Stupid as a noun

staff note

Intelligence is not everything. It is the only thing.

The ideal daughter seems to oscillate wildly between stunning beauty and precocious intellectual, arbitrarily flopping from one aspirational extreme to the other according to societal pressures. If she cannot be beautiful, then let her be smart — and make her brilliant. It is increasingly impossible to lead a mediocre existence in a world so staunchly competitive that infants have to audition for preschool and are placed into foreign language courses before they can sit up. An IQ must be above-average, a test score stellar and an ability exceptional or else there is nothing but a bauble-headed daughter trapped in the well of shame that is the center of a bell curve. 

I initially lived on those coveted outskirts, two or even three standard deviations from the mean. Under the impression that beauty was a shallow artifice and brains were the metric by which personal value was determined, I had to stake my claim in that region of brilliance and predicate my entire identity and self-worth on the notion that my strength was intelligence. True to form, I read constantly, took piano lessons and smilingly proclaimed that I loved school, devoting myself to emulating intelligence. I was a smart cookie doomed to crumble, held loosely together by standardized test scores and a precarious self-fulfilling prophecy fueled by parents and teachers.

When I started performing poorly on math tests in elementary school, a massive tectonic shift fissured my tenuous self-confidence. The whispered conversations and furrowed brows informed me that these scores weren’t just unacceptable, they were antithetical to my very identity. You can do better than this. I couldn’t see where the bar resided, but I knew that I had failed to meet it, and this shortcoming haunted me. A bad grade was a glaring absence, an abscessed cavity where I — the me that everyone seemed to know — should have been. Nobody likes what they can’t see.

This constant pursuit of the bar simultaneously motivated and demoralized me, shredding my self-perception into messy, unloveable ribbons. I studied not to do well, but to prove to the world that I had earned the privilege of existing. If she cannot be beautiful, if she cannot excel at sports, if she cannot lead, then let her be smart — and make her brilliant. Any trait that did not instantly confer brilliance was deemed a shameful hindrance by my brain, especially my tendency to think in haphazard circles rather than clean straight lines. Instead of recognizing my mind’s uniqueness and harnessing its creative cognition, I strangled it back into a conformity that it could not sustain. 

I saw getting into Duke as the apogee of my intellectual achievement, a concrete accomplishment that I could cite in my unending defense of my brilliance. Smart people went to Duke, which was the superficial ego-fluff that I so badly needed after years of beating my brain into submission and performing for an imaginary audience on the daily. Correlation, however, doesn’t equal causation, and I soon realized upon arriving on campus that I was not smart. At least, not in the way that I had so slavishly envisioned. 

Most of my coursework did not come easily to me; my brain floundered without a stable, structured routine. I failed to perceive the gestalt’s governing subjects while everyone else saw and generated theoretical underpinnings as if they had a conceptual second sight. Without the anchor of intellect, my sense of myself completely dissipated until all that remained was a faceless shell dropped directly on the mean. The death of my former self was finally pronounced one day in an intermediate Spanish course when a fellow classmate looked me directly in the eyes after listening to me struggle through a badly-translated sentence and asked “are you stupid?”

Institutions like Duke posture as if they appreciate and admire every asset that students bring to the table, but at their core, they champion intelligence above all. Newsletters tout academic achievements and merit scholarships and faculty suggest that “grades aren’t everything” before sorting their students by midterm scores. People are judged not by the presence or absence of brilliance, but by how much more brilliant they are than the rest of the lecture hall. 

As my Duke career draws to a close, I still do not know where the bar is or the answer to my classmate’s question. Am I stupid? Is the lack of brilliance stupidity? When I reflect on my college accomplishments, I inevitably try to sum them up and quantify my worth, clinging to the deep-seated idea that I am smart. The truth is that I am Sydny. My identity is not a collection of standard deviations or a single monolithic trait as nebulous and badly understood as intelligence. Are you stupid? No, I am Sydny. A mosaic of losses and triumphs, lustrous in the correct lighting and compelling to those who linger and see my vibrant entirety. If she cannot be beautiful, then she is still Sydny. If she cannot be smart, then she is still Sydny. If she cannot be anything, then she is still Sydny.


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