Saturday, September 15, 2007

Confessions of a Recovering Elitist

Via Physics Geek, I read this astonishing discussion at Vox Populi about intelligence versus faith and humility. What amazed me most was how much it lined up with my experiences. The faith part I've never experienced myself but the humility, I got hit by that clue-by-four multiple times.

Below the cut is a rambling remembrance of my high school experience and my (still in process) recovery from the elitism of the "nerd-herd".

I am rather smart. Not genius, change the world smart but certainly book-smart. I know how to study, how to assimilate new info, how to prioritize and complete tasks. I like doing it. So, I am smart. Or so everyone told me from the age of five onward.

With very rare exception, I was in with the smart kids. And we were never allowed to forget it. You see, smart kids are hard to teach because like most insufferable know-it-alls we took great exception to suffering fools or those we think fools (ie – everyone else). The most successful teachers teach through a skillful combination of flattery & challenge to ego. At every step you are told “You here because you are special”, “You have a duty, as a smart person, to ensure you do not waste this gift” and “Part of that duty is doing well in this class.” There was also balance of course. Teachers held us to a more rigorous, more adult standard. Because we were smarter, a greater expectation applied to us.

It's very important to understand that I was NOT an isolated loner, ostracized and left to my own devices. Not in high school anyway. I participated in theatre and worked on the literary magazine. My friends and I never faced humiliation for being nerds. Our school was very focused on academics. The "Academic Decathlon" team got more play than the Football team. And in "Honors" classes, you really only interact with the same 60 people, all carefully vetted for intelligence. We all made fun of anyone who transferred out of Honors classes. People never in Honors classes barely registered as actual students to us. They didn't really count. We all looked at the adult world around us and assumed we could do better. That the grown-ups were such losers.

My first encounter with the clue-by-four was my third year of High School. Junior year started on a high note. I enrolled in two sciences (Physics I & Chemistry II), pre-calculus, and AP US History. Having been in advanced courses since kindergarten, I thought it would be a snap. It wasn't.

Chemistry II was a class seemingly designed and taught with the express intent of rendering my ego into teeny, tiny, whimpering shards. My inclination to “interpret” procedures instead of follow them made labs unnecessarily experimental experiences. My inability to take notes or follow lectures, led to my inability to complete the homework assignments. Which led to the greatest horror of all, checking of homework, a process that occurred in class, and from which there was no escape. It didn’t matter than you got every problem but one, for my teacher had a sixth sense for knowing who to call on for which problem. I swear to this day that woman could smell anxiety. She didn’t ask you where your assignment was. No, if you hadn’t finished the problem, then it was vitally important for you to go to the blackboard and show where you got stuck. She would ask you “What next?” in that terrifyingly calm voice. And then, she would leave you dangling for sometimes ten minutes before explaining the correct answer. Can you tell I still have nightmares about this?

Combined with a poorly thought out science fair project and equal trouble in my pre-calculus class, I was constantly reminded both of my own weaknesses and the fact that I had some absolutely brilliant classmates. One clear example was a friend who suffered just as much as I in ChemII. However, when it came time to present his Science Fair project on Neural Networking, well, he blew everyone in the class away. Another example was the girl who eventually became our valedictorian. After returning to class following a car wreck, she took a test her first day back. Bruised and on pain medication, she made an eighty-eight.

This was the first time where my cohorts were vastly out-performing me. I came to the sudden realization that I would actually have to work to succeed. Combined with a few experiences from senior year, I had to learn how to study and develop a healthy respect for my own place in the ranks. I came out of high school with a good work ethic but also a very real understanding that I was most definitely not the smartest person in the room. But, in a stunning display of cognitive dissonance, I still thought that smart people were somehow "better" than non-smart people.

This absolutely ridiculous belief didn't change overnight but junior year was the first crack in the armor. Between college and working, I've learned the smartest person is sometimes NOT the best person for the job. I have met, befriended and learned countless things from people my previous self wouldn't have talked to except twist into a joke at the next study session. I have also learned that if I had to deal with who I was in 10th grade, I'd probably slap myself silly.

I think, while challenging smart kids is necessary, too much of modern education challenges them by setting them apart. It doesn't provide a sense of belonging to society. You see yourself as better than so many others. Also, critically you see yourself as not as susceptible to their faults. All those around you share the same opinion. Without quality teachers, without on-the-ball parents, without those equally humbling experiences in college and at work, I shudder to think of who I was on the path to become.

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