In elementary school, I was never a part of ELP - Extended Learning Program, where the smart kids (read: most of my friends) would go for an hour or two every week. The rationale, Mrs. Whitehead said, was that my standardized test scores were pretty high, but not high enough. My reading scores were remarkably high, but my math scores were average to abysmal. Mrs. Whitehead said that she admired this, but my scores indicated someone the exact opposite of the criteria for joining ELP; most of the gifted and talented kids she worked with week after week had solid math scores but not-quite-as-solid English scores.
Nevertheless, I still managed to scoot by as a sort of an honorary member of ELP. If ELP was The Beatles, I was Billy Preston. When the ELP kids did Night of the Notables, I was invited to tag along. When they did a sketch comedy-ish show as a fundraiser, I was asked to partake. So occasionally I'd sit in at a few of the ELP meetings, which would always begin with what Mrs. Whitehead called a temperature reading.
Temperature readings worked like this: Mrs. Whitehead would ask you how you were a feeling on a scale of one to ten. Then she'd ask you to justify your rating. The whole thing was like a big inside joke that Mrs. Whitehead wasn't quite a part of. Us kids would treat it with a sarcastic sort of detachment, which I mostly attribute to our unwillingness to partake in the touchy-feely bullshit that swirled around our elementary school curriculum like flies to a corpse. We'd make little bets with one another to try to use the most riddiculous numbers possible, mostly by means of crazy abstruse decimals. Like:
WHITEHEAD: Thomas, how are you feeling?
THOMAS: Oh, I'd say about a 8.275.
WHITEHEAD: (nods and smiles courteously)
Unfortunately, we never went insanely far with the number thing. In hindsight, I wish I had said that I felt like pi.
Flashforward to now time. Given the shenanigans that have taken place over the past couple of weeks (and arguably, months - and to a certain extent if you really want to get analytical, years) I've been seeing a therapist on a weekly basis. She's very nice and helpful and all that, and as a result I have none of the cynicism toward her that our culture tends to frequently direct toward the whole therapist notion.
During our last meeting she asked me a question about my self-confidence. And then the memories of my adjunct ELP meetings started.
"On a scale of one to ten," she said, "ten being the highest..."
"It reminds me of that Steven Wright joke," I interrupted. "'On a scale of one to ten, six being the highest.'"
She laughed and said that she'd love to try saying that to some of the kids she'd counseled, but that probably wouldn't go well.
"Anyway," she went on, "on a scale of one to ten, where would you place your self-confidence as of now?"
And that's when I realized why I thought the temperature reading stuff was bullshit. First off: what does ten equal? Does ten mean you're at a reasonable level of self confidence, or does it mean you're cocky? I decided ten meant cocky - but did that mean my therapist regarded a ten as cocky, too?
I eventually obliged and settled on a number - somewhere between an eight and a nine, thank you very much - but then I went on a little rant.
"I'm a little confused. What exactly is a 'ten' to you? Is that, like, I'm-a-gonna-jump-off-a-bridge-because-I-bet-I-can-fly delusional self-confidence or is it a more reasonable level of confidence?"
She said that a ten would probably indeed be in the realm of too much confidence. An eight to a nine is standard operating procedure for a socially functional human being; a five is kind of low; a two to a one is nearly catatonic. We then waxed philosophic about what she's getting at when she asks people the number based questions, the conclusion she came to basically being that most people don't really think through the whole number business that much. Plus, they'd typically elaborate after they say the number, and that elaboration is far more valuable information than a number in and of itself.
That's the thing about numbers. They're awesome for dealing with concrete stuff (i.e. how many apples do I have? how much money left in the bank account?) but when it comes to dealing with more metaphorical stuff - like emotions - numbers don't quite work, since society doesn't agree on the metaphorical definition of "five" like they do the literal definition.
Maybe that was one of the reasons we were so skeptical of that temperature reading stuff back in elementary school. And maybe one of the reasons that Mrs. Whitehead used numbers to gauge emotion is because she was trying to bridge the gap between the worlds of the abstract (English) and concrete (numbers) - perhaps to improve those ELP kids' reading/writing scores.
Still, though. If I ask you "What's up?" and you reply "12," fuck off.