When I was in preschool, I learned how to read. I loved books and read everything from Babar to Amelia Bedelia. I also loved the attention I got from being the kid that adults decided was a “smart one.”
In first grade I was reading at an eighth-grade level, and by fourth, I had easily caught up to the 12th-graders. I blew through my schoolwork and coasted along on the kind of praise that had become routine — rather than my actual brain power. Labels like “gifted,” “talented,” and “ahead of the curve” seemed permanently attached to me. My teachers loved to trot me out as a good example, and they only ever met with my parents to hand over unmarred report cards, boasting that “she’s an extremely dedicated and talented student.”
I never failed, even when I acknowledged that I didn’t understand what was going on (hello, long division!). I also never really had to try. It turned out that once teachers had decided I was smart, they stopped making me prove it. While there were always “opportunities,” like special classes or accelerated programs, they were usually full of a bunch of other kids who were also being prepped for greatness.
But what happens when you’re suddenly not the smartest kid in the room anymore? What happens when you’re the only kid in the room?
In fourth grade, my mother decided to start homeschooling me after realizing that I was finishing all of my schoolwork hours earlier than I should have, and that my teachers had me spending the extra time helping other kids. My mother, unlike my teachers, knew I was capable of more. The disjointed paragraphs about my weekend that I had turned in for language arts assignments at my old school were exchanged for tightened-up, lengthy essays on world history at home. The few scattered words of Spanish a friend’s mom had taught our class on Friday afternoons were exchanged for a massive Rosetta Stone program in German. For the next eight years, I was alone. I wasn’t the “smart one” anymore.
Being homeschooled wasn’t easy. There were late nights and assignments that seemed to never end. I was faced with the bare truth of my abilities — what I was and wasn’t good at — which sometimes shocked me. Somewhere along the way, I lost the blind bravado I’d once had. I have a very distinct memory of sitting with my math tutor, incredibly frustrated by my inability to understand Algebra II. But I’m smart, I thought. I should just get this, right?
My belief in my own infallibility was permanently shaken, and with that gone, an integral part of my identity was removed. Being known as the “smart kid” wasn’t enough anymore. That label wouldn’t help me pass my Algebra test, graduate high school, or get into college. It turned out that it didn’t really mean anything at all, and I didn’t know what to do with that. Suddenly I felt my engines failing. I needed to learn how to ... learn. On my own. Without any expectations about what I could do if I just “applied myself.”
I enrolled in community college right after high school for many reasons. As a 16-year-old high school graduate, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do; I just knew that I needed to remember how to be in a class again, to prove that I could. I wanted college to be hard, and I wanted to do it without any allowances. It may seem counterintuitive that I’d pick a community college for those reasons, given the stereotypes that surround such schools, but the truth is that most community colleges have incredible professors and smaller classes than traditional four-year schools. This translates into a much stronger sense of accountability for students, and a far more rigorous education than those stereotypes would suggest.
In some classes, that intensity is obvious: Italian has dragged me up and down the block for almost four semesters now. My professor invests herself in every student who invests in the subject, and I can easily say that it’s the most rewarding class I’ve ever taken. In other subjects, my desire to work hard has inadvertently made me the teacher’s pet, which is really just another kind of hall pass. But this time I’ve actually earned it — with real work instead of the unquestioned label of being the “smart one.”
Of course, my decision to go to a community college has been criticized by everyone, from friends to old teachers to random people who had no reason to comment at all. Society still holds a stigma that community colleges are for failed football stars and hardened delinquents. This is obviously not true; I’m neither of those, nor are most of my classmates. Many of them chose community college so they could explore different paths, access newly available educational opportunities, or due to the ever-relevant reason of financial affordability. You’d think that would be enough to prove the point, but as far as many people are concerned, I’m still not living up to my potential.
Even after two years at college, it’s still sometimes hard for me to absorb those criticisms. At my core, I liked being one of the “best and brightest,” and I often wonder whether I’ve taken the right path. Recently, though, this doubt was laid to rest when I crossed paths with a boy from my elementary school. I don’t know what path he took to end up at the same school as me, but he was another “smart kid,” a guy who did everything “right.” He’d graduated as valedictorian of a local IB program and, according to everyone, was on the road to Ivy League greatness. I was elated when I saw him walking toward me in the hall of the community college we now both attend, carrying a shelf’s worth of books in his arms, his class schedule in his mouth. This week, we’ll both start classes with new people we’ve never met, some of whom are probably “smart kids” just like us. But in the end, we’re all just young people trying to figure out when in our life we’re really going to use trigonometry.
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