Intelligence is a tricky thing. Some might say I have it. They would probably determine this based on evidence such as my ivy league doctorate. And if enough people give you admiration and respect for being a smart person, you might actually start to believe it. But I didn't always think of myself as a "smart" person. In fact, I spent many many years thinking I was stupider than most other people around me. Mostly because I can't speak Hebrew.
I'm bad at languages. I'm pretty good at some other stuff- I'm great at math, and I always did really well in english class too. In fact, I did pretty well in all my "secular" classes in school. But from a very early age, knowing the hebrew language matters a LOT in Jewish school, and I was never good at it.
I don't remember all of elementary school, but I remember spending a lot of time in the "resource room" AKA the special ed room. I got put there because I was bad at Hebrew, and was therefore doing terribly in my jewish studies classes. So I spent pretty much all of elementary school thinking of myself as belonging in the resource room classes, and therefore as a not-too-smart person.
In 7th grade my parents switched us to a different school cause the first school tried to argue that my little brother was autistic, and my parents decided they didn't like that. In the new school I got put in the 'stupid' track again after horribly failing a chumash exam [This was not the lowest of the 3 regular tracks, but a completely separate track that had a class size a third of the size of the other tracks and met in a special classroom area]. I still did fairly well in my secular classes, but being in the 'slow' track for half the day made me think of myself as a stupid person.
In middle school though I got some hints that I wasn't as stupid as I thought of myself. In 7th grade I took an IQ test, and the test showed that I had a 146 IQ, and my parents decided to send me and my brother (whose IQ was a few points higher than that) to a "genius" (non-jewish) camp in our neighborhood for the summer between 7th and 8th grade. The camp had academic type classes in the morning and sports in the afternoon So I spent a summer hanging out with geeky genius people and thinking of myself as pretty smart. That was nice. :)
So around 8th grade I started feeling really good about my intelligence level. Then I went to high school and again got stuck in all the lowest tracks for hebrew classes. I think I was the only person in my grade who was in the lowest track for hebrew studies and the highest track for secular studies, and for 2 years they arranged the schedule so that the higher and lower secular tracks were on completely different schedules- for those 2 years I just took all my classes at the lower track level.
Then we took the PSATs and I got a 1520, and tied for the highest score in the school. I was a semi-finalist for a merit scholarship and the principle started bragging about my PSAT score to parents of potential students and announced my score to everyone during the morning assembly after davening.
And then I nearly flunked out of high school because I failed three (hebrew studies) finals in my senior year. My school refused to give me a diploma until I retook 3 finals the summer after I was supposed to graduate.
By the time I got to college I no longer thought of myself as being of below average intelligence, but I didn't really think of myself as anything special. But I found that once I was able to CHOOSE the classes I wanted to take, and especially once I discovered sociology, that studying for class was actually enjoyable. I started to really like school. And because college was actually challenging (unlike high school, which was mostly boring) I started to study/work really hard, because I wasn't sure I could skate by the way I dd in most of my secular courses in high school. And then my first semester, once I had started putting in a serious effort, I shocked myself by getting straight As in all my classes and landing on the deans list.
After that, it's like my opinion of myself completely changed, and it because a self fulfilling prophecy. I got straight As throughout all of college, entered the college honors program, applied to grad school and got into 8 out of 9 schools I applied to (everywhere but Harvard, those bastards, although even there I made the short list). I really shone in college.
My parents seemed very surprised when I got into all those grad schools. I guess after all those years of me being in the stupid track, they didn't realize that I might be good at some stuff too. In fact my dad outright said to my face when I got into grad school "I thought your brother was the smart one." (He never failed all his hebrew classes the way I did).
Of course in grad school I was back to being 'average' again, since grad school is full of brilliant people and it's impossible to out-brilliant them all.
So now what? Well now I'm about to become a professor, and every once in a while I get the sinking feeling in my stomach that no, I can't really do this. I'm not really a smart person- I was in the freaking resource room for goodness sakes, I can't teach college students, let alone GRAD students!! I have some ideas that I think are innovative when it comes to teaching the grad class I'm going to be teaching this fall- but what if my ideas are not innovative and they're just STUPID and I'm just too STUPID to realize it?? There is actually a name for these feelings- it's called imposter syndrome and it's especially common among women in academia. Knowing what is it doesn't make my occasional panicky feeling any less panicky though.
I wonder how different my life would have been if being bad at languages only affected one thing- a language class. Would I have thought of myself as a smart person my entire life, and how would that have affected my self esteem, and my friendships? Cause I gotta tell you- thinking you are an idiot and being in the lowest track for everything does a number on you, and I do think that some of the social problems I had as a kid were due to extremely low self esteem on my part.
By social problems I mean I really had no friends until 7th grade, and then my only friend was another person in the "stupid" class until 9th grade when I began to come out of my shell a little more (weirdly enough, that friend made aliyah and is extremely religious now). And I think a large part of that was due to thinking of myself as a stupid person in a culture and family that valued education and intelligence highly, and therefore feeling bad about myself, and that no one would want to be friends with me, which became a self fulfilling prophecy of its own- at least for a while.
Even when I started making friends, it was only with other people who were on the low end of the social scale of the jewish community- the OTDers, the "yeshiva rebels," the kids with behavioral problems, the kids with mental illnesses, the kids who actually did have learning disabilities, the kids who had been kicked out of NCSY, the kids who didn't dress the way everyone else did. We made up a large mishmash of social misfits, and that's where I felt most comfortable. Now don't get me wrong, I am friends with these people to this day, and I love them to death, and as we grow older it becomes more and more apparent they are the most creative, interesting, awesome people around and I am thrilled that I ended up in this crowd. Many of them are now doing fantastically well for themselves, and I'm not the only one from that crowd with an ivy league PhD in an unusual subject.
But I wonder how things would have been if I had gone to public school instead of Jewish school, and hadn't been branded as 'special ed' would I have hung out with a different kind of crowd or would I still have been one of the 'freaks?' Would I have ended up being one of those people who got married right after high school and never had a career? Would I have dared to do something as different as becoming a Sociology professor? Would I have even gone OTD- as it was my association with this particular crowd that first opened up that possibility as being a possibility?
Reading over this post, I wonder how much of my failure in regards to Hebrew language/Jewish studies courses has to do with the fact that I have absolutely no interest in the subject matter. And if thinking I'm "Bad" at languages is a remnant of those years. Cause when I'm interested in something, I will study the hell out of it, and spend hours looking up stuff online, and (in one case) get a freakin phd in the topic. If I cared about jewish studies I probably would have actually studied once in a while, in which case I might not have ended up in the highest track, but might not have been in the lowest track either. But because I had no interest in the topic, I didn't even bother- most of the reason I was failing all my jewish studies courses was from not handing in assignments and not studying for exams.
In fact, due to the juxtaposition of my publicly announced PSAT scores + being in the lowest track in school, my high school yearbook says that my future career will be a "counselor for underachievers." I sure showed them. :)