I learned division in third grade. I still consider third grade to be the most difficult schooling year of my life. But to this day I can ‘do’ long division and show my work. And the answer is correct 98% of the time. How often I have to do long division is of no importance. When I need it, I can do it. I still remember the stress. I remember clenching my #2 pencil until my fingers were white knuckled. I remember not wanting to be the stupid one. I remember trying to be neat. Trying to keep the problem going down at the correct angle so I could see my progression down to the answer. Each level getting me closer to the number that would sit neatly atop that little division bar. I was so scared I would be the only one who couldn’t figure it out. That fear of being stupid drove me to conquer division.
I don’t remember a lot about my elementary years. I remember my first day of first grade when I showed up on the wrong day and the nun was mean to me and sent me home. What I remember her saying is “you’re so stupid, get outta here and tell your momma to send you back on the right day, dufus.” What is more likely to be closer to the truth: “Colleen you weren’t supposed to be here until tomorrow. Go back home and tell your mother you are suppose to be here tomorrow.” Regardless of what she said, I felt stupid, and left crying.
I remember in second grade when Connie with the red hair came to class. I liked Connie. I didn’t want her to think I was stupid either.
I don’t remember fourth grade.
In fifth grade I remember making apple dolls. I remember Mrs. Fitch. I really liked her. I was afraid my apple doll wouldn’t turn out like everyone else’s and I’d feel stupid.
I don’t remember much of sixth or seventh grade.
I remember in eighth grade I used to have to stand guard at the doorway of our third floor class during rainy days. Why? Because boys and girls were kissing on the science tables. No worries, I won’t rat anyone out. But I was always so nervous everyone would get caught. Apparently I didn’t worry about looking stupid as much as I was just scared.
Then came high school.
I felt stupid after one summer because I saw kids I hadn’t seen in two months and I couldn’t remember their names. So I just smiled and waved and talked. Over all I was pretty happy in high school. Or pretty clueless. I was lucky to have good people around me. And I never really did anything risky. Probably because of that fear of looking stupid.
One day I got married.
One day I was sitting in the living room with my father in law who I liked very much. He was a hard worker. Gruff, but only on the outside. I never really bought in to that. But I let him think so. He was talking with me about something. I don’t even remember what. But I said something, used a word or a phrase, and he stopped me. He repeated what I said and asked me what it meant.
What a turning point in my life. Here was a man nearing sixty years old. And he had no fears or qualms about telling me he didn’t know something. Owning it, so to speak. And asking to be taught.
I remember telling him the meaning. And I remember thinking how smart he was for telling me he didn’t know what I meant.
It was then that I realized what ‘stupid’ really meant. I wasn’t stupid for not knowing something, or being afraid of something I didn’t understand, or feeling uncomfortable with things going on around me. Stupid isn’t not knowing something or not being a part of something.
Stupid is knowing you don’t know. And not asking.
Stupid is wanting to be a part of something. And not joining.
Stupid is fearing something that never was and losing the opportunities of things that will never be.
I’m not stupid any more. Sometimes, I just don’t know things. And sometimes I own that.