On Being a Smart Girl

Hello. My name is Ashley and I blog at Writing To Reach You. When I asked the internet for opportunities to guest blog, Erini kindly offered me some space here and suggested that I address the general theme of her blog, which is being true to yourself and owning up to your nerdiness. Something strange about me is that despite how much I scream nerd (I’m a glasses-wearing, book-loving introvert employed by a library and working on a PhD), I have never actually identified as one. Maybe because I live in a big nerdy world where none of this makes me all that unique. But on the topic of being true to yourself, I have been thinking about my identity as a smart girl and how I took my time growing into it.

I know a lot of smart girls. My mom is a smart girl. My best friend is a smart girl. Almost all of my friends now are smart girls. And the thing that makes me different from them is that they have always been smart girls. They did well in school from the beginning. It came easily to them. Their insecurities never had much to do with intelligence, and if they did, then it was about how to fit in when you’re known for being smart.

I always gravitated toward these girls. Or, we found each other somehow. They were my friends. But I was not a smart girl. My friends were pulled out of class in first grade for advanced reading, and I was pulled out for remedial reading. I didn’t quite have a sense of this difference at the time, but I didn’t think of myself as smart. Later, I came to think of myself as stupid, because what was easy for my friends was not easy for me. I was very insecure about it and always felt like I was faking being smart just to keep up.

My talents were not obvious to me, and they were slow to develop. It wasn’t until middle school when I discovered a thing called discipline that I began to succeed in school. Maybe it didn’t come easily to me, but if I worked hard, then I did well. And it’s amazing how quickly that changed the way my peers looked at me. I immediately became the smart girl in class. But the way I felt about myself hadn’t changed at all. I still felt like I was faking it. I considered my success to be a fluke. There was a real divide between how other people saw me and how I saw myself, and in that space I felt very inauthentic.

This continued through high school, even when I was doing well in all honors, college prep, and AP classes. I expected a lot of myself, but I didn’t let those successes give me confidence. I had an English teacher my junior and senior years who saw this in me. When she signed my yearbook before graduation, she wrote, “You really are as talented of a writer as I’ve always said.” Looking back, I notice this strange thing I did in high school where I worked hard, but I always seemed to hold myself back from really doing my best. I’m sure it was partly laziness, but I think I also had a fear of success coupled with a fear of failure, and I wanted the safety net of saying, “I could have done better.” I was scared to do my best and have that not be good enough.

I was in college before any of this began to change. It was there that I discovered things that I loved to study, and my motivation shifted from simple ambition for good grades to a genuine desire to pursue subjects that interested me. I started realizing that though I could do well with straightforward learning, what I was really best at was something more creative. I learned a lot about writing, so it stopped being this mysterious thing I did well and became something I did with intention. I became comfortable with my own style, I used semicolons with confidence, and I started turning in papers I knew were good and didn’t just hope lived up to what I had done before.

Late in college, I took a class on literacy, and our final paper required that we interview someone. I interviewed my mom, and asked her about learning to read and write, and what that meant to her growing up. She was sometimes teased for being smart, but she said that even though that was difficult, she could never bring herself to be one of those girls who plays dumb just to fit in. She knew some of the girls in her class did that and she was critical of them for it. This was astounding to me, because it had never even crossed my mind that someone might downplay their intelligence. At that point I felt like I had spent my entire life trying to do the exact opposite.

At every point in school, I thought, “Well, this is where it will be revealed that I’m actually not that smart.” But I graduated from college, and then I went to grad school, and in grad school I battled feelings of academic inadequacy while still doing very well, and then when I graduated with an MA and started a PhD, I thought, “Are you really going to continue to be the girl who thinks she doesn’t belong here when she obviously does?” Yes, is the answer. Then I completed PhD coursework, looked at my transcripts and saw that the lowest grade was an A-. That’s when I decided I was done telling myself lies. I was done believing this stupid impostor complex.

That was only a year ago, and of course I have been growing into this identity for a long time, but that was the point where I finally acknowledged it. Sometimes I regret the years I spent so full of insecurity, but in talking with the smart girls in my life, I realize that while I was looking at them thinking they had it so easy, they were dealing with all of their own problems. And having taken all my sweet time getting here, I now have this confidence where I don’t find it necessary to prove to people that I am smart or that I deserve to be here. I don’t feel defensive about my identity as a smart girl. Sometimes I feel the pressure that this means I should be smart all the time, but having people witness you throwing up in a potted plant after too much alcohol will cure you of that pretty quickly.

We all take different paths to learning to be true to ourselves. For me, it had very little to do with what anyone else thought of me and everything to do with how I thought of myself. I had to stop believing lies. I had to give up on perfection. I had to stop justifying insecurity by calling it humility. I had to learn to value emotional intelligence. Giving up on all of these battles with myself has made it possible for me to focus on what I really want in life.