Me and My Sham Education

For my senior colloquium course in college, I had to read this book, The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez by (you guessed it!) Richard Rodriguez. In it, Rodriguez talks about being a “scholarship boy” and the opportunities it provided him for a life amongst the gringos. He was given opportunities that his parents (who suffered because of a language barrier, in particular) just didn’t have. He was always concerned, however, that he was just pleasing people and going through the motions, that he wasn’t really as smart as everyone led him to believe. Much of this book examines the concept of duality. For a plethora of reasons, I hated it. Something about the language or his opinion of himself. I couldn’t necessarily put my finger on it, but I just hated it.

Then, a few years later, when I was in grad school, I had to read it again. Twice.

The more I read this book, the more I continued to dislike it. But as I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my education lately and where it’s gotten me, I keep coming back to this book. Curses! Something about that idea of duality and binary oppositions, that his entire education was something of a sham started to resonate with me.

A few weeks ago, my mom lugged out this very large shopping bag that was totally full of pictures and things she’d kept from when my siblings and I were younger. Among these were those school memories books – the kind where each page is a kind of envelope to hold report cards, class pictures, awards, and anything else of interest. On the outside were prompts where my mother had filled out information about us for each year. There were lists of our friends and interests, our teachers, etc. I pulled an envelope addressed to my parents out of the pocket designated for kindergarten. Inside that envelope was a letter from the local intermediate unit regarding my psychological testing, dated 1989. That would have made me not yet seven when the test was administered.

This test was given to test my IQ and gather some information about me. Reading the analysis was pretty interesting, and it struck me how similar I am now to how I was 21 years ago. The person compiling the data commented on how I was very shy at first, but slowly warmed up to her and got more comfortable. After giving the results of my tests and explaining my ability to demonstrate my knowledge, it was recommended that I be placed in the Gifted Program beginning in first grade.

I never enrolled in the Gifted Program. My mother chose to keep me out of it because of how shy I was. She was afraid I’d be overwhelmed by the outgoing personalities that were sure to be found in those classes. I believe her exact words (much later) were “They would have eaten you alive.” Still, I excelled in elementary school. Despite a hatred of math, I maintained straight A’s. School was, for the most part, relatively easy. I always welcomed the opportunity to be able to help a classmate who was struggling to understand.

I didn’t have it as easy in junior high. Part of it was becoming lazy, but now that I think about it, in everything except math, I didn’t really have to work very hard. So I just quit working at all. I got bored. My grades plummeted. No one understood. I’d say it was probably around this time that I’d convinced myself and then began trying to convince others that I wasn’t as smart as everyone thought. It had all just been a mistake. Just luck. Just something, but I wasn’t that smart. My teachers continued to tell my mom otherwise.

Going into high school (tenth grade in my town), I changed my mind. I wanted to be smart. I had to fuel a passionate hatred of a comment someone made to me: he told me that I just wasn’t as smart as he was. That sent me into three years of hard work and excellent grades, honor roll, National Honor Society, and graduating with honors. Everyone kept saying things like, “See what happens when you work up to your potential?” The thing is that I can’t remember so much of what I learned in high school, save for some things in English and history classes (my favorites). I had this deep, dark, secret fear that I had just gone through the motions and been fortunate. I didn’t tell anyone. Surely the gig would be up soon.

I finished my first semester of college with a 3.85 grade point average, my name on the Dean’s List, and an invitation to join Alpha Lambda Delta – the National Freshman Honor Society. The following year I was admitted to the English honor society. At the end of the summer before my junior year, I received an email informing me that I’d been recommended to work as a tutor in the Writing Center. That was seven years ago and I’m still trying to figure out how that happened. That might have been one of my luckiest breaks yet, for it truly inspired my passion for tutoring. So much so, in fact, that I knew by the time I graduated that I would really love to work in academic support someday. I just never really thought that I could write that well. I worked hard as a tutor, and during my senior year, I found myself in the student leadership role of the Writing Center. I was achieving, but I was still convinced that it was just a product of hard work and not that I actually knew anything.  I ultimately graduated with a B average and a few rounds on the Dean’s List before it was all said and done. My family all congratulated me. Still, I felt like I was just fooling everyone. Collecting achievements, maybe, but all completely and totally by accident. A fluke.

I’d gone two hours away for college. This doesn’t seem like a lot, but it was further than anyone else in my immediate family (and much of those in my extended family who went to college) had gone. This surprised everyone who always said I’d be a homebody. After college, I moved out of state. Two years of teaching later, the decision to go to grad school was a big one for me. With the exception of my uncle (through marriage) no one in my family had done that. Much in the way Rodriguez’s experiences separated him from his family, I recognized that my own academic experience was sizably different from my family’s – my parents’, in particular. I hope, though, that I never had or will have the condescending attitude toward them that I read R.R. as having toward his parents. In any case, I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to cut it or keep up. I didn’t know what to think when I started consistently receiving more A’s than B’s. Perhaps they’d lowered their standards for me?

I went to graduate school while teaching full time and tutoring part time. I moved back to Pennsylvania in the middle. One night a week after work, I commuted 3 hours to DC for 3 hours of class and then drove 3 hours back home for 3 hours of sleep before getting up for work the next morning. I found “local” universities to finish my classes and drove hours to get to them. I worked hard as I always did, and despite all the factors that would have determined otherwise, I still had my M.A. in two years. And I’d graduated with a 3.75. GPA. I finally started convincing myself that maybe I really was smart.

And then I was unable to find a job, which pulled me right back into thinking that maybe all that education was a sham. I could sit for hours and think of evidence to prove that I’m an intelligent individual. Then I could sit for a few more and think of all the reasons why I’m not. Maybe this is normal. Maybe it’s not. The more I feel as though I’ve gone through life tricking everyone into believing that I’m something that I’m not certain I really am, the more I keep coming back to Rodriguez and that idea of duality. The idea that I’ve led people to believe I’m something, but I believe I’m something else. I keep coming back to the fact that people praise me for my academic accomplishments, my scholarships, the honors and awards that I’m not totally certain I’ve earned. I’ve just been lucky. That must be it. Perhaps it’s more that I am continually questioning identity.

And I am always, always waiting for the day when someone exposes me for the academic fraud I think I am.

[Below are some images taken from my notes on this book the first time I read it, as an undergrad in 2004.]

After I finished writing this post, I looked down and noticed that my college binder was wedged in next to my desk. This is some of what I DO appreciate about Rodriguez (food for thought. Yes, I realize 'imitation' is spelled wrong!).

I used to draw (and really well, obviously) a lot in my notes. This one depicts that idea of duality as it pertains to identity.


2 thoughts on “Me and My Sham Education

  1. Super long reply alert!

    Dude! Ability to find job and personal merit/ reality/tricksiness of education not related!
    I used to have some friends who worked at a pet food store. Their joke was that you had to have your MFA to do so,and therefore they would never look at my resume, haha.

    Seriously, I think a lot of academics and would-be-intellectual types DO spend a lot of time bullshitting, and it’s easy to get caught up in that, but at the end of the day, if you spend time around folks with no initiative, curiosity or appreciation for education, you will be reassured that you are the real deal. You can’t fake the hard work and dedication you talk about in your post. Even if, for example, you had some kind of crazy photographic memory and were able to just spew back whatever each prof wanted to hear and then you graduated with a million point GPA– you still put in the time and the effort. You built up the brain equivalent of muscle. (also, your writing and interest in lit implies you generate plenty of your own ideas.)

    You might just realise over time that you’re taking away different lessons than you thought you were at the time. If that makes any sense. But that doesn’t … uh, what’s the word I’m looking for? Something like ‘lessen’ your accomplishments.

    I’ve spent the last few years seaonally employed, underemployed, or straight up out of work and it does wild and terrible things to self-esteem and self perception. (And general craziness, for me). I don’t know about Pennsylvania, but here in southeast Ontario, and in California where we were living last year, educators were being not hired or pink-slipped by the thousands. It is 100% definitely not you or your abilities. It’s the shitty ass market.

    Which again brings you back to the question of self-doubt- you seem like a super introspective person, and you’re at a crossroads in your life right now- it’s great you can take the time to give things a think, but I hope you don’t beat yourself up over it!

    I started talking to my compy screen when you talked about pretending not to be smart! I can remember the exact moment I started pretending I didn’t know/understand things. I was going to be so cool, you see. Unfortunately, I not only failed to achieve coolness, but I never figured it out and pulled my socks up academically the way you did.

    by any chance, did you get the constant “Just get a university degree and you will be employed/wealthy/satisfied for life” speech from teachers and counsellors through your middle and high school years? That was a big thing in my neck of the woods in the late 80s early 90s. I’m kind of mad I fell for it right away, haha.

    • Loved the super long reply! I think you make a lot of very good points. And when you say it, it makes so much sense to me that I wonder how I never thought about it that way, haha. Especially the part about when you hang around with people who have no drive or ambition, you realize it. And when I think about THAT a little bit more, that’s probably a big cause of the divide that I feel between myself and others sometimes. There are a lot of people hanging around my town who don’t care to ever get out. I encounter them pretty frequently (and I’m related to a few).

      It’s funny – you’re the second person in the last 3 weeks to point out how introspective I am. I guess I really am, haha. All that thinking can drive me nuts sometimes (in addition to the self worth issues raised, as you said, by the employment factor — you’re absolutely correct again. I’ve noticed that it’s also an issue I keep addressing in my writing, too.)

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