Friday, April 10, 2009

Clever Idiots and Survival of the Fittest

The most interesting things happen on the book aisle at Walmart. You should try spending a few hours there. I've met 80-year-old women who read Twilight, men who gave away half of the plot of a book to me before saying, "But I'm not going to spoil it for you," and young boys with headaches trying to figure out which Gossip Girl their girlfriend hinted that she wanted for her birthday.

The other day a boy and a group of his friends ambled onto the aisle. I had my nose in a Naruto manga, but not so much that I didn't eavesdrop (it's a truly bad habit I've developed lately). For a few minutes they flipped through magazines, talking flippantly about school, girlfriends, and the next big game.

One of them -- a mop-topped 13-15-year-old-ish with converse shoes -- made his way over to me. He pulled out a book from the little "classics" section. The Count of Monte Cristo. "You ever read this book?" he asked me. "I thought it was pretty good."

Immiediately his friends stopped their talk. Before I even had time to answer, they swarmed us like flies over cut fruit.

"You read that book, Andy?"

One of them snorted, elbowing the other. "Geek," he muttered.

Andy threw his book down. "No," he protested. "I... didn't read it."

The teasing didn't let up. I kept my nose in the book... but I was almost ready to give them a piece of my mind before they'd finished with him. They haressed him about reading, them they began haressing him about a good grade he'd made in Pre-Algebra.

"I like Algebra," he muttered.

Their laughter made him flush.

But it was his eventual respond that really astonished me. Instead of keeping up the defense, he began laughing with them. He began doing a clever imitation of what I assumed was their Algebra teacher. The others doubled over. He began making light of the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo, making it seem a hilarious, fluffy comedy.

They ambled off the aisle as they had come -- friends.

I knew what he was doing. I knew it so well I almost followed him and begged him to stop. Only I still do it sometimes, and that would sort of make me a hypocrite.

Even with Hollywood's more favorable portrayel of the "smart kid" in recent years, those of us who express any interest whatsoever in things scholarly usually get mocked for it.

Last summer I took a road trip with my brother-in-laws youth group. I can still remember sitting in the back seat, scribbling down a story idea in my Idea notebook.

The boy squished beside me looked incredulous. "You write?" he asked.

I was too involved in the idea for a response. I gave him a nod.

"You write... outside of school?" he asked.

Another nod.

"Wow." He stared out the window, and then blurted as if he couldn't help himself, "You are a freak."

I used to be terribly embaressed about the teetering piles of books I carried out of the library with me, because inevitably I'd run into one of the kids who came in to use the internet. They would eye me down, and then take a step back, almost revolted.

So, I learned that when I was with those who didn't share my love of learning, it was best to feign idiocy. Be a goof, a childish cookie pick-pocket. I learned that the reason that most teenagers dislike anyone with good grades is because they themselves hate to feel dumb. I was making people feel inferior by just using a wider vocabulary.

So, I developed another personality. One that I became very, very good at. I learned to make the person I was with feel good about themselves. I would pick around -- find that one thing they were good at -- and then let them show it off to me. I would play down any trait of mine that might make them feel less smart.

That personality is almost default for me now. I rarely let myself take on the old let's-talk-about-life-the-universe-and-everything, intellectual, ponderous side when I'm with those my own age. (That's why sometimes I really crave the company of those older than me.) It's a sort of social survival of the fittest. Just, instead of a limb, I've evolved an extra personality.

Or maybe I just took to one that was already there, and little explored.

Either way, what are your thoughts? Have you ever tried to act... well... dumber than you are to make another person feel less nervous around you? And is this a hypocritical thing to do, or just another peculiar way of life?


Melda said...

I know what you mean on a more general level. I do find that my persona changes depending on the people I'm with, and that I'm less likely to speak up about something that I like if I'm in the company of people whom I know will think it weird or geeky. That, or I tend to preface whatever I'm going to say by, "This is going to sound really geeky..." as though that's somehow a crime. As my self-esteem has developed I've gotten better at avoiding it, but I still find myself laughing at things I don't actually think are funny or trying to be someone else in order to be part of a conversation I feel excluded from. I think it's partly just human nature :P

Elraen said...

Oh goodness, I can identify with this.

One way this comes out for me is that since I started college I've tried frantically to hide my age, even from my teachers. I don't want them to know I'm only 17 and getting higher grades than most of them (who are all at least a year older than me); I'm so afraid they'll say "oh, you're /smart/" and never talk to me again. I'm afraid of it because it's happened so many times.

I end up just listening to what other people say and playing off it. So they thought that school assignment was hard? OK, I'll nod, smile, and sympathize. They couldn't stand Shakespeare? I'll pretend I find it hard to get through.

I think that's one reason why I haven't adjusted well to my University - I'm constantly having to pretend to be more shallow than I am so I don't end up being the one feeling like an idiot. It frustrates me to no end, but I don't know how to break away from it.

joani said...

Great story... so true, and so sad.

I definitely relate, and at the "old age" of 32, still deal with that feeling. The reason that I think it is not healthy, is simply because we have to deny who we are. Who our Creator designed us personally and specifically to be. We deny that in moments, to please other people, or "help" them justify a lack of knowledge... but I pose the question.. Is it a lack of knowledge, or a small, close-minded perspective? Ahhh, there now.... it's out. I have all my life had to endure being made mocked as a weird-o for enjoying great literature classics, classical music, art and poetry...... but is it a closed-minded perspective that keeps prideful, insecure people from enjoying the beauty of those gifts?

We shouldn't sacrifice the freedom of being who we are to fit in with people who expect us to change for their pleasure.

Eä said...

Great observation. I recognise it and I can relate in some way. You are absolutely right in that people don't want to feel dumb, no one wants and therefore will oftn play by the lowest denomination. On the other hand people respect those who have the courage to be themselves no matter what that might be. And it does take courage but it will also pay off. And being in the presence of like-minded people once in a while makes things so much easier, to see that you're not alone in the world. :-)

Joy said...

Great thoughts, all of you.

I was thinking, it's rather ironic that the classic-loving personality I struggle to hide is the very one that got me such an incredible job for a 19-year-old. (Working as a teacher.) So it's not really a bad thing.

Joani, thanks for sharing that. :)Now that I think about it, you're right. Most people who have never even opened a book by Dickens, Hemingway, or Homer form bigoted opinions anyway. Maybe I would be doing them a favor by exposing them to another opinion.