Last weekend, Robert came home with cool news: This Friday is the Science Olympiad. I don't yet know the parameters of this hootenanny, but it's not at his school, so there are probably a bunch of schools involved. And my not-so-little boy has been chosen to represent his school's fourth grade.
When he told me about it, he was psyched. He presented the permission slip proudly and liked his team's chances. "We've got a lot of areas of expertise covered," he said. "We've got this girl who, like, knows EVERY bone in the body."
This morning, he tried to back out of it. He got nervous and squirrelly, and DID NOT WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT.
And I think I can relate.
When I was in fifth grade, we had a schoolwide spelling tournament. Each classroom had its own bee, and the winners advanced to the Big Event in the auditorium, in front of the whole school.
It was a peripatetic time, schoolwise. My third school in three years. So when they announced this spellapalooza, I saw an opportunity. I was a good speller, and whipping these chumps would be the best way to announce my presence with authority. It was in the bag.
In the first round, Mrs. Baker went down the rows of the classroom, giving each kid a word to spell. The words began with successive letters of the alphabet; since I was fifth in my row, I was going to get an E word. I mentally ticked off possibilities while the kids in front of me spelled "ahead," "basic," "candid," and "doorknob."
Two-syllable words! How quaint. Whatcha got for me, Ms. B? Bring it on!
My word was "ecru."
My heart seized. Eck-what? I asked her to repeat it, and it sounded as much like Martian talk the second time.
What the hell kind of word is that?
I hemmed and stammered. I asked all the bullshit stalling questions I could think of. Mrs. Baker sounded it out for me deliberately, as if thinking "Goddammit, this word is way too hard, maybe because fifth graders don't spend all that much time DISTINGUISHING KHAKI FROM OATMEAL."
I gave it my best shot. "E-C-R-E-W?"
And the boy destined to wear the school's supreme spelling laurel had crapped out on the first word. I was devastated and incredulous. How could this happen? I'm SMART!
By now, I hope you've read Po Bronson's piece about how it's much better to extol effort rather than intellect. After I read it, I related to all of it. People told me I was smart all the time when I was a kid, because that was the accepted wisdom. Praise-and-inspire, youcandoit!
Now we can see the downside of all that acclaim--apart from all the self-inflated gasbags who derive such pride from their Aristotelian insights into the Real Housewives ouevre. Being told you're smart creates pressure to perform, to keep up the image. Because if you're ever exposed as the dolt you really are (or think yourself to be), especially in the crucible of early-onset tweenhood, your life is finished.
I've tried to remember all this, but calling him smart is still a reflex I have to catch. But even if his parents can rein in the brainpraise, he still hears it from other sources (teachers, classmates, etc.). Kids have been calling him a nerd for years, and he's only recently discovered how to supplant shame with pride.
But still, here he is. Chosen by his peers to compete in front of a large forum, and scared to death that he'll debunk his rep.
I'm not sure what to do yet, apart from not let him back out of it. I think I'll try telling him about my spelling fiasco, and hope to convey to him that winning is great, but endeavoring is the real victory.
I don't remember if I could have absorbed a message like that when I was 10. But then, he's a lot smarter than I am.