Imported from MySpace blog
Growing up, I was always heaped with praise about my intellect — from my teachers, from my peers, from my parents (of course, few parents don’t think the world of their children, but still…) and in particular, encouraged to write. Writing, they always said, was my strongest subject, and something from which I could easily extract a richly rewarding if not financially comfortable career.
“Why don’t you enter this short story in this contest, Sarah?” they’d ask, hoping their star student could win some sort of prize that might eventually bring much-needed funding to a rural school so poor that its students sometimes attended history classes sans books.
I was in Brain Bowl*, and our coach always put me in when our team was lagging, because he knew that I would usually be able to bring up the score significantly. I was in Mathletes, despite the fact that math was, and still very much is, my weakest subject. Other kids in class tried to cheat off my papers. One of my teachers signed my yearbook: “I expect much from you, Sarah.”
A telling statement that I felt had double meaning: he hoped to see me go far in life, putting my brain to good use; but there was a veiled threat, there, too, conveyed in that looming underline — he meant if I didn’t go far, he would be sorely disappointed.
Fast forward about seven years, and suddenly I find myself miles away from where I started#. The first thing people notice about me isn’t my smarts, it’s my perky personality, my quirkiness, or my boobs. Sad, but very much true — and it’s not that, in the past, people first “noticed” my smarts, since it usually takes at least a cursory amount of conversation before you can determine whether or not someone is an intellectual match for you — they assumed I was smart because I was extremely shy, mousy, and wore big glasses. Then, as now, people make snap judgements based on appearance and first impressions, and I find it hard to blame them since I’m just as guilty, if not more so, of judging at first sight.
I blame the collegiate experience for my transformation. The classes in college were no harder than those during high school, the people no less daunting. But at one point I made a decision: either remain entombed in my mousy shell, letting only parts of myself out for people who worked extra-hard to get through to me, gradually building up a friend base over several years; or compensate by becoming the exuberant, outgoing, shamelessly bubbly Sarah that we all know and love today.
She was in there all along, she just had been beaten down over the years by a number of mistimed moves and unfortunate experiences. And she accomplished her task splendidly: I had a stupid amount of fun in college, cavorting around and meeting so many people I couldn’t remember all their names. All the same, she changed the way people viewed me. I was no longer the quiet genius (debatable, you might say, but perception seems to be more than half of reality), and somehow became alternately the ditzy brunette, the giggling stoner, the bitchy pretty girl, the fashionista, the girlfriend, the Mary Tyler Moore of wherever. The most cutting judgement I ever got, probably because I knew it was at least partly true, was “fake” from a girl down the hall I had thought was a friend, if not at least an ally.
The trouble now arises when this perception gets in the way of my ambition. No one thinks of me as “management material” anymore, or capable of anything more than what I force them to think I’m capable of. Maybe it comes with the territory of adulthood that encouragement is eked out only in begrudged teaspoonfuls and not heaped like so many quarts… but all the same, I crave it. I want that “good job, Sarah, you sure are one smart cookie” crap. I want it from my superiors at work, from my peers at work, from the people who should know me best in the world, and from the people who don’t.
I hate it when people I first meet make inaccurate assumptions about my depth based on how I look or dress, or how much I smile. It seems that, to them, friendliness and enthusiasm must be in inverse proportion to intelligence and worth as a human being. The nicer I am, the less people like me. Or, they may like me, but subtly put me down in front of me, or wave away my ideas and insights like gnats.
So the question becomes, how much do I want to revert back to my Brain Bowl self in order to garner the respect I think I deserve? That time in my life was an unqualified unhappy one; being shy may gain you a far-off admirer or two, but few actual friends, and leads to an awfully lonely existence. Additionally, being perceived as smart, for me at least, came with a number of trade-offs. My more frivolous dreams, like becoming a ballet dancer or joining the cheerleading team, were laughed off like my ideas sometimes are now. But I’m pretty sick of people hating me on sight, or underestimating me, or turning me into some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
* Brain Bowl is, for those of you who were fortunate enough to do something much cooler in middle and high school, a trivia-type game involving opposing teams of bespectacled social outcasts and buzzer boxes answering questions about Greek mythology, math, literature and other dorky stuff. Cool? Definitely not. But there was free pizza at the practices sometimes.
# Figuratively, okay? Sheesh.