Wednesday, October 14, 2009


If I were asked to describe myself, and if I were being honest at all, the first word out of my mouth would be "smart." It is reliably the first word to come to mind about myself, and carries more weight than any other I can think of. Being smart is central to my identity.

I am also weirdly, inexplicably defensive about being smart. When I take a class, I don't feel comfortable until I am sure that the professor has figured out that I am smart. It is the first thing I want new coworkers (people I work for, at least) to know about me. The idea that anyone - friends, bosses, or teachers - might think I am stupid is very concerning to me. I think this is odd given that it's not that likely that someone will conclude that I'm stupid. But I am very afraid of appearing stupid, probably because being smart is such an important part of my identity.

When I was a little kid, and it started to become apparent that I was "gifted," this delighted my mother. In addition to the usual delight people take in their children's positive attributes, I think there are two things about my mother that made this so. First, she's an intellectual snob, valuing intelligence and learning over most other things, and second, she herself never felt like one of the smart kids. (One of the things that attracted her to my father was that he seemed so smart.)

In therapy the other day, I was talking about what my therapist characterizes as my mother's negative attitudes towards a lot of things - for instance, the way she was so clear to me that my 2nd grade teacher's insistence on my copying my spelling words 3 times each, despite that they were very basic words I knew how to spell a hundred times over, was stupid.

Later, I was thinking about my mom's attitudes towards a lot of things, and the word "stupid" came up in my mind over and over. She especially had a lot of contempt for my dad's family, and nearly everything I told her about them was dismissed as stupid. (To give an example, I once told her that they had those rough-textured flower-shaped stickers in their bathtubs - the kind that are supposed to keep you from slipping - and she told me those were stupid.)

My grandmother once chided me, saying, "It's more important to be nice than to be smart." When I told my mom about this (I had thought it stupid), she was absolutely indignant about my having been told such a stupid and insulting thing. (Let's try to be fair, and note that my mother was probably not objecting to the idea itself, but more to the fact of its being used to chide me, given that it suggests that my intelligence was not as important as I thought, and that I wasn't as nice as I ought to be.)

Stupid. Stupid stupid stupid. Everything bad is bad because it is stupid.

I was also talking in therapy about my early years of school. Was I popular? I was not. Most other kids didn't like me, as best I can recall. Why might that be?

I can't remember the details of my interactions with other kids in elementary school - the ones who weren't my (few) friends, at least. But I do remember that the other kids were mostly stupid. They couldn't read out loud without pausing at the ends of the lines. They couldn't spell words. (One time in 3rd grade, one of my classmates - a friend, actually - asked me how to spell "I'll" and I told him "a-i-s-l-e" because it hadn't even occurred to me that someone wouldn't know how to spell "I'll.")

It must be hard to like a weird kid who thinks you're stupid.

I felt bad, in therapy, reporting that I thought my classmates were stupid. I felt like an adult picking on little kids. I wouldn't describe a 3rd grader as "stupid" now. I tried to make that clear to my therapist.

Intelligence and ability are intrinsically good things. Most people would choose to be more capable in any way they could - smarter, faster, fitter, stretchier, more charming, more dextrous, you name it. But the value system that equates stupid to bad is wrong. (In my head, I say it is stupid. Out loud, I'm saying it's wrong, unethical.)

Lileks once wrote that his young daughter said of Spongebob Squarepants's friend Patrick something like, "He's kind of dumb...but he has a good heart." Lileks was happy that she put it that way, and not the other way around. And I agree, but as a kid I would never have said something like that.

I think there are really two problems here. One is being taught that stupidity is the ultimate form of bad. The other, perhaps worse, is being taught to hold others in contempt. (Contempt comes naturally enough in adolescence; it doesn't need to be taught to toddlers.)

I wish I'd been raised with different values, because I find that adopting them as an adult is possible but difficult.

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