I wasn’t accepted into most universities I applied to. After I found out, I sat on the living room floor of our small-town Ontario home and ripped each rejection letter into tiny little pieces. Disappointment confetti, if you will. I proceeded to yell, scream, and cry—banging my fists on innocent, unsuspecting nearby furniture. This was probably my first tantrum since toddler-hood. I was devastated. My parents observed from the kitchen, terrified, yet sympathetic.
The multiple rejection letters were the result of a technical issue with the number of university-level credits on my transcript. Under the *mimes air quotes* guidance of a guidance counsellor I had opted out of my university-level math class. On her advice, I planned to include the credit I would receive for an extracurricular vocal music exam because, apparently, it would count towards what I needed to get accepted. It didn’t count. During admissions period, all of my top choices sent their “we regret to inform you…” memos. After having worked my scholastic butt off for years, in addition to giving my all to a variety of performances, clubs, choirs and committees—in that moment it looked like I might not be going to university. I hope you can understand the tantrum.
Though the rejection had little to do with my marks, I still saw it as a personal failure. Not getting into a top university finally confirmed what I had secretly known all along: I wasn’t academic material. I lacked the intellect of my high achieving peers. Simply put: I just wasn’t smart enough.
My marks were pretty good for most of high school; but just good enough at other times. I’m reminded that some people would have been, “more than fine!” with the marks I was pulling in, however my expectations of myself were so insanely high that any time a mark dipped below what I was expecting, I would be completely consumed by shame. If any test or poem or essay was deemed inadequate in the eyes of one of my teachers, I would convince myself that I was therefore inadequate in the eyes of the universe at large.
When I did do well (which happened more often than I felt it did), I told myself it was only because I was a good writer. Writing was a great way for me to fake intelligence. My writing voice had always been very strong and highly dependable. (It also had thesaurus.com behind its prose.) Even though I was definitely the one doing the writing, crafting the sentences, aching over word choice – and ultimately making the argument – I still felt it wasn’t really me getting the good marks. A male teacher once admitted that he thought I had plagiarized an essay because it was so different than who I was in the classroom. I laughed. Little did he know he was sort of correct. It wasn’t me! It was the writing!
My biggest concerns were in the way I heard myself in class. Though I enjoyed school and regularly participated in class discussions (us extroverts just love to hear ourselves talk!), I lacked the vocabulary of what felt like many of my peers. I also didn’t have the confidence to not care. If challenged, I could rarely hold my end up in a debate, because I knew my arguments would always fall short of my obviously much smarter opponent. If – heaven forbid! – I got an answer wrong in front of the class, it would silence me for the remainder of the lesson. I wasn’t smart. I was hard working. I was loud, bubbly. I could be funny, and was well-liked by my peers, but I did not consider myself smart.
I made it into the communications program at Carleton by default because at the time, everyone who got rejected from the journalism program was offered a letter of admission to the communications program. I almost didn’t make it in there either because my transcript still showed a lack of university-level credits. It took some convincing with the admins officer and a revised transcript with proof of my vocal exam marks to finally get in to what I had already deemed the program for rejected, un-smart people like me.
Despite my initial attitude towards what is in fact a wonderful and challenging program filled with very intelligent people who are all very lucky they have the privilege to go to university at all, I actually really loved my university classes and learning in general. Communications was actually a much better fit than journalism, in retrospect. At first, I only spoke up in class occasionally. However what I started to notice was that what I was thinking would often emerge from the mouths of my classmates and professors before I had worked up the courage to say it out loud myself. But I wouldn’t have said it in the same words they did. So I continued to stay quiet.
That is until I was in the classroom of the English 1000 instructor Esther Post.
Esther was a proud feminist, but also admitted to being turned on by Lolita. When anyone contributed to a class discussion, she would nod her head with so much energy, compassion and enthusiasm and say with a warm smile, “Yes! Exactly!”
She wasn’t pretentious. If she had an extensive vocabulary, she didn’t use it. She felt like your cool, funny aunt. But she was also an incredible teacher. She loved what she taught and she was extremely talented at getting you to love it, too.
On the first day of class she said something that I had so needed to hear. She said that when she was in her undergrad, she would listen her classmates share these lengthy, seemingly profound ideas peppered with unfamiliar vocabulary and she would just want to put her hand up and say, “This character seems like a bitch.” She encouraged us to say whatever came to us, recognizing that a class discussion required a variety of voices and opinions to sustain itself, and that even if your idea didn’t seem as meaty or intellectual as your peers, there was still a place for it.
A note on my voice:
My speaking voice is in a higher register, and I have a tendency to speak with more animation and excitement than the average person. I’m so animated and excited in fact that people often ask if I’m being sarcastic when I’m not (and sometimes I am! And sometimes I’m about 50/50! Which is a fun way to keep people on their toes!). When I try to make an argument about something, I hear myself in two ways: at best I’m pure valley girl a la Cher Horowitz’s debate on refugees in Clueless. At worst I get too emotional and am rendered speechless midway through making a point, resorting instead to grunting, groaning, swearing or just silently shaking my head. As well, my roster of big words is very limited (clearly, if you’ve read this blog).
After sharing my concerns about my lack of intelligence with my at-the-time linguistics-major roommate, Cara, she made a brilliant point:
Perhaps some of my insecurity could be attributed to the way I heard my voice and my traditionally feminine way of being. She thought perhaps I had internalized a definition of smart that didn’t match up with the way I heard (and felt about) myself.
She was right. Thanks Cara.
My internalized idea of “smart” was rigid. Smart talked in a deep baritone, leaning back into a chair with a smug grin on his face. Smart was calm, unemotional, and un-invested personally in his arguments. Smart used big words and could name drop philosophers, politicians, poets and important historical figures like a walking, talking, significantly-more-accurate Wikipedia. Smart knew they were right before opening their mouth. Smart was clearly a dude, or someone who embodied traditional dude-like behaviours.
Recently I’ve started hearing myself in a different way. I’m not sure if this is because the way I talk has changed or the way I hear myself has changed, but my conception of what it means to be smart has evolved. I see and hear myself inching closer to it.
Smart people give others the space to speak up. Smart people are talented listeners. They have a high capacity for learning and aren’t afraid to say “I don’t know, but I can find out.” Smart people are inspired and passionate and have a powerful understanding of human nature. Smart people make shit happen. They are doers, but they also know they are enough without all the doing.
As I’ve grown into myself and have learned to accept what I am and am not, I’ve learned that I can define what I value when it comes to intelligence, see it in others, and see it in myself. The smartest thing I ever did was acknowledge that smart didn’t have one, singular definition and that it was a way of being, not a way of talking.
I’ll end with this somewhat appropriate exert from the movie Clueless:
Heather: It’s just like Hamlet said, “To thine own self be true.”
Cher: Hamlet didn’t say that.
Heather: I think I remember Hamlet accurately.
Cher: Well, I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn’t say that. That Polonius guy did.