Sunday, July 18, 2010

I am so smart! S-M-R-T!

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. :)


  1. I never had any problems with Hebrew language in school, but I was terrible at Talmud, a no-no for adolescent boys in your typical NY area boys' yeshiva. So I always felt I was stupid as well. The yeshiva system is designed, albeit unintentionally, to play havoc with kids' self esteem. And in any case, who could excel when I would get up at 6:15 am to go to minyan at school and get home at 6:45 pm after school and ONLY then be expected to start my homework!?

    Massively screwed up system.

  2. Most people have some area where they are weak and that leads to "imposter" feelings. For me it is mathematics. My math is pretty weak for an economist. I failed the preparatory math course twice in my economics undergrad degree but somehow they let me continue and as I went further my math scores got better. Even teaching intermediate micro-economics hasn't convinced me that I'm probably about as good as the average economist in this area. There are always plenty of people who are much better to compare oneself with.

    It seems I'm fairly good at languages though in high school I mostly felt I was scraping through language classes (French and German). The teaching was terrible though in German. Later I learned Hebrew in Israel (I had very basic Hebrew skills before that) and after that felt I was actually pretty good at picking up languages.

    I was worst at sport in grade school. Very poor grades on my school reports.

  3. I also had big problems trying to learn Hebrew (and never really did) even though I did quite well academically in most other areas. Unlike you, however, I was not in a religious school full time, so it didn't really affect my self-esteem. It must be really tough for those kids who are in a school with a limited secular curriculum.
    I think different parts of the brain must be involved in learning a new language. Perhaps its a good thing we all have our weaknesses, whether in some academic area or physical/atheltic ones since it hopefully will keep us humble and understanding of those who can't grasp the things that come easily to us.

  4. Thank you, AE, for this very interesting post.

    It is interesting to me for two reasons:

    1) How much shortcomings in "talent for hebrew language" can influence all your religious outlook in life. "Lonely frum sceptic" blog writes about similar problems, and I am amazed at how much all this jewish religious stuff is geared at people who learn this kind of stuff easily.

    2) Independently from this fact, you remind me of my brother who had sever difficulties in mastering orthography, while he excelled in mathematics, logic, physics, and many kinds of technical work.

    Now, you became an "outcast" because you happened not to be gifted for the very specific "jewish" learning. So you came back to "general society" instead of remaining in an insular group with your parents and rest of family. But a child who has problems with orthographic or such basic skills will be an outcast pretty everywhere in our society...

    Is it unfair elitism to ask from schoolchildren to learn correct orthography and to "shun" those who can't?

  5. Holy smokes. I felt stupid for most of my life before I did my second try at college (My first try at college I partied it away with a sorority, another story for another time). I wonder how many of us were worn down to little self esteemless nubs by yeshivah?

    My husband made me go back to school. The only place where I got in was KBCC. I was shocked to spend all 3 years there in honors, Phi Theta Kappa and on the Dean's List. Supposedly my brother was the smart one, but he has no degree, lives at home and sits in kollel all day. Smart my flying rats ass.

    I feel that Imposter's syndrome thing. That entire time I was surrounded by fellow honors students, I could not help but wonder...Do I deserve this?

    The answer is, YES I DO! I now have a choice of colleges to complete my undergrad...Howard, GWU, American, UofM UVA, George Mason, VTech and Georgetown. Choices, choices...who has the better psychology program?

  6. Both UMD and UVA would be an excellent value for your money...don't know too much about the other schools, other than that GWU is very expensive.

  7. Maybe this realization about your deficit in learning languages and the deficits of one type or another that we all have may help you to make peace (in your mind) with your parents. Maybe they just have a certain type of parenting deficit.

  8. I don't think not being good at languages and not being good at parenting are comparable. People choose the way they treat other people, and they are personally responsible if they choose to act like a bag of dicks. You can't choose an inability to learn a language.

  9. AE: What if they don't have the capacity to understand they are being dicks? I'm not trying to defend them -- I would not have gotten along with them either, and B'H" my parents welcomed my goy boy husband, but maybe some people are hard wired to be rigid and see things in black and white.

  10. It’s interesting; this post could be about me. (Except for the 146 IQ and the Ivy League PhD. For that I envy you.) I did very poorly in limudie chol in elementary school and ended up at one of the reject schools for most of high school. Yet in college and grad school I had an A- average.

    For me, I think it may go all the way back to learning to read. I hated learning to read, both English and Hebrew. Once I learned to read English, though, I was able to read books to myself, which I enjoyed and helped me to improve my reading/comprehension skills. When I learned to read Hebrew, all I got for my efforts were pages of gibberish in the siddur.

  11. I was always bad at my Judaic subjects but always knew I was smart. In HS I was also in the stupid hebrew class and smart english class. But the stupid hebrew class was actually a bunch of brilliant but lazy students LOL plus a few stupid ones thrown in. [One of my friends in the stupid class went to an Ivy undergrad and is now graduating medical school]

    I always knew other people were stupid and I were smarter than them. But I'm still religious so I don't fit your mold :-)

  12. I also went back to college after a few years & excelled with a all A's. My first try was a mixed bag, mainly because Adult ADD wasn't acknowleged (and when I was a kid, even child ADD wasn't really considered much.)

  13. Eh, I was smart (you beat my PSAT score by 30) with no problems in any subject (other than behavior) and it wasn't so great. I hung out with the "smart crowd" growing up, but now I'm friends with a lot of the OTDers who had learning disabilities growing up. Kind of like them better. :-)

  14. Thanks for posting this, AE. I have a natural talent for languages, but I couldn't do math after 10th grade because I have spacial-perception problems. It took me forever to convince my 11th-grade math teacher to let me out of honors. He thought I was just lazy.

    I am teaching my own course (just one; it's a postdoc) for the first time this fall, and I'm working on lectures this summer. I really enjoy working on them, but I occasionally am terrified that I am going to make an idiot of myself. I have found the key is not to dwell on it and just to push ahead with the preparation.

    Good luck with your teaching! You'll do great! I am still so impressed that you got a tenure-track job in this economy. Rock on.

  15. You know,I think it is normal to have a bit of an "imposter syndrome" when you just finished your studies and start out on a new job.

    Take a lawyer: after law school, you are not yet a "real lawyer", rather a budding lawyer with no professional experience. With time, you aquire professional experience (have some more exams in some countries) and become "a lawyer".

    Acquiring a profession is a continuum marked by important milestones - like finishing your studies, getting a phd, but I would agree that you "fullfill" the profession in a more complete way with 10 years experience under your belt.

  16. OMG, are you me? Until college, my academic history is remarkably similar. Top PSAT scores, great at secular stuff, constantly flunking out of religious studies classes, generally treated like a moron.

    I actually didn't realize I had much intelligence at all until I started college. Unfortunately, between pressure to go to school close to the community and my deep-seated belief that I wasn't very smart, I ended up at a mediocre state university, and then had serious mental illness problems when I left the community, half-way through college, which affected my performance.

    Ultimately, I decided not to pursue a career in academia, in part because of worries about getting fellowships and in part because of the terrible job market for historians, but it was certainly odd, growing up with the weird dichotomy of being of the dumbest kids in class--who was also smarter than just about anyone else in the school

  17. Adrienne,
    You might also want to look into William and Mary. It's always ranked among the top of the medium size public colleges.
    UVa is reportedly hurting from budget cuts over the past few years. American reportedly had a major problem with their president a few years ago, so if you're seriously thinking about it, you might want to check how that's playing out with the current administration.

  18. Happened to me too.... A lot of people, including myself, did not regard me as an academic....I could barely get thru HS science courses. And now I am preparing for MCAT. Life is funny......


Anonymous comments are enabled for now