I was a smart kid. I have always been driven. I got impeccable grades in school. I was a National Merit Scholar and had a full academic scholarship to college. I got a Fulbright Scholarship for graduate school. I was second in my law school class. Like I said, driven. A know it all.
I just threw my daughter Violet’s fifth birthday party. We held it at the Audubon Center in Glastonbury (which is a tremendous venue for kid parties by the way, I highly recommend). They did a live animal demonstration complete with feeding their resident barred owl, Cookie, some mice. The teacher gathered the kids around on carpet squares in a circle and asked lots of questions:
- Do you know why turtles have shells?;
- Why do you think a corn snake is called a corn snake?;
- Do rabbits really eat carrots?
I watched my daughter with her arm raised high, waving it in the air frantically, just like Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, trying to be picked to answer every question. A law school friend of mine came up to me and whispered in my ear, “She’s just like you.” And I laughed because she was right. And then I immediately felt bad about myself. Because being the smart girl with her hand raised all the time was a really hard path. I was bullied in school (elementary school through law school) for it. A lot. Constantly beaten down by my peers. And I have been bullied at various jobs for it. And I asked myself, do I want this for my girl? I’m really not sure. I’m just not.
I went to a stereotypical high school in the Midwest with social cliques reminiscent of the Breakfast Club. Football and cheerleading were very important. Academics were not. I was the introverted artist who always carried a book. I was not accepted. I ate lunch in the art room with a few close friends. I was removed from my “regular” history class because I ruined the curve for the football players. I realized quickly that I didn’t belong. Primarily because I was too smart. Ironically, I had a hard time fitting in with the kids on the Advanced Placement track because I was placed there mid-stream and most of the kids had been tracked as gifted early in elementary school. I finally found my niche at a summer performing arts school. There I found people who loved The Princess Bride, Jane Austen, and Shakespeare as much as I did. And speaking my mind wasn’t a detriment anymore.
In college, my archaeology professor used to grade exams on a curve where the top grade was automatically a 100 percent. Only, I almost always got a 100 (or sometimes a 99). So there was no curve. I remember one exam, where a very close friend of mine in my program came up to me when we got our graded exams back and said, “Next time, can’t you just stay home?”
In law school, I thought things would be different. Because the people who go to law school are mostly all high-achieving kids. And it was over half women. So they would be my people, right? But then it was all about competition. My law school had a B median. Which essentially means that a B is the equivalent to a C in regular college and a B- is almost failing. And your class ranking is so important. Or it seems like it is. Because we were told that all employers would care about our ranking. Psychologically this competition takes a toll. Some of my classmates felt that there was a benefit to pushing people down to get ahead. I recall sitting at an Irish pub with my “close” circle of friends after our first semester grades came out. I was elated because I was number one in our class. It didn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t share this information with people who I thought were such good friends. One of my friends immediately exclaimed in front of everyone, “That can’t be right, are you sure it wasn’t a mistake?” The pain at this was staggering. There is nothing like being so proud of your achievements and being able to tell no one except your mom.
Various points of my legal career have been punctuated by moments like this. Like the time I was berated by the male managing partner at my large law firm for raising an important IT issue during a client meeting that I hadn’t thought of previously. The clients were pleased. And my boss thanked me at the meeting for raising it. I had no idea that he was angry. After the meeting, I was immediately pulled into his office and told sternly that I should have discussed the issue with him privately after the meeting and let him raise it first the next time we met with the clients. He essentially said that, going forward, I should not speak in meetings until he directly asked for my input. I was stunned. Here I was at a high-powered law firm (with a Women’s empowerment initiative) thinking that I would be rewarded for literally saving the firm’s rear. Instead, as a third year associate, I was criticized for essentially not permitting my boss to take credit for identifying an issue. (I’m fortunate to run my own office now.)
Back to the question of Violet. I want her to be the smart girl. Heck, it looks like she is going to be the smart girl whether I like it or not. But I don’t know how to adequately prepare her for the reality of that path. Right now she is blissfully unaware that it is not socially acceptable to wave your hand in the air from the front row to answer every question. Pretty soon people will be rolling their eyes or otherwise acting in such a way to put her down for her brain. But pretending to be someone she is not is simply not a valid alternative. I certainly don’t want her to be discouraged from answering a question if she knows the answer or from doing well in school.
I was recently reading the book Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown. It is a beautiful book about the quest for belonging or really about how belonging shouldn’t be our end game. In it, she quotes Maya Angelou as saying: “You are only free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.” Perhaps that is destination I should be teaching my daughter. Instead of the quest to fit in, about how to transcend that imperative. I think it’s a worthy goal. I have, in my own journey, come to realize that other people’s expectations are simply not that important. What is important is that I meet my own. I fear, however, because societal pressures are what they are, I cannot immunize her from the drive to belong. Heck, it took 39 years for me to get to this better place myself. Maybe it’s a crappy, unavoidable reality of growing up. But I do hope I can soften her childhood. Give her someone who unabashedly praises her intelligence and accomplishments. It’s not easy being the smart girl.