Monday, April 07, 2008

Intelligence, Snobbery, and Just Being Yourself

Assistant Village Idiot stopped by and left a comment on my post about my uber-geek children. I know he meant no harm and was offering advice, no doubt based on his own fatherly experiences, on cautioning against too much focus on kids being "smart". So, this is not a rebuttal based on overreaction to his words of caution, but is more my reflection on what being labeled smart or gifted means to kids, parents, and society in general.

As a child, I did very well in school. Well, let me put that another way; I did well when I wanted to. I was blessed with the ability to remember things very easily. I could read a book and retain what I read. I could learn a fact and have it easily accessible at a moment's notice. I could ace a test without studying. It wasn't that I tried very hard to be smart, I just was smart.

Actually, there were many times when I didn't try to do anything. In third grade I got a report card that consisted mostly of C's. In sixth grade I was kicked off of the safety patrol squad because of my reading scores. In High School I received a D in Health of all things. You see, it wasn't my intelligence, or lack of it, which was the problem, it was the latent procrastination that I believe was intertwined into my DNA, and the knowledge that I didn't need to do homework--though my teachers seemed to greatly disagree with my stance. Oh, and did I mention that I have a deadly case of being able to look at the big picture and decide that I don't care about A, B, and C in the long run; ergo....why waste my time and energy?

I have many regrets about that. I still maintained a decent GPA in high school, about 3.5, but it wasn't really representative of what I could have done if I had cared more and actually put much effort into my studies. I already understood, at that point, what Professor John Stackhouse has written in his post, You Are Your GPA, this past week. I knew that my worth was not measured by my grades and academic success, or failure.

Yet, I do wish I had done better, not to be recognized as being intelligent, because I was a legend in my own mind on that account, but because I feel that I unknowingly missed some great opportunities along the way. Part of that is simply due to the home circumstances in which I grew up. I was on my own. My parents had little to say to me about my grades or prospects. I did well, in general, so as long as they weren't getting calls from the school about me, then they were happy.

Unfortunately for my brother, who was not as able to navigate school very well, there was an unceasing amount of frustration and criticism aimed at him. It was horrible. I am three years younger than him, and we were just kids, but I remember feeling bad when I won a Spelling Bee, or an essay contest. I cringed that he would feel badly that I was doing well and that he would fall into an even more unfavorable comparison to me. It wasn't my fault that I did well, and he didn't, but I still empathized with him. Of course, I don't think that stopped me from throwing it in his face when we were viciously fighting. Sympathy only goes so far for an elementary school kid.

My father's side of the family was horrible about this particular form of criticism toward my brother. My grandfather, a mean, old tyrant, was especially notorious for giving my brother a hard time about his grades. He was without pity. Why no one ever stopped him, or told him to go @#%! himself I have no idea. Perhaps they had all been worn down by him for too many years to intervene on my brother's behalf. The criticism, coupled with the unending praise for myself and two of my cousins who also excelled in academics, was overwhelming for my brother, though he didn't always talk much about it. When he was older, he told me of an incident during his college years in which my aunt backhandedly complimented him by saying, "You turned out a lot better than we had expected." Nice.

Nowadays, my brother is a school principal. He taught 6th grade for 2 or 3 years, got his Masters degree, and has been a principal for about 6 years. It wouldn't surprise me if he was eventually a school district administrator.

On the flip side, while talking my mom the other day, we had a coversation that went something like this:

"You kids all turned out pretty well, even if I didn't know what you would all be like. M..loves being a big shot principal, doing well with his family and work, T..has finally found something he cares about and is doing well in....and you....well I thought you would have been in France all these years......awkward pause.....I guess everyone was a surprise."

"um....OK....Mom, I chose to be where I am."

"Yes, I know....I just thought you would have done something else...." her voice drops off.

"Something else than being a wife and mother."

"Well....I didn't mean it that way."

But, of course, she did. How could I have used my collective genius powers to stay home and raise kids? How could I have sacrificed my IQ on the altar of caregiving? Knowing that my mother has no comprehension for the reasons I do what I do, I let it go and shook my head.

Now, as I raise my kids, I have to make choices about how to encourage them and keep them based in reality at the same time. At no point do I want to raise children who are supremely arrogant and overly proud about their intelligence. At the same time, I want them to do what they love and have a talent for. If they were great at music, I would find a way to provide them with music lessons. If they were great at sports, I would be on the sidelines at every event. I have no desire to force them to be anything, whether it's being a great painter or mastering chess. I don't want them to have to feel bad about being smart, and wind up throwing a Spelling Bee competition just because they felt guilty for always winning--not that I know anyone who would have done that. ;-)

Being labeled "smart" is a double-edged sword. If you enjoy it too much, people say you're a snob. If you don't seem smart enough, you're put down and mocked. It's the worst form of trying to make sure no one is "better" than anyone else or "thinks they're too good" for us, yet smacking around those who are on the lower side of average.

I think of my brother who didn't please my dad's side of the family in his younger days, and now has exceeded their expectations, only to have my mother claim that he likes being a "big shot" principal too the same breath in which she expresses disappointment in the fact that I haven't done anything with my life. The message?--stay average like us--don't veer in either direction from where we are.

Intelligence can be used as a form of snobbery, but no more so than being a great athlete, or coming from a pedigreed background. I will not communicate to my children that being smart is the be-all, end-all of existence. Most of my parenting moments do not revolve around education, but around how they should behave towards each other, and society at large, in a kind and open way. I am still learning the ropes on that one myself, so I don't expect perfection from them in this area, but it is far more important to me than their math scores.

We don't call doctors, teachers, scientists, or chemists snobs because they are smart. We wouldn't hesitate to seek out expert advice in our medical care, or turn down a professor's class because they know too much. Why then should I temper my children's pursuit of learning and the enjoyment they get out of it? They will surely meet failure from time to time. They will encounter people who know more than they do. I hope that when that happens my kids won't label them as snobs because they know more, but will learn from those "smarter" people.

All in all, I think the message that it's good to be successful at something, so long as you're not too successful, is a bad one meant to be more soothing to others rather than having the best interest of the individual at hand in mind.


eclexia said...

You write about a tension I struggle with as well. I wrote a couple of posts about "the loneliness of smart" and one about "why I'm not anti-intellectual" on my blog.

The two on smart and loneliness were excruciatingly hard, because just by identifying myself as "smart" I felt like I was setting myself up to be seen as a snob. But I don't know how else to beat around the bush that facilitates some of that kind of loneliness. (And never mind the fact that everybody else can call me "smart"....But, still, when I want to talk about what it's like to be that way, well, you know, that's drawing attention to myself.)

I'm enjoying your blog. I found it via a comment you left over on Ancient Hebrew Poetry. From what I gather, you are a fellow Floridian?

terri said...

Thanks for stopping by.

Yes...Currently a Floridian...and it is getting HOT outside now!

I don't think it's bad to label oneself "smart". Personally, I recognize that I am a fairly smart person....despite some of the lame blog posts I write! :-)

I have a healthy sense of my own abilities. I also recognize that there are loads of people who are much smarter than me....though it pains me to admit it.

As far as loneliness, I don't think it's just being "smart" that is isolating. Any "smart" person worth their salt usually recognizes that there are innumerable things they don't know about, which can make one unpopular with people who are absolutely certain about everything.