Too smart for your own good.
That’s always what I heard growing up.
“Amanda Jane, you are too smart for your own good.”
Whenever I challenged my mother on anything. When I argued my positions against my peers with a little too much passion. Whenever I spent too much time focusing on how to get out of things instead of doing them as told. I was too smart. But was I?
Growing up, the school zoning system placed me in a rundown, violence-ridden elementary school. My mom began a battle with the school system and managed to get special permissions to place me in a better school. I did well, surpassing my reading level and even receiving a perfect score on my math SOL in third grade. I was confident and made perfect grades. The school extended the offer to skip a grade, but I was a bit inept when it came to child social life so I withheld. We got a new, beautiful building during my fourth grade and I loved to learn there. In no time, learning became one of my passions, and I became determined to do well in school forever. I never acted out, and when I did, I accepted punishment with as solemn of a face as a child can make. School was my life, and I did it well.
Middle school hit and again, they assigned me to a decrepit and violent school. My mother worked again to reassign me, and I began school at the only accredited middle school in the area. It happened to have a Magnet program, and they accepted me into it without hesitation. I carried this momentum into my next school years. But I started to lose my momentum. I encountered the first teacher that didn’t want to see me succeed. I began to struggle with math. I started skipping homework assignments. I did not see a lot of it, but the fights I witnessed in shared spaces made me nervous to go to lunch. My middle school was falling apart, and the teachers couldn’t care less. The building closed two years after I started there, which is when I learned the meaning of the word “asbestos.” I found myself with no accredited schools left to attend in my area. I lost a cousin to suicide the previous year, and it had serious mental health consequences. Now I was losing my friends, too.
My mom was again forced to make a decision to make my education work for me, or pick up our family and move. We looked into private schools, put in the two applications, and did the interviews. I remember applying to a school that featured special courses taught virtually by experts, pizza delivered on Fridays, and state of the art athletics. I hated athletics, but this school made me look forward to trying out everything until I found a good fit. The building gleamed, so bright that it put the new building from my elementary years to shame. I thought I was smart enough and capable enough of becoming their newest student. I didn’t hesitate to accept this new school as my own. They rejected me. I remember feeling crushed, like my new school that I was accepted to was so subpar in comparison. It was a school that cost over $10,000 a year. My mom’s partner had to quit her start-up business to take a normal job that would afford it. But as a twelve year old rejected from her dream school, I could only muster up begrudging acceptance.
Looking back, I’m quite grateful that my desired school rejected me. I started my eighth grade year in a nice building, free of asbestos and children decked out in red and blue. My mom thought removing me from gang activity and destitute poverty might give me a chance to improve. No one prepared me for what was ahead. I became the poorest of four new kids in a class of 80 others who grew up together for the last ten years. Fitting in was a struggle that would plague me for years.
I became the target of constant gossip at my expense for always having less. For always being lesser. My economic class was a huge disparity between myself and my classmates. I never had the best clothes, or the newest textbooks, or the newest phone. I never fit in with the kids that grew up in the same neighborhoods, had the same babysitters, and shopped in the same stores from K through 12.
Suddenly, my issue with school became a social one instead of a result of my school’s location. I withdrew, held onto what friendships I could make, and tried to make my way through high school. I struggled, but I got help when I could. I connected with teachers. I stayed after school. I got extra tutoring. But with that came rumors that I participated in lewd acts with any (or all) of my male teachers. It happened many times throughout my four years and it broke my heart every time. I never felt like I could truly connect with my educators without jeopardizing their reputations, and what little one I held.
I graduated in spite of this with a 3.7, set on course for the track I’d carved for myself through this bullshit. I had slaved over my grades, often falling into depression when I wasn’t quite where I wanted to be. I developed anxiety during tenth grade. I learned what hyperventilation feels like, and how to control it with breathing exercises. I stopped eating to feel like I had some control over my life. I took this all with me to college, holding onto the hopes that achieving my dreams would make it worth it. My college of choice accepted me, and I did well in the classes I took for my major. I kept doing everything expected of me for school . I experienced living on campus for two years until I got an apartment with my high school sweetheart. I joined clubs. I got a part time job at the mall. I had a goal to achieve my bachelor’s, which I expected after the effort spent. I had a goal to achieve post-secondary degrees, to be the first woman in my family to do so. I wanted to be the first one to hold a doctorate and make six figures. It was going to be worth it. All the struggling was going to pay off.
My junior year of college, I had my first mental breakdown. I’ll spare you the gory details in this particular post, but it wasn’t pretty. What followed after was a rapid decline in my grades followed by my resignation from college. I attempted online courses afterwards, just to leave that school too. Every move I made was a result of trying to handle my impeding sentence of student debt. Everything I went through felt worthless. It’s been three years since that day and I’m just now in a place where I feel like I can tackle my education again.
You see, my entire education had begun to be dependent on achieving what others wanted of me. After a decade and some change of this, I couldn’t take it anymore. I finally realized that I was not the cookie cutter student that I was forced to be. I buckled under the stress of trying to meet others’ expectations, and the disappointing conclusion that I wouldn’t meet them.
My education focused less on what I needed to know to succeed as an individual. Instead, it became about what I needed to do for everyone else to see me as successful. I met all the targets as a child — I did my homework, I asked the right questions, and I loved to read. When middle school hit, people expected me to do those things while somehow learning the curveball of dealing with hateful peers. I started to dress how they liked, talk how they liked, and learn how they liked. High school was a disaster for me , as I tried to meet the expectations of my peers without exceeding them. Trying to meet the expectations of my parents without disappointing them again. Trying to be the first woman to bring real pride and success to my family. And college, well. That’s when I was forced to meet the expectations of the world or fail.
My previous years in school did nothing to prepare me for the real world. I struggled to be the perfect student, dorm resident, friend, roommate, and employee. And in struggling to be what everyone wanted, I lost track of what was important. You know what I’m going to say. I lost track of doing what made me happy, just because it made me happy.
It’s been three years since I left college. I have watched my classmates graduate and move on to pursue their Master’s degrees. I’ve watched my old friends get entry-level positions and promotions. But I also watched people that started off with a “less privileged” advantage than me end up in the same place.
I have seen my peers succeed in ways I could only dream of. But I saw a lot of them fail too. I spent my entire school career trying to Keep Up With The Joneses only to watch them crash and burn as miserably as I did. But I’ve also seen people who did not receive the same opportunities pull themselves up to where I am and consider it a success.
I’ll never know why I was the kind of person to learn in a different way than my corporate-minded peers. I won’t know what influences here caused me to be the writer and not the mathematician. I received a lot of opportunities that some would only dream of just to end up among them as a coworker or classmate.
The education system gave me the opportunity to learn from a large variety of a lot of subjects. But what the education system taught me best was this: when you’re denied the opportunities that others so easily receive, try not to fret. If you don’t get into that school, or if you’re kicked out of the other, the world isn’t over. Those that receive it may not get much further than you. And their achievements and failures are not your own. What matters is your own path, and achieving the goals that you set for yourself. Success isn’t measured in doing what others set out for you to do; it’s achieving what you decide to do for yourself. And learning that cost more than my college tuition.