Earthbound concerns of an ascendant adult

“The Mensa Affair”

by Patrick Stephenson,
thoroughly unmensan

ROCHESTER MAGAZINE // In episode AABF18 of The Simpsons, aka “They Saved Lisa’s Brain,” Lisa’s services as a convincing orator are solicited by the Springfield Chapter of the Mensa Society, a group composed of such local eggheads as Professor Frink, an inventor-scientist with Jerry Lewis-esque verbal tics, and the Comic Book Guy, an obese and Mensaself-pitying pulp collector who “gets lucky less than once every seven years,” as well as guest voice Stephen Hawking. According to TV Guide, Mensa wants Lisa to help “influence… residents to follow [Mensan] ideologies.”

Perusual, this is media distortion. Once in, Mensans don’t assume unified stances on religion, or politics or social issues, and so they wouldn’t have contracted Lisa to perform their ideological bidding. “Mensa” means “table” in Latin, a reflection of the group’s preference for discussion over dogma. Nearly sixty years ago, Roland Barrie and Dr. Lance Ware founded Mensa in England, and according to Mensa International, desired “a society for bright people, the only qualification for membership of which was a high IQ.” Because IQ is their single qualification, Mensans range widely in age and background, and subscribe to a variety of opinions.

In Burnsville, MN last month, I took an intelligence test—the Mensa test. Minnesota Mensa has over a thousand members, and last year, their new admits accounted for 5% of the Table’s nationwide expansion. This intelligence test was my chance to number among their amorphous, bespectacled ranks. Paul Jensen, Minnesota Mensa’s wise-old test coordinator, administered the exam. In a Burnsville library, he led me to end of a long table within a secluded, blinds-drawn conference room. I was enduring this hardship in order to measure my “intellectual manhood,” a subject Jensen calls a “personal matter,” not something test-takers and members should “parade around,” balls out. If I were to join, I’d need a score at or above the 98th percentile. Fat chance.

Unfortunately, because I was both excited and nervous about the opportunity, I told a few friends about my test date, and provoked only anger. “Mensa is for dumb [slurs] who wanna pay to feel like they’re smarter than everyone else,” one friend said. “The people who say they belong always tend to be really stupid,” said another, “like the idiots on Jeopardy who brag about it, thinking they’ll have a better chance at winning.” However, those responses are old hat to Jensen. “A lot of people,” he says, “feel we’re quite elitist. We’re not. It’s kind of a working rule here: when you get involved in the group, you check your ego and IQ at the door.”

When testing began, my ego wasn’t at the door. It was outside, on the street, ready to be flattened by traffic. I could hope only that my IQ had decided to join the party, and if it had, that it was high enough to qualify. I can’t say much about the exam, as explicit descriptions are outlawed by Mensa policy. Questions and answers cannot be revealed, because prospective members have only one chance to apply. I actually took two tests during my three hour visit to the library. A passing grade on either is enough to gain admission. The first comprises several short tests, each between four and seven minutes long. The questions are really quite easy. The challenge is solving as many as possible in the allotted time. Consequently, the test is a measure of processing speed rather than a neverending line of unanswerable brain busters.
According to Jensen, on the first section of the test, I was so tightly wound he thought my wrists might cramp up. However, as we proceeded from bit to bit, my stress levels descended. In their wake, I had an epiphany. The questions, I realized, weren’t all bad. Most were simple and easily solved. My answering ability improved, and I zoomed through much of the rest of the first test, including the linguistic and mathematics sections, undeterred. On the second part, however, my mind melted. My eyes, which are poor as is, but even poorer because I’m too vain to wear glasses, began to blur and die beneath the room’s dim fluorescent lights. Stressed again, I began to fear failure, and considered just giving up. On the second test’s last half, I skipped a bunch of questions, and hoped the ones I’d answered were correct. At the end, Jensen disconfirmed my hopes when he looked over my sheet and pointed to a question I’d completed incorrectly. Expletive deleted.

I staggered ex-library, barely alive. My head, my brain—they hurt, and I wanted nothing more than to forget my afternoon. All of it. With my dad, who’d accompanied me to Burnsville, I bought a burrito at Chipotle, and we discussed the experience over good eats. Despite my failure on the second portion, I felt I’d done well on the first, and so my self-esteem improved as I ate. I began to use unnecessarily big words, and to anticipate my results’ acceptance. Those will arrive, positive or not, sans trumpet and herald. If I’m accepted, and I accept my acceptance, I may begin to say things like, “Ch’eng-tu is the capital of Szechwan province in China isn’t it?” (Apparently, Ch’eng-tu’s status as capital is a popular topic among Mensans.) Be warned, reader.
Those interested in applying to Mensa (why?!) should call the Mensaphone (952.953.8575), or contact Remember, however, that they’re a non-profit, and may not be able to reply to queries in good time. Mensans will also be posted in the information building at the Minnesota State Fair, until its end on Sept. 6th.

Written by patiomensch

March 4, 2007 at 1:58 pm

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