When I was in college, my best friend and I went to see The Royal Tenenbaums two or three times while it was in the discount theater. We sat in the back rows, giddy over Eli Cash’s overwrought prose. There was something else about it that resonated deeply: that sense of nostalgia, of premature decline. A few months later, I left my university and spent the next year doing temp work, volunteering, taking a community college class, and wallowing in sweatpants on my parents’ couch before transferring to another college the next summer. I had been a “gifted” student in elementary school and a very good one through high school; I had done the requisite extracurriculars, but I was a better student than I was an athlete or actor. College, however, felt draining rather than invigorating, and I felt tired already when I began as a freshman. By my sophomore year, I was very depressed, and I didn’t know how to handle the difficult classes in my major—the one where, shock! horror! I got a B. In retrospect, this is an absurd and even embarrassing history to tell, the very height of #firstworldproblems.
I have been thinking, though, of this article, even though it was published a few months ago, and I realize that nobody likes to link to anything more than thirty-six hours old on the Internet. The author, Heidi Grant Halvorson, outlines a study that indicates children who are praised as “smart” are more likely than children who are called hard workers to blame themselves or give up when presented with a difficult task. That is, the former group considers their abilities innate and internalizes their failures, whereas the latter will simply work harder when presented with a challenge. Halvorson asks, “Are there things you decided long ago that you could never be good at? Skills you believed you would never possess? If the list is a long one, you were probably one of the bright kids — and your belief that you are ‘stuck’ being exactly as you are has done more to determine the course of your life than you probably ever imagined.” Depending on whether I am feeling self-loathing or self-pity, sometimes I suspect this claim provides me with something to blame and sometimes it is a consolation.
I began this post with my early college experience because I have been experiencing a sort of déjà vu. The Royal Tenenbaums feels relevant again and, again, I feel burnt out and incapable of focusing. Again, or rather still, I feel alienated from my identity as a student. Since the second grade, I have been Very Smart and Very Good at School, but in some ways it has always felt like going through the motions, doing the things I was supposed to do because I was obedient and they were relatively easy.
In seventh grade, I won my school’s spelling bee, and I remember flipping through the study materials for the county bee. I didn’t want to prepare, though, and merely felt full of dread that I would have to do this thing. In the end, I hardly studied, if at all, and I placed second at the county bee. I do remember the outfit I wore there, which included a salmon pink knitted vest from The Gap (I don’t know, it was 1995). And I remember feeling frustrated that the local paper made it appear that I had lost on a very easy word (“bombastic”), when in fact the one I had gone out on, which I have conveniently forgotten, was much more difficult. The article in the paper asked me how I felt about the outcome, and I told them the truth: that the boy who won wanted it much more than I had. I knew this was not his first time at the spelling bee, and that he had studied exhaustively. I simply hadn’t embarrassed myself doing something I didn’t particularly relish.
And so I always did what I was supposed to do, until I left college for a year (and it is very hard, it turns out, to have your parents tell you they are disappointed in you). But then I went back and continued doing the things that people said I was good at, which was writing essays. I am fine at writing essays, but this is not enough, it turns out, when writing a dissertation. And while most of the time being a good student means eliciting praise, being a grad student means a near-constant feeling of dread about feedback, about performance. I have always had an intense fear of punishment and disapproval, so this is problematic for me. And the funny thing about graduate school is that you can be a very good student at every level until you enter a PhD program, and then it may suddenly turn out that you are not a very good student anymore at all. (This is not to say I am actually a terrible grad student, just a self-deprecating one and not a star.) And it wouldn’t matter if you were still good, because there really are no jobs in this field, but even if there were jobs, that wouldn’t change this slide into misery.
Why didn’t I read the signs better? The spelling bee, or the fact that I sabotaged my personal essay for the most prestigious college I applied to but did not wish to attend. It’s like when everyone realizes that Margot Tenenbaum was a smoker all along.
So, then, what are the things I haven’t thought I could do? Should I be doing them now? When I left college, that failure was in a way delicious. I had never done it before, and I felt that I needed to leave to know that it would be okay to fail or to do something that wasn’t just exactly right. I am not going to leave graduate school willy-nilly, without a plan or if I determine that leaving ABD would be a terrible mistake, but I can’t say the pull isn’t there to just say, fuck it all.
So, how do you discover who you are when the mantle you’ve shouldered all this time has been a sham?