My identity for all my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood was the quiet girl, yes (a depthless, limiting label I resented). But I was also the smart girl. And that label, I ate up. I devoured it. I wore that badge proudly, and had folders upon folders of other such badges and certificates saved by my doting mom to wear as back-up. Citizenship Award. Honor Roll. Fourth Grade Spelling Bee Champion. Principal’s Award. Highest Grade in Social Studies. Highest Grade in English. High school internship at Columbia University. Salutatorian.
Anecdotally, I remember never fully sitting back in my seat during Awards Ceremonies during elementary school. I sat near the aisles, too. Whatever was needed to make my haughty journey to center stage as easy as possible given that my name would be called multiple times. Get up. Sit down. Get up. Sit down. Keep ’em coming. Every marking period. Every single grade. Get awards. It’s what I did. More than that, it was who I was. Without it, who would be proud of me? Where would my self-worth come from? Who would I be? Just the quiet, wallpaper of a girl, I thought, and that was my biggest fear. As shy as I was back then, I never wanted to go unnoticed – to be forgotten.
So that’s the girl who entered secondary school – devastatingly unsure of herself, but confident in this one fact: she was smart. She got good grades. She knew “how to school,” just as one knows how to shoot 3-pointers or how to play the piano. That is to say, not without the occasional missteps and disappointments, but the underlying skill was undeniable. It naturally clicked in me how much effort I had to expend to get an “A” despite my habitual procrastination, what questions to ask to seem interested in topics I had no interest in, and when to get tutoring. What I lacked in popularity and new Jordans, I made up in “teacher’s favorite” and report cards a mom could hang up.
My Awards Ceremony “Takeover” quieted down significantly with bright students in my high school giving me a run for my money. But come graduation day, I made sure to have a few get-up-sit-down-get-up moments. Plus, I won the biggest prize of all – the most name-brand college of all the graduating seniors: the University of Pennsylvania.
That acceptance letter was the culmination of all my childhood achievement. It was my self-esteem in heavy-stock, congratulatory paper – validation of the only identity I knew that I knew that I knew: Ronique, the Smart Girl. It was my selection amongst the world’s academic elite. Get into a good school. It’s what everyone knew I would do.
So I was the girl going places. And to places I went: Philadelphia in 2010 with the determination to make an impact at this brand-name University to prove that I truly belonged – that a mistake wasn’t made – and that I could master the shit out of this school, too. That I was smart enough to do so.
I can say college, while fun and transformative in the best ways, was the most grueling experience of my existence. The identity of Smart Girl took a serious beating. (I managed to cope with the worst grade of my life with the joke that the professor gave me the “D”). *Insert desperate chuckle.* Never was I the smartest in the room again. And I have at least 300 rejection notices from internship/job applications, student groups, work study opportunities and contests, which in my mind, meant “OK, you may be smart (kinda), but you’re not good enough.”
And that was a jarring wake-up call. That my smartness was not exceptional in this exceptional environment. It didn’t warrant awards ceremony “takeovers,” or student spotlight write-ups in the newspaper, or any professor’s favorite. Google didn’t want me. And neither did PepsiCo. Goldman Sachs probably thought I was a bumbling idiot in my interview, and the Big 5 Consulting companies scared me too much to even apply.
All my life I was seeking acceptance from prestigious places to validate that I was a top-ranked person, better than average, more than just quiet, or just black, and suddenly, I was falling short. What was happening?
In the end, I managed to graduate with honors. I needed to. It’s all I could do. I salvaged for magna cum laude like my self-esteem depended on it, because it did. I proved to myself that I really was “smart,” but I was already learning that my GPA at an Ivy League meant less than I wish it did for my life outcome in the real world. For some, that’s welcome news, but for me, I felt woefully unprepared for the next stage of life where my chest of childhood certificates and latin honors meant little to nothing.
The Real World
So here I am now. Adulting like most other 20-something millenials. My mom can pridefully tell her coworkers that her daughter works on Wall Street and thankfully, my natural “smartness” has served me sufficiently at work.
But, I won’t lie, this life often doesn’t feel enough. I am constantly reminded by how impressive my classmates are with each of their new status updates. (Think Harvard, Forbes, The White House, Broadway, Facebook Inc., Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships). And while I feel utterly privileged to have known them, when I engage in the awful habit of comparing myself, I immediately feel inadequate. I suddenly want to apply to a top-ranked grad school or attach myself to some other prestigious entity if that’ll do the inner work of validating my worth, and unearth me from this feeling of obscurity and mediocrity that I hate so much. But I know it won’t.
So here I am. Trying to do the daily, necessary work of telling myself “You is kind; you is smart, you is important” sans awards and acceptances. Because it’s true. It’s always been true, whether I (or anyone else) realized it.
I can’t tell if it’s a gift or a curse, but I still have this tendency to want to be the best. While I’ve learned that I can’t be the best at all I wish I could, I can tell my story. This story.
And can’t no one do that better than me. So here we are.