The Shame in Pride

Most of us were adults, going back to school to change careers or to get the college degree we never got when we were younger. You could tell which ones were recent high school graduates. They slouched in their chairs, put their feet on the desk, and wore earbuds throughout the class, only asking questions after they failed the tests. The older classmates leaned forward in our seats, asked questions, and took notes.

I met my tablemate, Amanda, in Algebra I. She took detailed, color-coded notes that she took home to rewrite after class. I relied on the Power Point printouts and my ability to decode my scribbles in the margins.

Before class began each day, the instructor handed out warm-up worksheets. Amanda and I finished before everyone else and helped the other students solve the tougher equations after they leaned in to ask us for help.

We dominated that class. Amanda finished at the top of the class and I came in second, even though we were both equally unsure of our abilities to relearn high school math.

We signed up together for an Algebra II class the next semester. More formulas to memorize. Number lines and graphs and all that silliness. Our instructor wasn’t as experienced or as invested as our Algebra I professor. We also made the mistake of signing up for a short semester. But we did it, anyway, and we shamefully rocked it.

Why the shame?

“When you’re a girl, you never let on that you are proud, or that you know you’re better at history, or biology, or French than the girl who sits beside you… you put yourself down whenever you can so that people won’t feel threatened by you, so they’ll like you, because you wouldn’t want them to know that in your heart, you are proud…” — The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

We acted like we couldn’t do it. And when we finished first and second in that class, too, we blamed it on luck. We met every test with sighs and grumbles. “This looks really hard! I don’t think I can pass.”

Did we do it to fit in or did we really have such deep black holes in our individual self-confidences?

One test, in particular, presented a huge challenge. The instructor knew it would be difficult, so she told us in advance that she’d grade it on a curve if no one got 100.

I bit my nails as we waited for the instructor to pass out our graded tests. Amanda jiggled her leg up and down and click-click-clicked her pen. “I don’t think I did very well. I doubt I even passed,” she whispered. “How about you?”

“I don’t think so,” I sighed.

When we got our tests back, a collective groan filled the room. Amanda glanced at her paper, and then her face turned red. She quickly flipped the test over on the table so no one could see the big red percentage. Mine was 65%. I felt sick. I had to retake the test along with almost everyone else in the class.

The instructor said, “I couldn’t grade it on a curve because someone got 100.”
I looked to my right, at the shamefaced woman sitting next to me.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, as she sunk into her chair, trying to make herself small.

“Are you kidding?! You should be proud of yourself! That was a hard test!”

“I think I just got lucky,” she said.

She finished the class with 99%. But, the whole time she acted like she was positively brain dead when it came to math.

Why? Is it so bad to be proud of yourself, to give yourself some credit for being smart? Why must we, women in particular, always feel the need to downplay our intelligence and resulting achievements?

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One day at the library my four-year-old daughter overheard a group of kids grumbling about books. “I don’t want to pick any books! I hate books, and I hate reading!” they screamed.

My daughter looked up from the book in her lap, and for a minute I could see a wave of shame and confusion wash over her face. I could almost hear the thoughts racing through her head. Then, she loudly proclaimed, “Well, I love books, and I love reading!”

I was proud because, at least for now, she has confidence. She knows what she likes, and she also knows that she’s intelligent and that it’s okay to be smart. I’m sure when she gets into school, her self-esteem will be taken down a few notches. But I hope that she holds onto that pride, not in a boastful way, but in a capable way. I also hope that she never reaches a point like Amanda did where she feels the need to be ashamed of her accomplishments.

There’s nothing wrong with being confident, ladies. But there is something wrong with feeling like we have to continually degrade ourselves and feel shame in the face of our accomplishments, just so we can fit in. I want my daughter to know that it’s okay to be smart and it’s okay for her to be proud of herself.