Don’t be Scared of “Smart”

I’ve always been taught that really smart people are weird. They don’t have friends, they don’t know how to socialize, they do random things. Maybe this is true, if not having friends, not knowing how to socialize, and doing random things fit in with your definition of weird. This is okay. But I have a question: does weird=bad? Is it bad that people don’t have friends, don’t know how to socialize, or do random things? This is up to you to decide. While my definition of weird encompasses a bit more than the three things mentioned above, my decision is no, weird does not (necessarily) equal bad. Some of my favorite people in this world are both really smart and weird. And I love them for being both. 

When I was young (elementary school, to be exact), I was considered really smart. In the second grade, my teachers and parents made the decision that I should be moved to the third so that I could be challenged more. I didn’t really get a say in this situation, and I guess that’s okay since I was eight. Eight-year-olds aren’t always right, regardless of what they think. My parents were proud of me being moved forward a grade; my brother saw this as an opportunity to relentlessly call me a nerd. Whether it was pride or teasing, I got a lot of attention for my milestone from my family, teachers, and classmates. And I don’t really like attention. I hated being made an example of because it made the other kids resent me. I didn’t have friends, except for the ones my new teacher assigned me (yeah, I had friends assigned to me. That’s a self-esteem booster, right?). I didn’t know how to socialize with these new kids. I liked to read at recess or walk around by myself. To a lot of people, this was strange behavior. I was weird. 

Little by little, my accomplishment became cause for shame. I wasn’t supposed to brag about it (not that I ever really did, but my mom warned me against it anyways). I didn’t share my good scores unless I was asked. I loathed being called out of class to go to advanced reading and math groups because it meant everyone would look at me. Moving forward was also a huge cause for stress because, when I didn’t excel, when I made mistakes, I was even more ashamed than I was when I was being congratulated. I was supposed to be smart, so why wasn’t I understanding something? 

While this was happening, I was also being told stories about weird, smart kids. Some family friends were held up as an example: these kids were too smart. They knew too much and didn’t know how to behave. I was warned that I didn’t want to become too smart, like these others kids. And I heeded that warning. I heeded it very well.

I dumbed myself down. In junior high, I stopped doing extra credit, and I stopped worrying about getting good grades. I laughed when I got a D on a math test, even though I was secretly mortified. (I should add in here that I was, all in all, still a good student. I maintained good grades through school, but I was not exceptional like I had been). I wasn’t challenging myself at all, but I did have friends to eat lunch with and do things with on weekends.

I tried to revive my “smart” self in high school, and, once again, I found myself lacking friends, lacking social activities, and generally feeling out of place, even in extracurricular activities. I also gained a disdain for the people around me, isolating myself even further. 

It’s taken me until my senior year of college to learn that it’s okay to be smart. I’m not the best in my classes here, not by a long shot. But I’m keeping up, and I’m challenging myself to learn all that I can. 

Recently, when I was telling my mom about how smart a child I know is, she responded with, “[his parents] are going to make him too smart, and then he’ll be weird.” First of all, I can’t help wondering what would have happened if I had been made “too smart”, if I had been allowed to feel proud of my accomplishments instead of ashamed. Second, everybody’s weird. If you’re going to have something about you be weird, why not make it being smart? 

I also wonder if me being a girl had/has anything to do with not wanting to be smart. I’ve been taught (implicitly and explicitly) throughout my life that men are better than women at a lot of things. Therefore I shouldn’t be smarter than the boys in my class, particularly if those boys are older than me. Now, I catch myself deferring to men all the time in matters of intelligence. Even if I know the answer, I often pretend I don’t and let them explain it to me. I’ve noticed that I’m more afraid of being wrong when I’m with men than when I’m with women, although it should be noted that I hate being wrong, period. One of my coworkers pointed out to me that, in staff meetings, the people who speak up and answer questions are all men and women who aren’t from Utah*. And even the women who aren’t from Utah are still, for the most part, quieter than the men. 

Now that I’m aware of this problem (and I do consider it a problem), I’m wondering if it’s something other people experience. Do you feel a fear of being wrong? Do you defer to men and let them answer for you? Do you let them be the smarter ones? Now that I’m aware, I need to work to change it. I trained myself well, but it’s time to stop playing dumb and stop being scared of “smart.” 

*I plan on writing a series of posts on what it’s like to be a woman in Utah, don’t you worry! 




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