Monday, April 14, 2014

On Being the Smart Kid: Or, What I Learned from Public School

The thing about being the smart kid is that you're not allowed to talk about being the smart kid, or else you seem arrogant.

The other thing about being the smart kid is that you're definitely not allowed to complain about being the smart kid, or else you seem ungrateful.

Well, here I am, talking about being the smart kid.

There are a couple of things I should clarify: 1) I am not a genius. Smarter than average, yes, but certainly not a genius. 2) I am extremely grateful for my above average intelligence. 3) I am not arrogant. I will rarely admit to you that I am the smart kid. I will rarely admit to you that I am good at anything. Because I rarely believe those things about myself. So consider this post a fluke, I guess. Blame it on the blood moon.

When I started kindergarten, I was the only kid in my class who already knew how to read.

And that sums up the entirety of my education.

The thing is, I learn things like some people tie their shoes or eat breakfast: quickly and without really thinking about it. Learning for me is like breathing. I can't help it.

I'm fully aware that most people don't learn like I do, and I'm fine with that. The way that doing anything athletic or understanding navigation is hard for me is the same way that learning is hard for a lot of people. But after 15 years of waiting for everyone else to catch up, it'd be a big fat lie if I said I wasn't exhausted. Through my crippling boredom, I've learned two things about surviving public education. Maybe they're not the kinds of things that my parents and teachers want to hear, but in the interest of honesty, here we go:

Public School Lesson #1: Figure out how little effort needs to go into getting an A
Most of the time, it's basically none. Do the homework while watching TV. Write the paper in a couple hours the day before it's due, read it over once, hate it, and get an A+. Doodle in the margins of your notebook. Never study, but still ace the test everyone else barely passed. This is how I've done school since about 9th grade.

Public School Lesson #2: You don't have to know anything to write an A+ paper
When I start writing a paper, I usually have no idea what I'm going to say in it. I don't write outlines. Ever. I just make stuff up as I go. And about 90% of the time my teachers adore it. The lowest grade I've ever gotten on a paper was a B+. There's a way to write BS and make it sound good, and I seem to have mastered the art.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I learned astonishingly little in high school. I stuck to Lesson #1 like my life depended on it--I memorized answers and regurgitated them onto various standardized tests before immediately forgetting them. That's all the school system needed of me. As long as I passed the tests, who cares if I actually learned anything? I figured that out around 9th grade and realized that I could beat the system if I just stopped thinking deeply about anything and made it out without actually having fully learned anything. Well, take that, school system. I sure showed you.

Too bad my ploy to pull one over on No Child Left Behind made me miserable and angry.

I honestly believe my high school education did me a disservice (with a couple of notable exceptions, of course). The American public school system doesn't teach you how to learn. It teaches you how to memorize a bunch of crap so that the test scores look good. It doesn't teach you to be an informed citizen, it doesn't teach you to want to learn, it doesn't teach you to think deeply and critically. It teaches you to be lazy and mediocre. Harsh words, but true ones. My elementary school made wonderful effort to make sure that smart kids like me were always challenged and busy. My middle school had a pretty great but very limited gifted program, but by the time I got to high school they had completely stopped trying to keep the smart kids engaged. The one time we had anything close to a gifted program, it was cancelled after one year for being "elitist." There was no reason for me to put effort into my work, so I didn't, and I forgot how to learn. I forgot how to be interested. I forgot how to be smart.

I got to college and, not really having many friends or anything much to do, found myself missing something. It took me a while, but I came to the understanding that what was missing was my intelligence. Not the kind that aces tests or writes A+ papers without caring, but the kind that makes me think and wonder and reach out for knowledge. I came to the understanding that I need to learn things. I need to be intellectually challenged. Even if I'm not trying to learn in my classes (because, let's face it, I'm still sticking to Lesson #1), I need to constantly seek out new information to keep my hungry brain working and happy. Honestly, it's hard sometimes. There's no break. But it's necessary if I want to stay engaged and not depressed.

Being the smart kid isn't just being good at everything. It's hiding your perfect test grade from your neighbor who failed. It's not fishing for compliments, it's genuinely thinking all of your work is crap. It's beating yourself up for not being good at one thing, because you're good at everything else and you're not used to things being hard. It's ignoring all of the A's and hating yourself for getting a B+. A's don't mean anything. You expect A's from yourself.

I don't want to be told how smart I am or how amazing my grades and accomplishments are, because it just makes me feel worse about not living up to my own expectations of what it means to be smart. Everyone's expectations of themselves are virtually unreachable, but it's different when you've spent your whole life being impressive.

Being the smart kid usually means hating everything you ever do. It means consistently feeling inadequate because you're painfully aware of everything you don't know, despite everything you do know. It means never living up to your own expectations, despite always exceeding everyone else's expectations by a mile. It means being disillusioned with the world because you understand it.

But then, being the smart kid means being able to think deeply. It means accepting that you can't ever know everything but still trying anyway. It means being endlessly curious. It means having a wide range of skills and talents and knowledge, even if you don't believe you do.

Bottom line: It may seem like being the smart kid is the ideal situation--being good at everything must be perfect, right? And it is pretty wonderful. But don't assume that being smart doesn't have its difficulties. Because it does. Don't be annoyed that I deny my intelligence or downplay my accomplishments. It's not that I don't appreciate your support, but understand that most of the time I honestly don't believe you.

And now I will return to my normal state of pretending not to be the smart kid.

~Snooty Crumb

P.S. This is the coolest thing I've learned in a long time: If we were to remove all of the space between the atoms and molecules in the Empire State Building, it would be reduced to the size of a grain of rice. Bam. The universe is ceaselessly amazing.