On Being the “Smart Girl” (Or How Reading Ruined My Life)
I must preface this with what will probably come off as obnoxious false modesty, but I mean it: I do not think I’m smart. I think I’m good at things (i.e. writing in high pressure situations, saying observational things at appropriate times) that make people believe I’m smart. It’s a sham, folks. That aside, I’ve grown up being labeled “smart,” so let’s go with it. I have fleeting memories of pre-Smart Girl days. This was back in ’97 when I was still blonde* and thin (ahh kindergarten, those were the days). Fittingly, this was also during my Catholic school stint. So the blonde, thin, Catholic school girl (and five-year-old) version of myself was pretty popular on the playground. Low-key: a lot of kindergarten boys wanted to “marry me” at recess. A couple of first graders might even have been interested. Ever empathetic, I settled for the shy crybaby whose mother happened to work in the school cafeteria. We kissed underneath the slide, catalyzing an on-off (but mostly off, since he definitely cried in class more than once) relationship that could have earned us the moniker “Mathlin” if there were tabloids at St. Michael’s Catholic School. Anyway, probably two weeks after our fateful slide kiss, we started learning how to read. It was like a metaphorical switch flipped. Blonde, crushworthy Cailin died and nerdy, “smart girl” Cailin began to emerge. I barreled through books like The Bug, the Boy, and the Bear like it was my job (which I guess it kind of was, being a student and all). Pretty soon, I was reading deep shit like Henry and Mudge. Mrs. Pigglewiggle and Amelia Bedelia replaced stupid recess marriages. Oh, if I had known then what I know now, I probably would have pretended that “bug,” “boy,” and “bear” were really hard for me to sound out and asked the boy next to me for help reading (while flipping my blonde mane and batting my eyelashes).
For a long time, none of this mattered. Boys still had cooties for a few years after I discovered reading, so it made sense for me to be more concerned with Sideways Stories from Wayside School than which guy was looking especially good with his light-up sneakers. In third grade, we were separated into spelling groups based on dumb animal nouns, but we all knew it was by who was actually able to spell “gremlin” or whatever. Since my vocabulary was AMAZING (not amazeing like some third graders thought) from all the Louis Sachar and Jerry Spinelli I was reading, I was put in “Super Pandas” or whatever the advanced group was called. That was the first time I was aware that a smart label was being thrust upon me. And for about three years, it was awesome. “I’m a Super Panda.” I thought to myself as I spelled “amazing” correctly.
By sixth grade, I noticed that something was probably fundamentally wrong with me and that my concern with finishing all the Sweet Valley books at the library was inhibiting my social life. While my best friend got really excited about being asked to slow dance by half a dozen guys, I got really excited when Sharon Creech replied to a fan letter I wrote. (I’LL NEVER FORGET YOU, SHARON!) My English teacher photocopied the letter (and spilled coffee on the original) and put it on the whiteboard, while my best friend was busy fending off all the high-voiced hormonal 11-year-olds who wanted her to hold their sweaty hands. Whenever a boy called my house, it was to ask what the math homework was. Or to ask me about my best friend.
The high point of my middle school experiences with guys was when I was cast as a lead in the school play – with my crush** of two years being the other lead. This was a fantastic opportunity to get to know each other better. Other than the fact that he was a total asshole with a terrible lisp. Oh, and that the play we were cast in was The Hobbit. He was Bilbo. I was Gandalf. The likelihood of seduction was never higher. Also, naturally he was infatuated with one of my close friends who had gone through this extreme transformation between sixth and seventh grade. Obviously, she was cast as the most beautiful elf/elf queen/whatever.
I moved the year following my sexy turn as Gandalf the Grey. At my new school, my affection for T-shirts, uncombed hair, and wearing gym shoes every day was frowned upon. I don’t really like the word bitch, but it must be said: middle school girls are bitches. I hated eighth grade passionately. The only redemptive quality of my new school was the library. Again, the majority of male attention I received was based on the fact that I actually did my homework and knew what the assignments were.
Though high school was about 95% less awkward than middle school, I was considered one of the three smart white girls in my grade. I’m fairly sure my entire identity was rooted in the fact that I was white and got good grades. (This is a school where doing poorly on a test was either called “white failing” or “Asian failing.” White failing was earning below a C. People actually called me “whitey.” Please never talk to me about how lucky I am to be white and how I will never have to endure petty ignorance). I dated a guy, which culminated in him telling me that he had gone out with me because he was going through a “rough time.” Senior year of high school, I grew semi-interested in a nice, normal classmate of mine who had pretty eyes and was moderately intelligent. He liked to come over to my house a lot. To use my printer (and ask what the homework was).
Throughout all this, I had faith in the Promised Land. College: where boys are mature and like smart girls. I remember reading this on Meg Cabot’s blog at some point during my painful eighth grade experience. I held onto that like it was the Ultimate Truth.
Nearly two years into college, I have gone through excruciating crushes on three of my closest male friends. (Two of whom found out eventually and gave me variations of "I really value you as a friend.") Meg Cabot lied!!! The author of The Princess Diaries and All-American Girl convinced me that everything would take a 180 when I walked through university halls. Guys (oh, I’m sorry, at this point they’re “men,” right?) would turn their heads at how my sexy ability to write an A paper during an all-nighter. They would see me reading in the dining hall and get all hot and bothered. I’d be trying to find a book at the library and they would trip over themselves trying to help me.
Yeah. Thanks Meg Cabot. The girls who play dumb (or… actually are dumb) are still winning fourteen years after reading ruined my life. The “smart girls” are left at 3am on Monday mornings, writing blog entries about how hard their lives are.
If you are a guy and reading this (why are you reading this): that smart girl in your AP History class or Intro to Engineering? She knows what the homework is. She just doesn’t want to tell you. And she really doesn’t want you to contact her asking about it. Here’s a novel idea: why don’t you ask the girl who you spent the whole lecture looking at about the homework? ("Novel" is kind of punny in the context of this blog post).
“Smart girls” do not win. I’m not sure about actual smart girls though. They might be able to spin it in their favor with their actual intellect. They were probably reading The Great Gatsby while I was skimming The Babysitters Club.
*Blondes may have more fun and natural blondes who gradually become brunettes may be destined to lives of yearning for social fulfillment.
**I am not proud to say I took great pleasure in deleting him as Facebook friend a few years ago.