellect?”
Still defined “moral control” as something similar to willpower: “the control of action in the conformity with the idea of the good of all,” including “the good of self.” He provided the case histories of behaviorally “defective” boys and girls who nevertheless showed no signs of intellectual impairment. A five-year-old boy threw outrageous tantrums and couldn’t play well with others but “was a very pleasing child to talk to and the teacher said that he was ‘perfectly intelligent.’” Another five-year-old was “extremely passionate” and “impulsive”; “for instance, in saying ‘Good-night’ he went round the family five times one night, apparently not noticing that he said it before.” This same boy would often walk outside with his boots on the wrong feet. But Still went on to note that the child was “very quick at school. He read small words well, knew his ‘twice-times’ perfectly, and seemed to be quite up to average in normal intellectual attainments.”