On Being More Than One Thing
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been good at school. It’s just something that comes naturally to me. It’s not that I’m exceptionally smart; I consider myself very intelligent, but I’m not some savant in the back of the classroom deconstructing “Beautiful Mind” math problems. I think I just pick up very easily on the “game” of school — I know what teachers and professors want, and I know how to produce it, and I can produce it with less effort than other people may have to exert. That’s not to say I’ve never worked for anything academic or that I’ve never studied, but I, for whatever reason, am able to work less than many of my peers to achieve the same result.
That paragraph was physically painful to write, because for so long I tried to downplay the fact that any of that was true. Growing up, classmates knew I got good grades and I was therefore labeled a “nerd,” even though I don’t think I presented myself that way. (This was before being a nerd was trendy!) I don’t even know how people knew I did well in school, because I made every effort to keep it a secret. In high school, we would get tests back, and everyone would start talking about “what they got,” while I would immediately stuff my paper in my bag so no one would see it and I would sit and silently hope no one would ask me. If they did ask me, my options were either to lie and say I did poorly, or to tell the truth and say I did well. If I told the truth, they’d ask me how long I studied to get that grade. Often (not always, but often), the answer was not at all, which either made me look like a liar or like a smug bitch. It was lose-lose, in my mind. I tried my best to fly under the radar; specific grades weren’t even important to me, I was only trying to do MY best, I wasn’t trying to be THE best. I was never “bullied” so to speak, people were nice to me for the most part, but I don’t feel like people got a full picture of who I really was.
Around age 16 when my friends and I started going to parties, there was blatant shock the first few times I showed up. I never understood this; in my head, I thought, “Who doesn’t like drinking? Why would the fact that I do well in school keep me from being here?” Eventually, we started partying with the same group almost every weekend and my presence became normal to people. But every now and then, someone would get really drunk and would still express surprise that I was there (never mind this was like the 15th weekend in a row we’d partied together). One time, a group and I went to do a shot together and someone screamed, “OH MY GODDDDDDDDDD I’M TAKING A SHOT WITH THE VALEDICTORIANNNNNN” — I felt like a circus act, like me being there was more amusing to people as opposed to them actually enjoying spending time with me, and I hated people calling me that because no one would even know until the last couple weeks before graduation who the valedictorian was going to be. I secretly hoped it wouldn’t be me. I didn’t want it — I didn’t want all these people’s assumptions about me to be right, I didn’t want to make a speech in front of a group of people I mostly felt indifferent if not negative toward, — and I also didn’t think I deserved it. There were people who cared way more about school than I did and worked really hard for their grades. I wanted one of them to get it. It would mean something really special to them, while it would only be a source of discomfort for me. But, because of the weighting of honors and AP courses, it did turn out to be me. I may have been the first valedictorian in history that contemplated asking their guidance counselor if they could just give the title to someone else.
When I got to college, I felt like I had finally found a place where I could be myself. Here was a place where you were SUPPOSED to party hard and study equally hard. The harder you partied, and the better grades you simultaneously got, the more you were respected. I thrived in this environment. But the sense of belonging started to wane in my final couple of years. I had joined a sorority as a freshman — something I have really mixed feelings about; I can’t say I regret it because I met some great people that way, but I’m definitely ambivalent toward it. But as I got into my last year or two of school, I started to feel embarrassed to tell certain people I was part of it because I felt there was judgement associated with it. Like you couldn’t be smart and capable AND in a sorority (this is so far from the truth, but it’s how some people feel). Similarly, I clashed with the sorority at times for developing outside interests. When I got back from studying abroad in 2009 and then interning abroad in 2010, I felt like the whole world had opened up to me. I joined new organizations on campus, and I often felt like my new set of interests didn’t align with the sorority. They supported us being ourselves, but only if we still prioritized them first. And when I could no longer do that, when I no longer wanted to do that, it presented a challenge. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to be worldly and a “sorority girl.”
Admittedly, some of these hang-ups may have been in my head. I may have been over-thinking things, and just not had a strong enough sense of self at those points in my life to own my multifaceted personality. Toward the end of senior year of high school, I became good friends with someone I had kind of known previously but had never been close with. At one point I remember him saying, “I never thought someone as popular as you would want to be friends with me.” I was SHOCKED. Popular?! I felt like I had maybe four close friends and everyone else just tolerated me for my friends’ sake or for amusement. It was a reminder that the way we perceive ourselves is not always the way other people perceive us. But not all of these things came from my own mind. We as a society do impose the idea of “types” on people. You can be this, or that; you can like this one thing, but not this other thing at the same time.
I see this happening all the time with the kids I work with. Recently, a group of kids was painting a mural. There was one boy who clearly had better control of the brush and just an overall better idea of how to paint than some of his classmates. I told him he was doing a good job and asked him if he ever did art in his free time. He responded, “No, I play football.” I was taken aback. “You…you can do both!” was all I could stammer out, before going and getting a male employee to try to talk some sense into him, hoping it would get through to him better if it came from a man. Why did he feel that art and sports were mutually exclusive? It could be media, it could be peers…but it could very well be adults. I think that we do this to kids (and each other) at times — pigeonhole people into a certain thing, whether we mean to or not.
As I got older, the idea that people wouldn’t accept me as a multidimensional person gradually faded, but it would occasionally re-emerge in unexpected ways. Having a natural talent for school, I probably could have studied just about anything and been successful in almost any professional field, but I chose to go into a human services field. I would occasionally get hints from people, even people very close to me, that I should be doing something else — something where I would make more money, something where my skills would be put to “better” use. Early on in my career, this idea really got to me. I said out loud to a few people that at times I felt like I was “wasting my intelligence,” which looking back was such a ridiculous way to feel especially since I loved my line of work. Plus, what is more admirable than a person taking their skills and using them to try to make their community a better place? Over time, I’ve learned to be proud of my career, but for awhile I definitely felt the “You can’t be smart AND intentionally work in a low-paying field” message from society — even from close friends.
As technology continues to increase and we live more and more of our lives digitally, I’ve even seen this idea manifest itself in how we interact online. On social media, people treat others like they are only allowed to talk about certain things. If you venture outside of what you are mostly “known for,” on social media, there can be backlash. People who mostly tweet about dating are given a hard time if they mention politics. People who mostly talk about criminal justice reform are ridiculed if they post something personal before mentioning the latest public case of police brutality. I see it on dating apps, too. People’s profiles will say things like, “If you watch the Kardashians, swipe left.” (Granted, I tell people to swipe left if they voted for Trump, but are the Kardashians really as offensive to society as Donald Trump?!) So you are telling me that someone could be the most intelligent, fun, cultured person you’ve ever met, but because they indulge in one guilty pleasure trashy reality show, that’s it? You can’t date them? Personally, I love it when people are able to talk about more than one thing. When someone I follow on social media mostly for politics reveals something personal about themselves, I feel like I know them better, and they seem more “real” to me. When someone I follow mostly to talk about dating mentions something related to current events, I respect them even more. People who only know how to talk about one thing are boring! I think most of us would be bored if everyone we knew were this way, so why do we treat people like they can only be one thing or only talk about one subject or have one interest?
There’s really no logical way to end this, so instead I just want to remind people of something. In case no one has told you recently:
You can be smart and enjoy the occasional trashy reality TV binge.
You can talk openly about sex and also have political opinions.
You can be intelligent and also enjoy drinking your friends under the table.
You can be known as the effusive, bubbly, “party girl,” and still have an interest in science and math.
Whatever you think you are, it is okay to simultaneously be the opposite.
We should all be more aware of how we perceive people and whether we are pigeonholing them into more than one area or stereotyping them based on one interest or skill. People who are one-dimensional are dull. I think Jack Kerouac said it best when he wrote, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing…”
It’s okay to be “desirous of everything at the same time.” In fact, I’d prefer it if you were.