“All people know the same truth.
Our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.”
― Woody Allen, Deconstructing Harry
Two similar experiences from my past are still clear in my mind. I’ve forgotten so many details from my adolescence, and I’m inclined to think that these memories are burned into my brain for a reason.
The first happened in 7th grade. My family had moved to a new state, so I was at a new school. My sister and I were bussed over to the high school in the afternoons to be part of a special gifted program. At the end of the school year, I received two of the academic awards – the kind of awards that I now loathe – as part of the program. The day after the award ceremony, one of the other girls approached me after school as we waited to board the bus. “Wow,” she said. “You actually are smart. I figured your parents somehow got you into the program because you just moved here. I thought you were an airhead.”
Five years later, I stood arguing with an exasperated ex-boyfriend at a party during my senior year of high school. “Jesus, Tamara. You’re not an airhead. How do you always manage to convince people that you are?” Shortly after that, one of the girls I spent much of high school hanging out with came to me with a realization. “YOU are the Valedictorian? I had no idea!” I’m not sure if that says more about her or about me, but neither option is good.
“I used to be a heroin addict.
Now, I’m a methadone addict.”
– Woody Allen, Annie Hall
This year, I’m teaching middle school and high school, and my daughter is in 5th grade. Therefore, this topic has been on my mind quite a bit. When I ponder my own past, I think things really started to change socially in 5th grade. By 6th grade, the dividing lines were clear. Choose your side – the smart kids or the cool kids. Maybe it’s not like that in every school, and maybe some of it is perception. However, I made the wrong choice, and I stuck with that choice for the next six years.
I’m sure most people assume that I made the right choice. I did very well in school, I won lots of awards, I was the Valedictorian of a large graduating class, and I received a prestigious full scholarship to a top college. But, I did all of that while trying to be a cool kid instead of a smart kid. That was my mistake.
One of the teachers at my school tells the kids, “Don’t do dumb stuff.” Don’t do dumb stuff, indeed. It needs to be taken a step further, though. Don’t be dumb, or perhaps, don’t seek to be dumb.
Nick reminds people that your behavior is the result of feedback loops. Tell yourself that something isn’t cool often enough, and you’ll start to believe it. Hell, tell yourself that there is such a thing as cool or not cool and that that distinction matters, and you will start to believe it.
By the time I was in high school, I didn’t think about how awesome it would be to be an astronaut or to get a degree in science. Being smart wasn’t cool. I was good at hiding the fact that I was smart, and I was also good at hiding the things I found fascinating. It didn’t take very long for me to simply stop being interested in those things.
What do I wish for my own children and my students? Don’t be dumb. Don’t be cool.
20 years from now, no one will care if you wore the right shirt or dated the right boy or went to the right party. They will know if you’re dumb, though.
There’s a scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen imagines his childhood classmates talking about who they are today. I think it’s important. As parents and teachers, we often forget that all adults were once children. Look around a classroom of 25 kids. Someone will be a plumber, someone will be an addict, and someone will be into leather. Someone will own a business, someone will be in jail, someone will be dead.
I can’t know where my children and students will be in 20 years, but I know what I hope. I also know that you can make this change as an adult. Whether you are 30 or 60, you can decide to make the right choice.
Don’t be dumb. When it comes to being smart or being cool, choose smart every time.