Like most people who read, I’d heard about Men-sa—the international society for those of high intelligence—but seldom given it much thought. I did know, however, that my nearly 30-year-old SAT scores would qualify me should I ever choose to join; Mensa accepts a variety of intelligence tests, not just the ones they themselves administer. On the other hand, my score on their online “workout” test was mediocre.
So when the subject of Mensa came up, I was able to rest on long-ago laurels. Yet, facing the actual test for the sake of this assignment, I had to wonder—especially given a plethora of inarguably stupid things I’ve done since the age of 16—whether I’d actually make the cut.
Mensa was founded in the 1940s by two British lawyers whose original vision involved the world’s brightest people gathering together to solve the world’s toughest problems. The only qualification for admission is a score above the 98th percentile on an intelligence test, either the one administered by Mensa itself or one of a variety of others. The idea of solving world problems was abandoned fairly early on, as it was discovered that being bright didn’t necessarily imply agreement on how to do that or even on what the problems were. The Mensa cliché: Trying to lead Mensans is like trying to herd cats. There are Mensans in the gutter and Mensans in high places.
“The only thing people in Mensa really have in common,” says New Paltz resident Bibi Sandstrom, who joined up while still residing in Indiana, “is that they scored well on a specific test on a specific day. I would personally like to believe that with high intelligence comes some degree of liberalism, but I’ve come to realize that’s far from true. The only common thread tends to be a love of books and word play. We have a senior citizen member who’s a really amazing golfer and contra dancer, and he said he always thought high intelligence and athletic ability went together—well, I’m living proof that that’s not true! There are some who are the classic pocket-protector nerd types, and then our new president—she’s covered head to toe with tattoos. She says her body is her temple, and she likes it decorated.”
On the day I go to take The Test there are five of us there at the Marlboro library. Proctor Jim Jelacic is an affable guy, full of Mensa anecdotes. He tells us that Mid-Hudson Mensa has about 200 members—about 20 percent of whom get actively involved and like to get together to eat pizza and chocolate, laugh, and watch old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons. Mid-Hudson regional gatherings are alcohol-free because they are held at SUNY’s Ashokan Field campus. A CIA chef prepares the comestibles. Other gatherings are held at New York City hotels, among other places. “There’s a mix of serious and lighter programming,” Jelacic says. “I remember one gathering where we had a woman come and discuss sex toys. So many people kept coming into the one room that we were in violation of the fire laws. The management kept telling us to disperse.”
There is one other woman here. She has driven over an hour, from Sullivan County. “My father always told me I was a genius, according to a test I was given when I was young,” she says. We are having a cigarette together, which we agree is some sort of odd comment on the dubious value of brilliance. “But all our family records were lost in a fire. Now I want to know whether he was right.”
The test comes in two parts, one of which was developed by corporate personnel types for hiring purposes and another developed by Mensa itself. There’s a lot of logic and word association, some math. It’s weird to be back in that whole Test Mode after so many years: Do not open your booklets until instructed to do so. The pencils are ours to keep. (My son will have the classiest pencils in first grade.) Okay, cow relates to butter as sheep relates to…sweater? Or lamb chop? Hmm. Well, the cow didn’t perish for the butter, so I’ll go with the sweater.
There is a short-term memory segment, an oddly poetic story we are read about a pre-Christian religious ritual and then questioned about after having taken another series of unrelated written questions. I’m grateful for my personal fondness for pre-Christian stuff. Suppose I’d found it a dull story?