Getting creative with the IQ test

Published December 01 2017

This photo of the author was taken when he was in first or second grade, about the time he took the IQ test.courtesy of jeffrey h. toney

Is creativity like a muscle, becoming more nimble and stronger with increasingly demanding workouts? We celebrate creativity of all kinds. Artists. Musicians. Architects. Scientists. Poets. Writers. We can’t teach creativity. After all, everyone is creative. We just need to be inspired by the world around us. It’s in human nature, right? I’ve been thinking a lot about this as the decades go by, worried that somehow that spark in me will fade away, like the red-hot matchhead that flickers just before extinguishing, its gray smoke marking its impermanence. One of my earliest memories of being creative was the dreaded IQ test in first grade.

An IQ test can be annoying or terrifying. It can crush a young boy’s dreams. At six years of age in the mid-1960s, I was escorted to a small, windowless, white cinderblock room with uncomfortable bright blue plastic chairs and a tiny desk. My mom told me that they would be testing how smart I was, and I was terrified that somehow I would mess this up and be labeled stupid for the rest of my life. I timidly looked at the teacher as she opened a cardboard box with a picture of a castle on the lid and dumped the contents onto my desk.

“OK, Jeffrey,” she said. “Take your time. Put the puzzle together. I’ll be waiting outside.”

My heart pounded as I heard her click the timer in her hand. She didn’t say how long I had.

Once I began digging into the pile, I calmed down as the pieces easily fit together, simple tongue-in-groove shapes. I began to pick up momentum, my thumb confidently pressing down with a satisfying dull pop as the puzzle expanded. Yes! I would show them that I was smart. I knew how to do puzzles, all right. I knew it was done when I had assembled a perfect rectangle. Except …

“I’m done!” I proclaimed loudly.

My teacher quickly opened the door and clicked her timer, smiling at me.

“Good … job.” Her smile quickly faded as she looked down.

“Thank you, Jeffrey.”

“How’d I do?” I inquired.

“We’ll let you know.”

A few days later, my mom received a call from the school about my results. I thought they were going to send the results in the mail, like they did with my grades. I knew I’d messed up, because my mom was in tears.

“Do you remember the IQ test, the puzzle?”


“They said that you did it upside down. That’s impossible. How could you solve the puzzle without the pictures?”

I was stunned. It wasn’t my fault. The teacher dumped the pieces on my desk that way. How was I supposed to know I was allowed to turn them over? I thought that was the test. Besides, it was easy fitting the shapes together. I didn’t need pictures. I wasn’t a baby. Could I ask for a do-over? Please?

“It was easy, Mom. I just fit them together.”

At first, my school was going to put me in a special class for children with disabilities. But after my mom spoke with the principal and explained what I had done, everything changed. Suddenly, I was put in a class with so-called smart kids.

I never did hear what my IQ score was, but I’m glad I had a chance to work on that puzzle, even if I was scared. I’ve been working on puzzles all my life, and they always frustrate me and delight me at the same time. And I’m grateful that they don’t have pictures on the front, because that would make life just plain boring.

Jeffrey H. ToneyJeffrey H. Toney a biochemist, has published scientific peer-reviewed articles and news media opinion pieces as well as short fiction stories for which he twice has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He serves as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Kean University.