I was in the 8th grade when I found out I was smart.
I was in the 11th grade when I found out I wasn’t.
In between were the usual teenage distractions, so I didn’t fully enjoy my 3-year run of intellectual greatness. I just thought I’d be smart forever, I guess.
What I wonder now is if I’d been better off had I never felt like my intelligence was being categorized either way.
How I began my lifelong quest to prove I was smart
When I was in the 8th grade and it was time to pick classes for my freshman year of high school, I was encouraged to enroll in an advanced class that combined English and history into a 2-hour block. I didn’t expect to be placed in an honors class, but it also wasn’t surprising. I made good grades; it made sense.
“The American Experience,” as the class was called, was fun and fine. I wasn’t a star student or anything, but I held my own and felt good about what I was learning and doing there.
The plan was for me was to continue on the same honors track my sophomore year – in a similarly-structured class – but we moved and I spent the next 2 years jumping around to different schools.
Socially, it sucked, but academically, it wasn’t a problem. I was disciplined and took a lot of pride in doing my work well. I took honors courses when I could, but I don’t remember it ever being a big deal to me either way.
My junior year, we moved back to the same town we lived in my freshman year and I enrolled in the same high school where I’d had “The American Experience.” I was placed in an honors English class and, while I remember it being a challenge, I thought I was holding my own because I always did.
My teacher saw it differently.
Nearing the end of the 11th grade, she pulled me aside to tell me she wasn’t recommending me for honors English my senior year.
And there it was:
- The first time I remember doubting my intelligence.
- The beginning of a lifelong quest to prove that I am smart.
Isn’t that something? That one person’s assessment of me – a woman who’d known me a few short months – could change the way I viewed myself for the rest of my life?
That’s no exaggeration. It was a real killer, of my spirit and my dreams. Because when proving you are smart becomes the end goal, you cannot fully focus on putting your mind to good use for higher things.
The truth is, I don’t know anything
Not long after my teacher delivered the blow, we moved again, this time to a school that did deem me worthy of honors classes. And you better believe I rocked that shit out. Not just English and history, but everything. And not just my senior year of high school, but all through college, graduating magna cum laude with a 3.8 GPA.
Under any other circumstance, that would sound like bragging to me. But I’m sharing this with you for contrast to one of my most embarrassing admissions:
I don’t know anything.
I don’t know which president did what. Or where those countries are on a map. Or who wrote that book. I blame my obsession with grades; the straighter the A’s, the smarter I was. I wasn’t as interested in learning as I was in acing the tests; I crammed the night before and not a lot stuck beyond short-term.
My point is, the very thing I feared – that I wasn’t smart – led to a behavior, and subsequent outcome, that only reinforced that fear.
This reminds me of the piece I wrote on purpose and empowerment, Where Is My Power Getting Me?:
“What I find myself doing most of the time is using my power to protect my power, leaving little of it to achieve my actual goal.”
If I’d just enjoyed school like I always had, learning and doing the work just because, I’d surely have learned a lot more. But instead of using my smarts to learn, I wasted them on proving them, and there’s nothing smart about that.
If I know more than someone else, there’s been some sort of mistake
I talk a lot about my social anxiety, and what a tough time I have engaging in conversation. A lot of it has to do with being afraid I don’t have anything intelligent to contribute, especially when the topic turns to history, geography, or literature.
Even on the off-chance I seem to be the most knowledgeable person in one of these conversations, I assume there’s been some sort of mistake.
Whatever I thought I knew couldn’t possibly be right. I obsess over it, certain I’ll be found out. Sometimes I Google it after (or during if I can get away with it), just to double-check myself.
If I’m right – and by right, I mean, I realize that I’m wrong – I try nonchalantly correcting myself to those I’ve misinformed. Because the only thing worse than being wrong is not knowing you’re wrong. I need everyone to know I know before they find out later and judge me as someone who’s not only stupid, but doesn’t know they’re stupid. (Stupid, right?)
Being smart isn’t all about knowing things
I know what you’re thinking: Why not just pick up a book and learn something?
I’ve tried. Nothing sticks. I blame all the years I spent teaching my brain to value short-term memory over long-term learning (not to mention 23 years of saturating my already memory-challenged brain with drugs and alcohol).
But what I have to remind myself of, over and over again, is that being smart isn’t all about knowing things.
Being smart is about:
- Paying attention
- Telling the truth
- Following my dreams
- Solving problems
- Being resourceful
- Taking care of myself
Reminding myself of #2 has been the driving force behind my writing for this website. Actually, it’s my fiancé, Andy, I have to thank for that. Every time I tell him how worried I am about trying too hard to sound smart, he reassures me I’ll be fine as long as I do one thing – tell the truth.
Keeping that in mind really does make everything so much easier. Not digging for what’s true; that actually takes a lot of time and energy. But at least it’s something I can count on and measure with some accuracy.
I can’t write a sentence that everyone will think sounds smart. All I can do is write a sentence that is true.
Do you remember the first time you had an opinion about how smart you were? What triggered it, what came after, and how did it feel?