Losing a “smart” identity (when you weren’t looking)

Five years ago, I got to college and realized I no longer liked academics all that much.

Which was, when I realized it, slightly alarming. I was supposed to be a good student, an honor student, an academic. I was smart, I was supposed to be smart—but in college, what is “smart” measured by if not in grades?

I also found that, frankly, I didn’t even care all that much. Except that was also a little bit alarming.

At first, plenty of it was simple burnout. Like plenty of others, I overloaded my senior year with heaps of hard classes and extracurriculars, so by my first college semester I was still exhausted of schoolwork and much more interested by all the new social opportunities. This isn’t an unusual story; except that as more semesters went by, it didn’t really change.

The background; the context; the awkward part where I tell you about high school

A few things possibly going on here: my personality type reads as not enjoying upper education, whatever that means. My learning style hates lectures. I don’t like large classrooms. I may be mildly ADD, but it’s not something that’s been diagnosed. And I liked classes where there was a right answer—like math, instead of “Spiritual Life and Community.”

But it was so very strange to me, especially when placed in context: I was a near perfect student in high school. The only class I’m unsure if I got an A in was PE—in middle school. My GPA was pretty dang good. My senior year, I took calculus. I took AP English. I would have taken more AP classes if they’d been offered, so I took AP US history online with Florida Virtual School. (And then dropped it at Christmas, because alternating between crying and writing more essays on my Christmas “break” finally won out as a legitimate excuse for my deeply burnt out self.)

I was an academic, and I really did like it well enough. It embarrassed me too, to be perfectly honest, because I’ve never been a competitive person and hated the “smart kid” teasing. But it was a comfortable part of my identity, and definitely part of my identity to those around me.

But eventually, we all must leave high school (and thank goodness for that).

Despite all that, despite all seeming predisposition to being a Student with that capital S, I never really found my college academic “groove.” It eluded me, and when the honors students stood up in chapel at Moody once a year, I felt slightly displaced in my seat.

But only slightly.

Perhaps because it was a gradual identity shift, I never felt completely uncomfortable in my own skin in this regard. (I also really liked not having to stand.)

But slightly; slightly is still something, and slightly displaced in your identity is still unnerving.

I was still a good student. My grades were comfortable. I took Greek (still working through that trauma). But it was different from who I was before, and definitely different from roommates and floormates who just loved going to class. (And so, so different from people who say they would willingly do school for as long as they could, if allowed!)

When “smart” was part of who you were and how you identified, what happens when smart isn’t what you feel? When your grades quite didn’t reflect it anymore? Can you still self-identify as smart if you have no interest in grad school anytime soon? If you truly and honestly feel like an absolute idiot fairly often? (Ok, we all feel like idiots sometimes. But I mean those times when you feel particularly uneducated or ignorant on something or other. Is that still just everyone at times?)

Or how about when you realize how much you didn’t learn in college?

But, of course, there’s a way to fix it. A next step. A new identity to find! Right?

Except, no, I don’t know that there is, exactly. Or if there is, I don’t know how to find it.

Being out of school now brings a whole new slew of factors into this mix: I have more time to read, and I have been, but I also have to more intentionally choose that which will actually benefit my mind. And I have more time to read blogs and articles—but have to be careful to avoid only ever reading one bias.

And I could theoretically take classes, but where do I find them?

Now that I’ve been out of school for over a year, I want to start finding my own way. I don’t need to be an academic; I don’t need to go to graduate school (though I won’t rule it out for the long run).

But I do need to find out what will make me feel “smart” again—or actually make me smart again. I’ll likely be talking about this again in the future, especially as I consider the direction of online classes, but I’m taking suggestions in the meantime.

What do you do to educate yourself when you’re out of school? Did leaving school—or being in it—change your intellectual identity in some way?

2 Replies to “Losing a “smart” identity (when you weren’t looking)”

  1. This post hits WAAAY too close to home. Colleges/universities are filled with students who excelled in high school and suddenly find themselves at the bottom of the totem pole all over again (at least I did). It finally taught me to stop using grades for my standard of smarts and to just focus on the experience. Even if my GPA didn’t always reflect it I gained a lot of “real-world” wisdom from school and today I remember the life lessons way more than countless lectures

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