I Am That Girl Now

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Mini-Me and the two kinds of smart

You guys, you guys, I spent the whole weekend with my unbelievably adorable nephew and nieces, and I have some kind of child-associated endorphin thing going on now. HORMONES, I thought, but the more I think about it, the more it can be associated with two unrelated things:

1) I was some kind of ninja when it came to the kids; I dealt with them brilliantly the whole time and came out of the experience thinking you know, I might turn out to be a really great mom at some point.

2) My darling, darling eight-year-old niece whom I will call Mutie, because she is some kind of mutant of adorable cuteness and morbid fascination with monsters and death, and who has become my instant favorite because OH MY GOD SHE IS TURNING INTO ME.

Nothing against the first part (WHICH WAS GREAT) but the second part, having my own personal mini-me, was awesome and scary. Awesome, because Mutie kept following me around, repeating things I said and imitating my facial expressions. Scary, because it's not just that: it's that we are frighteningly alike.

(Bear with me on this one, because I might come off sounding like I'm extremely full of myself. Really not, I promise; I'm still striving for some normal level of self-esteem.)

My mom, who is a teacher and has been for forty years, says that there are two kinds of smart. There are the kids who have excellent intelligence, but who aren't good at things right away and have to power through that "woe, I'm not good at this!" thing in order to learn. Then there are the kids who just, WHAM, get it immediately, and who have to be brought back through the steps to make sure that they got every detail, because otherwise they tend to think they're done and they might have missed some key element.

I'm in that second camp. So, as it turns out, is Mutie. And until this weekend it never occurred to me that a lot of attitudes I have are associated with that quality.

I mean, yeah, this is great stuff, but since it's a trait that I had since I was born, it really skewed my whole worldview. I always did well in school, I always picked things up quickly and could move on to what I wanted to do, which was typically hiding in the book-nook with a Nancy Drew mystery. I lived in this big bubble of being able to conquer elementary school as easily as breathing; it was a bit of a challenge, but not much, and so-- well, look, when you have no experience of a normal learning curve, you just think that this zero-to-sixty, straight-up-the-wall curve is normal. And when something comes along that isn't the case, that whole worldview goes haywire.

Back in third grade, I was supposed to learn the multiplication tables. Didn't happen, because our teacher that year was having some kind of issue, so our entire class fell behind and never realized it. The fourth-grade teacher figured this out early the next year and ran the kids through multiplication boot camp, but not me; that summer my family had moved across the country and I was in another fourth-grade class, one where everyone else in the class already knew their multiplication tables from third grade. Which, if my parents had known that I'd missed out on that part of math, would have meant some extra work over the summer, but since they didn't know, and I didn't know, the first time I had a math quiz I was shocked to the bone. I failed. I failed spectacularly.

Granted, this wasn't my fault; I hadn't been taught the multiplication tables and had only the vaguest idea what was going on. I was horrified, though. This was my first experience with being at the back of the class, struggling to catch up, and I was so baffled by the experience that all my eight-year-old brain could make of it was that I must be broken. Something was horribly, horribly wrong if I couldn't sail through class and get an A as easily as breathing. I was mortified, embarrassed, ashamed; I hid the grades from my parents and resorted to cheating on the quizzes so that my shame would not be noticed.

It wasn't that it was hard; if I'd had this stuff as part of my normal classroom experience I'm sure it would have gone just as swimmingly as everything else. It never occurred to me for a moment that I needed to admit that I was having trouble and ask for help, because I'd never had to do that before. Even if it had occurred to me, I'm not sure I would have done so, because I was a pretty shy little person and I had trouble talking to the teacher.

As most novice cheaters are, I was busted shortly into my quiz-faking days, and that brought the issue to my parents' attention. Oh boy. I'd been embarrassed before, hiding things as if I was trying to hide the fact that I'd wet my pants in class (which I'd done once in third grade when I was too shy to ask the intimidating substitute if I could go to the bathroom), but when my parents found out that I'd been cheating, my dad went through the roof and I had a brand new experience to go with the original shame: a newly-developed fear of getting caught. Fear of my dad catching me, to be specific.

I can tie so much into that, looking back at it. Nobody recognized the original issue to be what it was: a bright kid bewildered by her first taste of failure, who needed to be taken by the hand, reassured, and led through the stages of how to power through something that I wasn't immediately good at. Probably this was because I was shy; it's tough to notice a problem in a quiet kid. It might have a lot to do with being at a new school, too; nobody knew what to expect out of me, so that first failed quiz didn't ring the alarm bells it should have. Regardless, what happened was that I had quite the negative experience with that first failure, and all my feelings of horror were accidentally re-enforced by the way that my dad freaked out.

Now, my dad is a math teacher, so I ended up getting tutored within an inch of my life and never fell behind in math again: straight As all the way through college. The immediate problem was solved, but I'd learned to associate not-being-good-at-something with fear and embarrassment, and that was a much bigger problem. I hadn't learned to get help when I had a problem: I had learned that if I was having trouble with something, if I couldn't pick up a concept or a knack immediately, I would be yelled at and punished. (Remember, I was eight. I couldn't disassociate the original problem from the problem I'd created by cheating. Smart kid, but still a kid.)

That was when I started hiding things from my parents. When I started procrastinating on things that weren't easy for me-- and sometimes on things that were easy for me, just because it made me nervous for some reason. (Which, when my dad found out about that, was a whole new can of worms. Dad was pretty much on edge from the time I was eight until I was twenty-three.) I recoiled from anything that was hard for me or anything I even thought would be hard for me, as if I'd touched a hot pan and was snatching my hand away from it.

I had learned that I could fail, and at the same time I'd learned to be terrified at the concept of doing it again.

It really didn't help that Dad completely lost his mind over this. I can understand why, in a way; it must have driven him bonkers to see his kid, who he knew was so smart and so capable, dragging her feet in school. He thought I was just being lazy. I got a lot of stern lectures about laziness, about living up to my potential, about how smart I was and how I ought to be getting better grades. Again, the correct message-- if this is hard for you, come talk to me and I'll help you work through it-- never got through. All I heard was that if I was having a problem, I was bad, I was a disappointment, I was going to be punished. That led to me hiding even more stuff from Dad, and lying-- two things that pushed his buttons more than anything else-- and our relationship went completely downhill after that point, not recovering until I was in my late twenties.

I still did well in school. Typically straight As. (The one time I got a B, my dad-- once again-- hit the roof. And, yeah, that was because I got busted on procrastinating again, but see how I remember it?) I was in a special "gifted" program from sixth grade onward, and my GP teacher (I found out last night, when I mentioned this to my parents) told my folks that at some point, I wasn't going to be able to sail through stuff anymore, and she wasn't sure how I was going to handle that. This kind of pisses me off in retrospect, because that did happen, and when it happened it threw me into a major depression, right in high school-- and they were warned. They knew this was going to be a problem. Nobody did a damn thing to help me out, to teach me how to swim before my metaphorical mental town flooded and I started to drown.

I don't blame them, per se, because it's not like either of my parents had any idea how my brain worked; they're both smart people, but they're the first type of smart people, with a learning curve for everything. I baffled them. My sister-- who is the kind of smart that I am, but who is much more outgoing and learned how to ask questions and get help and work hard-- beat me at absolutely everything, just because she could power through that part where she occasionally wasn't good at something right away, and because of that I can chart almost every point in my life where I might have gone on to do something phenomenal if I hadn't been terrified of failure, if I had known how to buckle down and work at things I wasn't immediately good at. School choice: my sister got a full-ride scholarship to a highly ranked college, while I got scared of the pile of applications and went to the state university where I knew the staff in the music department. Auditions: considering my fear of failure, being a vocal music major was probably not the right idea, since a very high percentage of all auditions lead to being in the chorus or outright rejected. Grad school: I made a half-assed attempt to get in, but the process scared me even worse than applying to my undergrad college, AND there were auditions in the process due to the aforementioned vocal music degree. GENIUS.

This, in short, is the answer to why I can't seem to balance achievement with mental health: the only way to achieve is to risk failure, and I am scared shitless of failure. So I'm a very bright person in a mediocre job that isn't really what I want to do with the rest of my life, unable to find a way out, and unable to push myself to finish my damn book and get that published, which has been on the top of my to-do list for the past five years. There is not enough ::headdesk:: in the world for this.

Now, remember, the reason that this all came to mind was my darling little niece Mutie. This is a smart kid the same way I was: quick, picking up the knack for new things with ease, straight As, probably not challenged enough at school. I gave Mutie and her sister spool knitters ("French" knitters, they were called on the box) for an early Christmas present, and Mutie was delighted and happy with hers until she quickly hit a roadblock: she was, in fact, doing it wrong. I started to show her how to do it the right way, and in the middle of this she burst into tears, ran to her room, and burrowed under her pillow. Her parents were completely baffled and thought she was just trolling for attention, or being over-sensitive, or just being weird. I, on the other hand, recognized this immediately and went after her to assure her that it was okay to not be good at it immediately, that she could come back and I'd help her on it, and it would all be okay. That this didn't make her stupid, or a bad person, or wrong; it just meant that she was human on this one thing, and that this was the way that most people learned things; she just usually got to skip this part.

Not sure how much of that filtered through. She's eight, after all. I did sit down with her folks after that, though, explaining the mentality and what she might be thinking, and what she needed at this point. Again, I'm not sure how much of that got through, but I really hope that they got it, because if there's any good to come of living through this myself, it'll be if my niece can get help from it and come out on top. Because that's a bright kid, and if she gets the knack of having to work her way through these things, she'll be unstoppable. If she gets scared, though, the way I do, then she'll end up on the bright-but-lacking-achievement pile of humanity along with her auntie.

Like I said, this really had never occurred to me before, not with anywhere near that much clarity. I knew I was scared of things, I knew I was scared of risk, I knew I recoil from these things instinctively and that I can't seem to shove my way through them to come out the other side, but I never put it together to realize why I react that way. It's kind of floored me.

So here's the thing. I have to learn how to do things that don't come easily for me. I have a vague idea of how this is done-- seek help, get advice, plug along with hard work-- but I kind of wonder if I'm missing something. This is how it's done, right? Is there anything else I should know?


  • Hi Meg ~ it's funny because I just stumbled across your blog for the first time today, but the experience you're describing in this post is EXACTLY me. Down to the cheating at math because it was a little hard and I couldn't face not being immediately good at it. And the parents who flipped out if I got anything below an A-. I'm in grad school now, doing what I want to do (I think, except I really wanted to be an artist but thought I wasn't good enough ... typically) - but I still procrastinate all the time, even though I've realized that this is the problem. I don't have any real advice, except if you've lost half of your weight, then you must have gotten good at doing something v. hard - so you should look back at the hard work THAT took, and tell yourself that you can [publish your book, etc] too. :) Oh, and - I'm so glad you talked to your niece & her parents. I'm sure she'll have an easier time with things because of it!

    By Blogger Anna, at 3:50 PM  

  • Hi Meg,
    I can relate too. I'm 33 and a first year medical student. It took me a looong time to get my act together and put myself out there. I never even took a science class until I was 26 because of fear of failure. I'm in school with all these fearless 20 somethings. They all seem so optimistic and I keep... worrying. That part you wrote about not asking for help made a lot of sense to me. I'm trying to get better at that but it's something I suck at.

    By Anonymous Orb, at 4:20 PM  

  • I must agree! This is completely my problem, too. I also read about learned helplessness - where interferring parents can make it harder because they don't encourage you to puzzle things out on your own. As I got older and complained to my parents, they asked what they should have done and I said, let me fail and learn on my own, while being supportive. It has affected SO much of my life. Great that you have recognized it and can hopefully pass along some hard earned knowledge to your niece.

    By Blogger Eve, at 10:29 PM  

  • wow Meg. Thanks for sharing this. I can totally see myself in your reflection. I didn't realize or make the connection that my fear of failure is tied in with my learning ability. I've always said that most things come so easy to me that I don't have proper skills to dig in and really learn the things that don't come easily. I think it's time to cut myself some slack and be a bit more gentle with myself when I don't know how to do something.

    Thanks for sharing. Your niece is a lucky girl to have you in her life.


    By Anonymous Sybil, at 11:55 AM  

  • It feels to me like you're attributing cause and effect when there may be only correlation. People who are slow at all things can also have a hard time with it and never reach the other side of understanding the learning curve.

    Learning patience and discipline is hard! Learning when something requires too much patience and discipline is also hard! There's a lot to be said for focussing on your innate strengths, since all of us have things that we understand very quickly.

    By Blogger Roo, at 7:51 AM  

  • You know my son is in that second camp. for this reason he often has to be slowed down to keep from rushing through something. I am in the first camp. its a frustrating thing.

    By Anonymous A Public Diet, at 8:53 PM  

  • ooh - as a teacher i am getting ya! for sure! and hasn;t school changed coz now every kid has an individual plan so you wouldn't have been behind at all!

    just came upon your blog - but will be back for sure!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:31 AM  

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