That Time I was Invited to Join Mensa


Credit: National Institutes of Health.

Back in my high school days – when cowl neck fuzzy sweaters were in, hair styles were big, and women’s shirts sported shoulder pads large enough for the wearer to participate in professional football – I took the ACT test to get into college.

I studied out of a large book, which offered practice questions and reviews of math concepts. Now, I’m sure students must be able to do this all online, but this was back in the 80s, before most people had any inkling about computers.

I’m not sure if the test is still in the same format, but back then, most of it was multiple-choice. The most useful thing I learned from studying for the ACT was how to identify incorrect answers so that I could home in on the correct ones. The hardest things about the test were figuring out its format and its unwritten rules.

All my studying paid off. I scored very high in the English section, and higher in the math section than if I hadn’t studied. My overall score was good enough that I didn’t need to worry about admission into the college of my choice. It was also elevated enough that I received a letter from Mensa in the mail one day.

Mensa International is an organization for people with high IQs. As author and comedian David Sedaris says in “Me Talk Pretty One Day” (which I just finished reading), Mensa members “come from all walks of life and get together every few weeks to take in a movie or enjoy a weenie roast. They’re like the Elks or the Masons, only they’re smart.”

Growing up in the northern hinterlands of Minnesota, I had never heard of Mensa. After opening the letter, I mentioned it to my mother, and her first, and only, response was, “Ach, you don’t want to join that!”

So I didn’t.

I was so taken aback by her reaction, I didn’t ask her why I shouldn’t join them.

Looking back over the decades, I have a twinge of regret that I so blindly followed my mother’s advice. How might my life have been different if I had surrounded myself with high-IQ people?

But I also realize my mother’s knee-jerk reaction was truly Minnesotan. It’s not part of our culture to brag or make ourselves stand out. (See more in my post about “Minnesota Nice.”)

Perhaps my mother was afraid my head would swell with self-importance were I to hang around other intelligent people. Or, maybe she figured they were all a bunch of dorks and exposure to them would increase my social awkwardness. Or she could have been threatened by having a daughter labelled as “smart.” I don’t know. My mother has passed, so it’s not like I can ask her now.

A couple of years ago, I looked into the qualifications for joining Mensa. They’ve upped them now. My ACT score is a few points short. Another way to qualify is through an IQ test. But an IQ test just seems like a lot of work to me now. I wonder if they grandfather (or in my case, grandmother) people into the organization based on the year they took their ACT?

Even if I did get in somehow, I suspect I would feel like a fraud. I am not naturally brilliant; I just know how to study, and I read a lot.

I guess I’m satisfied I was invited and could have joined Mensa if I really wanted to — but that I am just too Minnesotan to do so.