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A Genius in My Own Right
On Halloween, girls and boys dress up as doctors, ballerinas, or astronauts, imagining the day when they can finally don the true “costume” of the person they’d like to be. These are hopeful aspirations: candle-blowing, penny-dropping, and dandelion-picking wishes that come from children’s desires to grow up doing what they love. Childhood dreams should be made of such fluff and dandy.
But my childhood dream was borne of desperation and jealousy rather than hope. I wanted to become a genius, knowing that I was mocked by my grade school “friends” due to my lack of spectacular achievements. Although I endured much taunting, I felt as if I must stay with my group because it had been difficult enough getting in. I remember that on the first day of grade school, a girl had walked imperiously up to me after noticing I was reading a Level 5 book. Without introducing herself, without asking me my name, without any gesture of introduction, she had asked:
“Do you know multiplication?”
I recognized her as the girl all the teachers constantly gushed over, and had thought that if I made friends with her, I could be accepted by everybody. “Making more than one thing?” I had asked.
She had frowned, not quite liking my answer. “What’s one times one?”
If multiplication wasn’t the same as addition, then the answer couldn’t be two. The next best number was....“One.”
“You took too long,” the girl had pouted. She had seemed ready to march away, but suddenly changed her mind and turned back around. Abruptly, she said, “Oh well. I’m Tiffany. Want to play tag with me?”
I soon discovered that in our group of aspiring geniuses, she was the most envied. By the time Tiffany was seven years old, she could play Mozart sonatas and do algebra. I could too, but Tiffany made her accomplishments seem so amazing that we regarded her as the smartest of us all. The confident gleam in her eye, the poise of her strut, the clever way in which she mentioned her awards - all of her brilliance made me (and the rest of us) endlessly jealous of her, and ashamed that I seemed to always fall short of her genius. Back then, I was never sure of my own abilities since I was always surrounded by enormously talented children. Compared to Tiffany, I felt insignificant and exceedingly average. I wished that I could march up to the piano at school and pound away at the ivories with as much ease as she did; I wished I could be as sure of the answer of a difficult problem as she seemed to be.
Our parents didn’t help ease the strain of our self-consciousness in trying to seem the most talented. I knew that Tiffany’s mother constantly shouted at her for not getting perfect grades, not winning a piano competition, or failing in the slightest way. Although I didn’t know until much later, her parents had also berated her for not drawing as well as I did. It was rather ironic that both our parents were comparing one of us to the other, telling us that “the neighbor’s kid can do better than you can.”
The parents of the children in our group were the ones who made us all want to become “geniuses”. They were all immigrants and probably hoped that we would succeed where there was much more opportunity and better education. In their minds, we had to get into Harvard and get a six-figure job, but this would be impossible if we didn’t become geniuses. For that, our parents never let a wasteful moment go by; entertaining books had to be difficult ones, and television shows were limited to the History or Discovery channels. In their eyes, our worth was measured in the quantity and prestige of our accomplishments. We grew up under their high standards and scrutinizing gazes, and withered under their constant measuring of our worth. So it was natural that when we made friends, we would measure their worth as human beings by the level of their intelligence.
I did not want to be considered worthless, least of all by my high-striving parents. I knew that I must become a genius, under the imagined threat of being deemed trash by others. But no matter how much I tried, I never seemed to surpass my friends; he placed nationally in tennis, she started her own business, and I couldn’t even get straight A’s.
I entered high school with very little self-esteem, a rude contempt of anyone I felt was “beneath” me, and still, the fierce desire to become a genius. Whenever I met new people, I would compare myself to them, feeling relieved if I was more “worthy” than them, and intimidated if I wasn’t. It was a self-destructive process that decayed the little confidence I had, making me less and less sure of my own talents. I was completely uncertain of myself as a human being, for by then, my warped thinking and the peer pressure of my clique had instilled in me the thought that I had to be a genius in order to be fully human.
One day, Tiffany and I had an argument about the definition of esoteric. I insisted that it meant “very complicated and full of fancy prose,” whereas she believed it meant “known to very few people.” We argued for nearly five minutes before I whipped out a dictionary and flipped to “E”.
She was right.
But during the course of our argument, something profound had happened. Although we were fighting over the meaning of an unimportant word, I had kept my stance the entire time, never backing and never balking from what I thought was right. As I put up the dictionary, I realized that the secret to finally becoming a “genius” was there all along. It wasn’t getting trophies on my shelves, a perfect GPA, or any other value put on my abilities by others. It was my own conviction in myself, the belief in my fingers when I played the piano, and the conviction in my brain when I answered questions. It had nothing to do with true ability, but rather my self-confidence. In retrospect, Tiffany and I were equally talented, but the factor that had made me believe that she was better than I was that she was absolutely sure she could do whatever what was put out before her; she was certain that her faculties would never fail her.
Although it took me many months for me to build up all the self-esteem I have now, I take comfort in the fact that I can tell my desperate grade-school self that I’ve fulfilled our childhood dream: I’ve finally become a genius - a genius in my own right.