At school, I learned to be average

Feb 02 2016 Published by under personality, role models

I was the smartest kid in my primary school class, I think. I know I was the smartest girl, which was not a thing to be proud of. I was a smart kid in the time where there were no additional things to do aside from the normal curriculum. There were no science projects or other extra things. There was the education everyone got and then there was a lot of waiting until everybody else was done. I quickly learned that being smart or nerdy or funny was never rewarded. It was laughed at (not in a good way) and ridiculed both by my classmates and by some of the teachers. Girls (kids?) were supposed to be average. So I learned to wait. I remember not being allowed to sit next to a plant because out of pure boredom I killed the plant by picking at its leaves whenever I was waiting for the rest of the class to finish an assignment. Imagine the things I could have learned in that time. Luckily my parents are both scientists and there was enough to learn and explore outside school. I played an instrument and I fondly remember a car ride with my mom when I was 8 or 9 and I asked her all about HIV and AIDS and how that worked. My mom patiently answered all my questions with her knowledge from reading Scientific American.

I'm not sure if learning to act average has made me sloppy and the not-at-all-perfectionist person that I am. Maybe that was always already there. Learning to act average however comes with one advantage, which is that I always knew I could do much better if I actually did something. Even though I had to work harder once I got to secondary school and later university, there was always still that feeling that there was a lot of reserve, and that I could always go that extra mile if needed.

7 responses so far

  • Barbara says:

    This is the basis of the 'zesjescultuur'. Such a sad message to give to a young girl!
    It all sounds too familiar, but fortunately only for a short period of time. I went to three different elementary schools, one with an amazing teacher who stimulated everyone to be at their absolute best — I'm actually still in touch with him, 20 years later — then another (we moved across the country) with an awful teacher who couldn't deal with the fact that I was smart. I remember her asking us to write our own math exercise, and solving it, and when I came to her to have my work checked she took one look, told me it was too complicated, and refused to check it.
    Fortunately my parents quickly recognized I was miserable, and I switched schools again. The next school had teachers who were not particularly great, but there was another girl in my class, who is now still one of my best friends. She and I were both smart, and we ended up challenging each other. Giving each other exercises, competing for high grades, etc. She made all the difference.

  • Bill says:

    In Australia this is called Tall Poppy Syndrome ("the tallest poppies are the first to be cut down"), and it applies to everything except some sports. In combination with a strong inclination to anti-intellectualism, it made for a fairly miserable schooling (including undergraduate!).

    It's probably because I'm male, and we're socialized differently -- also, I'm just plain ornery -- but I didn't learn to be average. I learned to be resentful and vicious, and to fly my obnoxious smart flag right in everyone's face. For the record, I don't recommend this approach.

  • ImDrB says:

    Be average, don't stand out, and they might not target you as much....Could have taken this directly from my school days.

    I vividly remember a 4th grade teacher who allowed me to keep a paperback book on my desk at all times, because I understood her instructions the first time she explained something, and was always finished long before everyone else. To keep from being bored, I read. A LOT. My mother (also a teacher) walked by the classroom one day and saw me reading when everyone else was listening to the teacher. To say the least, she was upset. She confronted the teacher later, who told her to leave me alone and not say a thing, that she'd never caught me not knowing what was going on, or having not followed her instructions on an assignment.

    Got out of there as soon as I graduated, have only been back a few times. College and post-graduate work were so much more meaningful.

  • sopscientist says:

    As a girl in elementary and high school, I too was told many many times not to be smart by classmates and even a few teachers. One of my biggest disappointments was when my best friend, whom I had known since kindergarten and was was very intelligent, hid her intelligence in high school to get a boyfriend. By grade 11, she was pregnant, in an abusive relationship and dropped out of school. It was hard to be smart. It was socially isolating. I was the subject of verbal and physical abuse by my peers until I hit grade 11 and a set of like-minded peers in an International Baccalaureate program. I was stubborn and determined to not pretend to be dumb. Thankfully, through it all, I had a loving family who encouraged me to be me. For them I am eternally grateful.

  • rs says:

    Reading all these messages, I feel great about my all-girls schooling. I never thought that I or someone else was not supposed to be smart. We had fierce competition amongst few top smart girls in school and it was rewarded with certificates and accolades by teachers who were also all females by the way. Only later in my life when I put my foot in a co-ed working environment, I realized that girls were expected to behave differently, but by then I had a strong foundation and actually enjoyed showing that I was smarter than many of my male colleagues. I have moved on in my life, but my former colleagues still respect me for being smart. I wonder if my daughter growing up in midwest will be same as me. So far, she is one of the smartest kid in her grade in her school and she enjoys knowing that.

  • babyattachmode says:

    Thanks for everyone's comments and realizing I wasn't the only kid feeling this way. Also interesting to read about how different it can be in all-girls education. That is something that does not exist at all in my homecountry and is seen here as something out-dated and unnecessary. Similarly, my parents almost never thought about changing schools for me, because my mom (who had skipped a class and had felt uncomfortable among those older kids) felt that it was good to learn to socialize with anyone in school. I wonder how well socializing works if you don't feel you belong somewhere, whereas you might do much better learning social skills among kids you feel comfortable with...

  • xykademiqz says:

    I was also the smartest kid in elementary school, then highschool, and among the very top in college. (Btw, I started school a year early, so I was younger than everyone else; I was tall, which helped.) I also had a lot of down time in elementary and high school, as you say, waiting for everyone to finish, but I didn't mind. I would write or draw or get into quiet mischief with the kids around me (we sat 2 or 3 together behind one largish desk, depending on classroom), so there were always the kids next to me or in front/behind me with whom to pass notes or quietly do stupid stuff -- how else does one learn if one can wiggle one's ears, or write well with a nondominant hand? It's downtime like this when you are just being stupid and challenging each other; I certainly drew a lot on my desk, on classmates' hands, on random pieces of paper. So boring, but not really boring. I consider it all to be the fabric of childhood. I didn't feel like I didn't belong; I was smarter than everyone and people knew it, but I wasn't bullied or anything. Mostly people wanted to copy my work or had me be the spokesperson for the class when the class wanted a test postponed.

    I have read several times in the blogosphere that kids need to be challenged and if they are not maximally challenged that that's really bad. I think a little boredom is a good thing, especially if it helps with socializing. Maybe it's more important if a kid is really not fitting with peers; I was not miserable and nobody bothered me. I wasn't a popular girl but I certainly had friends. Then I played volleyball really actively grades 6-12, so those girls and the matches were really important to me.

    And I too felt and still do that there's always reserve, that I could always do more, and it's served me well, as my science keeps getting better and better. I have some faculty colleagues who have seen the true limits of their potential early on due to relentless challenging and entering very competitive environments early on; there are at least two who, while very bright, are intellectually timid; in my unprofessional opinion, it may be because they faced their hard limits too early. Not saying this happens with everyone, but it happens with some. Just like "regular" kids figure out early on that they simply cannot grasp this or that, or that the effort it takes them is an indication that's not the right path, I also think (for some personality types), even if very bright, if you push them too far too early, they will similarly start to think that things are too hard and that they are stupid and lack in ability...

    tl;dr: I don't think challenging a kid at all costs is a one-size-fits-all solution. I feel my underchallenged childhood was pleasant and full of stupid or silly nonacademic pursuits that helped me socialize; I didn't feel bored or like I should have been doing something better with my time. IMHO it's not a bad thing to always feel that you haven't reached your limits and that you could always do more and do better.

Leave a Reply