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I remember the day I decided to “Stay Smart”. It was a firm decision but also a dreaded and frightful one. I think I was either in 7th or 8th grade. I told no one about my decision; I was fairly certain many would not support it. I didn’t want to find out who would or would not.

A tradition in our Catholic grade school in Waterloo, Iowa involved recognizing the most successful students every year. Monsignor O’Hagan, the pastor of our parish, would come to each classroom at the end of every year and ask the teacher who the best student was in the class, or as he put it who “Was hungering and thirsting for knowledge?” The teacher would name someone who then went to the front of the room and accepted a crisp one-dollar bill from the good Monsignor. The rest of the class would then applaud. I had the gut-wrenching experience of collecting several crisp dollar bills. I had already figured out that academic achievement could be quite costly. It was particularly unattractive in girl children. I knew my decision to “stay smart” was a big deal.

I thought of it as “staying smart” because I had already absorbed so many direct and indirect messages that I should “quit” being “smart”. At the time I did not really know this definition of “smart”, but it is now my preferred definition: “having or showing a quick-witted intelligence”. It captures what I thought it meant, and it was a capacity I did not want to discard.

There was no doubt, however, that my attachment to this capacity was often viewed as inappropriate. My own father advised me that “no guy wants to marry a girl who thinks she’s smarter than he is”. I actually think this is true to a large extent; I just didn’t want it to be true and I was unwilling to let it shape my decision. But I watched as other girls in my class cashed out on “staying smart”. It was just too dangerous.

I also watched as male children were rewarded for what many hoped to stomp out in me: being a “smart” boy was a good thing. It was desired, applauded, rewarded, admired. It gave a guy an edge in his developmental journey. It also could lead to influence and dominance power. It ensured opportunity. I can still recall marveling that being “smart” was obviously so great for my brothers and a blight for me. People joke about “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen” as an expectation for girl children: it was not a joke, it was the norm.

For most of my school years, I wanted to become a math teacher, secretly plotting to improve on what I considered the ineptitude of the math teachers I had. In my sophomore year in high school someone apparently took an interest in my potential. I never knew who. That someone created what was an accelerated math program for me before such things existed. The school principal was clearly not the initiator, as he constantly hassled me while I was changing classes. I never knew what his issue with me was, but often wondered if it was this special option created for me.

So, I found myself enrolled in an upper division math class. I was the only girl. I was 5 feet, 11 inches tall, hence taller than many in the room including the teacher. I noticed this right away; I always noticed this. All the other students were guys, and more unsettling to me, all were seniors. The guys were a mix of classic math “nerds” and “cool guys” building their transcripts for college. The teacher was a male who did not appear pleased that I was there. I sat near the back of the room, tried to keep my head down, work toward being invisible, and do the work. It was mostly just terrifying.

One day, as class was ending, the teacher, grinning, said he wanted to issue a challenge to all of us. He wrote a complex equation on the board, one that lacked a final answer, and told us to try to figure out the answer over-night. I loved the challenge, stayed up late, solved the equation. We convened the next day, and once more grinning, he asked: ‘”Who solved the equation?” I was proud of the work I had done, and my hand shot up before I thought through what I was doing. It was too late! I was the only one in the class with my hand up.

He looked at me sardonically and asked for the answer. I still remember it: Zero. He then asked how I came to that conclusion and I said I worked the equation out. Clearly skeptical, he told me to put it on the black board. It seemed to me that he was not only skeptical but a bit hostile. I said it was a really long solution. He smirked, and said write it on the board anyway. The room was long and narrow and had three large black boards on one side and one in the front. I got up and started at the back of the room recording my calculations. I covered the three boards and was nearing the end but needed the board in the front of the room for the last part.

The teacher had ignored me during all this, as if I were not there. He began teaching class and everyone proceeded as if one student wasn’t recording this endless calculation, which was taking not only most of the blackboard space but also most of the class. I crept up to the front board, stood behind him and recorded the final steps in my calculation and my final answer, then crept back to my seat near the back of the room. And yes, I know that being that tall made “creeping” something I merely imagined or desired. He stopped lecturing as he saw me headed for my seat, and immediately walked to the first blackboard in the back of the room and began to study my calculations, step by step. It took a while and I was hanging in there trying to figure out how to disappear.

He finally got to the last board, read the last calculations, and my final solution. He slowly turned and said to the class, not me: “It’s correct!” There was a bit of shock and chagrin in his voice, as if he was genuinely amazed and clearly not pleased: it felt to me like he was inviting the rest of the class to feel the same way. He paused, and then, with a bit of a smirky sarcastic undertow said: “Well, I really gave the assignment to see if you could intuitively realize what the right answer was, not actually solve the equation”. The room laughed, the bell rang, the class was over.

Something was destroyed that day, during that bizarre experience. It was thrown in the gargantuan reservoir of events that destroy the hope, potential and possibility of girl children who are “smart”. I excised the desire to be a math teacher that day; I think I started thinking of it as something that “cruel” people did for a living. That didn’t make sense, but I thought it anyway. And I told no one this story because at some deep level I knew it was not going to be viewed as a “big deal” and I didn’t want to feel the dismissiveness. I also knew some would think I had asked for it by deliberately being smart in a public way where some men could find it uncomfortable.

Many women opt to not “stay smart” because they know there is a price to pay. Some may also make sure no one knows they are “smart” while secretly being smart. Some may also be bitter and resentful toward women who “stay smart”, as if there is something unfair in the decision made and acted upon. Some stay smart only by imitating the behaviors of men who are smart. Women have options and the choices have consequences.

I always link these two realities in my life: the decision to stay “smart” and the high price of being “smart”. We do not yet have honest conversations about how often the hostile, destructive or cruel responses men feel toward specific women are because these women are “smart” and this creates fear and loathing, insecurity and resentment. We smooth it over like sheets in a rumpled bed, we look the other way.

Because of the many men in my life who I cherish and value, starting with my superb brothers, I can find myself in a space of compassion for men who are struggling with the cultural shifts that have diminished their control and dominance of just about everything. If you have centuries of believing you are superior in all dimensions, it is difficult to have that belief challenged. Conversely, however, since the belief is false, it seems wise to challenge it and introduce a bit of contrasting information. In some small way, I have always believed that my decision to “stay smart” was my contribution to that wise challenge.

“We are entering a period of human history that may provide an answer to the question of whether it is better to be smart than stupid.”

- Noam Chomsky -

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