Thursday, November 08, 2012

Written for a memoir-writing class… TURNING POINT in my life… I went to a small high school in New Jersey, so small that there were only 90 students in my graduating class. A girl who attended the Bronx High School of Science transferred to my school. She had ranked 300 out of 600 at Bronx Science. At my school, Memorial, she came in first. Valedictorian. That’s how much behind Bronx Science my own high school was. When I entered Columbia College, I was determined to prove that I was smart. That would raise my very low self-esteem. So I studied like mad. I memorized and memorized. I didn’t even live on campus; I commuted from New Jersey. Those students from Bronx High, Stuyvesent, Erasmus, and other famous New York schools were so different from me! I once read a French novel in which a young student marveled that some of her clever fellow students actually had “opinions”! I knew what she meant. When I read Aristotle, I memorized his laws. (Remember that name: Aristotle.)The other students talked about the significance of those laws. My God, they actually THOUGHT about things. I had won a chemistry award in high school. So I thought I would be skipped to an advanced chemistry class. I took a Columbia chemistry test. Hard as hell. Some Bronx Sci students were skipped to an advanced class; I wasn’t. Working my head off, I got adequate grades. OK, good grades. B plus. Naturally, I took easy courses. Which, for me, were languages. German, French. One class, for advanced students in ancient literature, I wasn’t doing well in. I think I got a C+ on one paper. So I dropped the course. And then there was my French class. It was the day before the all-important mid-term examination. So I finally did something clever. We had finished going over half the French textbook. The night before the test, I read through the entire French textbook. I memorized all of the new words. Two weeks later, the results of the French test came out. A national test. I had gotten an A plus. Thanks to that amazing A plus, my average went from B plus to A. I made the dean’s list. I was tickled pink. Of course, the only reason I got an A average was that I had studied so hard. It didn’t prove that I was smart…. So even my wonderful grades didn’t raise my low self-esteem. Now, when I was a junior I happened to meet a Columbia freshman who came from my very own high school. He was bemoaning how all those New York City students were so much better informed than he was. And he felt that he couldn’t compete with them—he was so far behind. “You know,” he said, in an unforgettable statement, that “when I came to Columbia, I had never even heard of ARIStotle!” I didn’t correct his pronunciation. I just said, reassuringly, “You’ll catch up. I did.” OK, how did this change my life? Well, I was disgusted to realize that even good grades in college didn’t persuade me that I wasn’t a complete jerk. But I thought about it. And it finally dawned on me that I didn’t particularly LIKE smart, quick-witted, well-informed people, bursting with confidence. Many of them were cynical, arrogant, competitive & nasty. (Oh, and brutish and short.) I liked warm, down-to-earth, friendly people. Conscientious people. Whether they were smart or not. And when THAT dawned on me, it also dawned on me…that I was smart enough.

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