Her eyes, the truth, the vain insanity of wanting, nay, needing to look … intelligent pulls feebly at her ego. How one could even know if he/she is smart soon becomes the truly inane question. She remembers the one time she felt legitimately smart. Not to say that she feels or believes herself to be stupid, quite the contrary, unfortunately. No matter, there was this one time wherein she really felt exceptionally smart.
The man looks at her from across the space and says something to her in a language she, after living in this foreign country for four years, still does not understand. She waves a hand in dismissal and with a kind smile, continues to browse.
Elementary school for her included the first through fourth grades. During all of this time her teachers noticed her for her academic performance, and she felt good about life, in general, because for her, school was life. By the time middle school rolled around, she had been categorized as one of those extra-curricular, super-extra-curricular types who received opportunity after opportunity to learn beyond the daily assignments of the grade within which she currently resided. This, of course, was nothing special to her. She lived in the overwhelmingly large shadow of her brother’s intelligence, but again, of course, all of this was merely normal since she had so easily fallen into his footsteps. She never displaced her older brother, however, but she did fulfill every expectation.
She smiles and kindly requests the assistance of the man across the space. He walks over to where she stands, and she taps on the glass, pointing. Sliding open a small door at the back of the case, the man reaches in and attempts to correctly retrieve the pair of frames she points at in want. “No, there,” she shyly mumbles using two of the dozen or so words she knows. The man points again, “Yes,” she nods.
Obviously, no two people have the same experience of life and living. Even siblings who grow up in the same household enact two vastly differing lives. It is because of this that she realizes the truly detrimental effects of cordoning off “top academic performers” from the rest of her peers. If, in order to live in a good world, the world needs everyone to live with others in mind, then why does society, specifically American society, train its children in school to believe that learning is a competition rather than a necessary element for a good life, a right, not a privilege? If we want people to live in this world a certain way, then everyone needs to be educated in the same way. Education cannot be a merit-based endeavor. There is, of course, nothing wrong, per se, with a merit-based society, but education cannot flourish if students are forced to compete in an environment that’s supposed to be teaching them. The point of school is to learn. There’s no need for there to be time constraints on that learning, and if a student does not learn, whose fault is it really? If a reward is the only motivator for learning, then the student is short changed, which means that society as a whole will be short changed by the citizens within it. She always knew that she was not stupid, but she never felt as though she was smart, smarter than other students. At a young age, she could spell things and add things a little bit faster and more accurately than others, and so, she received a lot of extra attention. That attention ultimately made her more capable of learning because she was learning outside of regular school hours. School then became easy because she had already learned the things she needed to learn at school. She wasn’t special or even brilliant. She was simply learning more at an unfair, privileged rate.
“How much are these?” she confidently asks. The man responds, “Twenty thousand won.” That’s the rough equivalent to twenty dollars, she determines. Dirt cheap, she thinks, which means they’re probably really, really cheap. It’s a new look, however, and states, “I need lenses.” “Ah,” the man replies, and then he continues on with words and questions she does not understand. They look at each other blankly. She begins to sweat. “Uh,” the man thinks. He reaches his hands out as if he’s going to take the glasses off her face. “Oh,” she slowly understands and peels her glasses off and hands them to the man.
Being labelled as “smart” during one’s formative years really means very little, if nothing at all, except in the sense that some people are not labelled as “smart.” She remembers vividly feeling pressured by this label, and too often times felt unsure about her true abilities. Then, one day, during an English test in middle school, she scored the only perfect score in the class. The teacher promptly invited her to visit the teacher after class, and the teacher congratulated her with kind words and a small card. She had studied hard for that test because she wanted to do well. English was, by far, her worst subject, and the results made her feel as though, maybe, just maybe, she was truly smart. Since the overachiever’s label and proceeding scholastic path was stamped upon her at too young an age, she was always surrounded by others with the same stamp, and so, sadly, she never knew what life was like for anyone else who showed up to school unstamped. This, of course, like so many things, would not actually mean much to her until she entered the “real world” as an adult, many years later. Nevertheless, the bubble within which she was unknowingly planted provided some seriously privileged benefits, but it also deprived her of a deeper understanding of what life was like for everyone else. Eventually, reality meets delusion, and she learned or realized that she was the odd one.
Quickly, the man walks with her glasses to the other side of the space where a monocular microscope-type thing sits on top of another glass case. He examines the prescription of each lens of her glasses. After a minute or so, he looks up at her and says something that she only understands enough of to know that her lenses will cost 50,000 won. “Seventy-thousand won for frames and lenses?” she asks. The man nods, “Yes.” “Oh, okay,” she responds. “Ah, good,” the man acknowledges as he reaches for a pen and order form.
Living, of course, now, within the adult world of the “real,” where earned rewards are hard to come by, she finds herself constantly frustrated and burdened by her supposed intellectual excellence. She struggles to succeed in a world where she must earn her place within it. Perhaps the situation is pitiful and pathetic, but perhaps, her story is fair. Does anyone, she wonders, care if I’m smart if I have nothing to show for it?