It took a trip to a safe haven to make me realize that I never shook off feeling smart and awkward. Even if I’m aware of not being as smart as I would like to be.
Most of my closest friends carry some measure of both characteristics, though they mask the awkward incredibly well. Some of it is done by keeping a tight circle of friends, finding people of like ideas and notions. In that mini-world, not unlike my gang of eight that used to wait in the HS lobby before the bell rang, smart was good – and presumed.
I thought I was over it, though my 20th HS reunion made me aware I still has a measure of anxiety and awkwardness. Benjamin saved me that night as my literal shield. He was strapped to my front in a Bjorn, facing the crowd. Lesson learned: No one talks trash to an infant.
The grownup version of this is what I face in the town where we live. It is compounded by gender, money, and race; where it’s less ok for a woman to be smart than to be a good showpiece. Or, at least, to have money. For example, women – especially women whose confidence comes from competence and not assessed value of real estate – aren’t welcome in town governance, but they are encouraged to get together and help with the service league. The service league does great work, but it’s clear what the town view is of women’s roles.
Back at MIT, I still have the reputation of being the friendly beautiful girl (! yes, I did say girl. I was the “girl from athena” for more years that I care to say), the one who looks you in the eye and asks you about things that matter to you.
In my 20’s, I found that judgment frustrating, and embarassing. Rarely did I feel as though I didn’t have to fight to prove my intellectual mettle which, while it wasn’t enough to be Course 6, was still non-negligible. You know it’s a problem when the admin in your group, in an effort to assert her intellectual superiority, refers to you as the “pretty one” in work settings. In that case, I didn’t even get the credit for smart. Just awkward.
I’ve since learned that a little kindness goes a long way at MIT and other geeky environments, and that having a recognizable face has helped me get things done, or make connections. I’ve learned the awkwardness of being a XX manager in international meetings where XX’s make the coffee, not the decisions, and found workarounds to get things through, even if it meant passing the ball, with my directions, to an XY. This at least felt a little like progress – working around the rules of a culture that was not my own.
How much more isolating and crazy-making it is to find yourself facing that same problem in your own culture, when you’re much closer to menopause than the prom.