What does it mean to be ‘clever’?


Last week was possibly the most stressful week of my time at university, despite only having one deadline, and I’m wiped out. I know we are almost at the end of March and my monthly update is not out, it will be out tomorrow I promise. This month has been mad for me with health and life problems, so I haven’t had the time to really motivate my time to reflecting. 

I was always the token ‘dumb’ friend, I don’t think people realised I noticed how they’d speak down to me. I don’t think they still realise; I’d make one mistake and rarely live it down in people’s eyes. Someone genuinely made a deal with me that every time I used a ‘long-word’ correctly they’d give me 5p, how did I let that slide? I did some stupid things, and my grades were terrible, but I was also in an environment which was fuelled by those with higher average grades than most. 

I noticed how teachers would give up on me during lessons and then conveniently conjure up enough belief in me at parent’s evenings that would belittle my obvious struggles whilst saying I should do more work as I was full of potential. They didn’t believe that though, I was their anomaly, and they didn’t know how to manage it. I still don’t know how I got to where I am today, I was told frequently I’d never make it anywhere. I believed them too.

Before I joined my secondary school, I had one of the best grades in my primary school, I had one of the highest SAT scores in both Maths and English. My science grades lacked, but that’s not a shock considering how terrible I still am at science. I truly believed I was gifted before secondary school; I was amazing at tests and rarely felt pressure. The only time I can remember pressure was doing the entry exams to the private schools in the area, around the same time my mental health was lacking, and I was struggling to concentrate and motivate myself to get into a school that I knew none of my ‘friends’ would be going to. I still got into all the schools despite it all, those tests were the first ones I ever struggled with. The first time I cried because of an exam I was so overwhelmed I didn’t know how to deal with it, unfortunately it went downhill from that day.

Since then, I would revise and if I was quizzed before an exam by my friends, I knew the stuff, then I’d get into the exam hall sit down and my brain would wipe. I couldn’t remember facts, quotes, statistics, etc. my brain would reset. I always thought I just wasn’t capable, because that’s what I was told. However, it was my anxiety and for the longest time I let people trick me into thinking I was a waste of potential and instead I would flourish in a non-academic position. 

When it came to applying for university, I was a mess, I wasn’t sure it was the perfect route for me and then my predicted grades felt like it cemented I was never going to get in. I remember crying over and over again, especially when certain teachers told me I’d be better off not going to university and continuing in my job at McDonalds. Yes, that really did happen. I put all the negativity to the back of my mind and applied for Sociology at four universities and Social Work at one; within 10 days I had acceptance from four and an interview invite from the other. Even with my terrible grades. 

Then came the confidence, I knew I’d still have to get the grades they were offering, and my teachers reminded me continuously I wasn’t clever enough to do so. I didn’t feel like it was a problem however, and the closer it got to the real exams the more stressed I became. I wasn’t doing any better, and I was still struggling to manage my anxiety surrounding exams and tests. Then one day I got a letter from the University of Plymouth, it gave me an unconditional and meant that my work was no longer a worry. I’m so relieved that happened, because truly I wouldn’t be in this position had it not been for that letter. No one could believe it and teachers were so shocked they stopped talking to me and actively avoided bumping into me.

I left school with two A Levels, I barely studied and didn’t particularly care what happened. I was working most days and others drinking away my depressive moods. I didn’t really focus much, and the further I got into the exams the less I seemed to care. So, when it came to results day the only tears, I was seen with were over the fact my best friend didn’t get into Plymouth with me. (I know she’s reading this and scowling so I’ll put the records straight- she did get in just not for the course she wanted and ended up elsewhere instead). 

I was nervous though; through school I was always the dumb child. People spoke down to me and made me feel inferior just because my intelligence wasn’t measured by the same standards as them. I didn’t care about grades, I had real life experiences and to be completely honest I was just happy and proud to be alive. I went to university thinking I was stupid and was shocked when my grades started coming back well, I wasn’t failing and till second year’s exam I wasn’t even getting close to the failing mark. I’d put bare minimum effort into modules I found less interesting and still do decently, I was in utter shock.

The problem is, I wasn’t confident within myself. I’d write my assignments how I’d speak, never using long words as I was scared, I’d use them wrong, or someone would see past this façade I believed I was putting on. The number of times I had ‘academic tone’ sprawled over my essays is evidence of this. I love writing, but I’m unsure how to sound clever as I spent so many years living up to this ideology that I was not just inadequate but entirely useless. I still struggle with this today, I actually voiced my issues to my PhD supervisors telling them I was terrified that the way I was writing my proposal was making me sound dumb as I was using ‘short words’ and they told me I was overthinking. The problem is, when you’ve spent your whole life trying to prove your worth you get into a nasty headspace. 

The truth is I was never dumb, no matter what people said about me I wasn’t dumb. I didn’t need ten people to explain the simplest of things like people thought, I just didn’t enjoy the subjects. Education isn’t linear and I’m proof that just because I went to a ‘good’ school and had ‘support’ and ‘opportunities’ doesn’t mean that I am well educated. I didn’t learn anything about life, about living or progression past our bubble. I barely understood how university worked, educationally I didn’t understand my own mental health problems and I definitely didn’t understand how to project a future which wasn’t your typical STEM, medical or economics route. 

I was an anomaly, my time at school taught me to appreciate the social skills I have been blessed with. I struggle to speak and give opinions in groups of people, but I more than make up for it with my ability to listen and comprehend what is being said to me. If I’d been listened to by my teachers when I’d said I didn’t want to go to university and that my future wasn’t dependent on some letters on a piece of paper, then perhaps I wouldn’t be in the position I am now. With my dream of being a doctorate around the corner (a six-year corner but still close) it’s very difficult not to reflect on what would’ve been had I been listened to and understood back in school. 

I spent every day struggling to fit in with a group of people who are academically excellent. Trust me- I’ve been friends with them, I’ve lived in shadow of my YOUNGER sister my whole life and I’ve never forgotten the comments on my academics I’ve endured over the years. I’m not an A* student, in fact I rarely saw one through my time in education and when I was lucky to it was usually out of pity and not related to my exams. Grades don’t define you; you aren’t worth the same as some letters on a piece of paper. That being said, grades help you get where you want to be. I can’t deny that I’ve not sat and cried when applying for my masters that my A Level grades were not even sub-par and had potential to completely derail the future, I’m currently in. I also know that I’m at a point in my academic life that my qualifications post-school will end up outweighing any grades I had previously and shouldn’t hinder my future opportunities.

To anyone out there like me, you are worth so much. You are not worthless, useless, ‘going nowhere’. Our education system survives on those with good memories, we reward those who can memorise and string together responses and look down on those who mentally don’t have the capacity to do so. Hopefully one day that changes, I know that I would’ve benefitted from that and maybe one day we’ll stop forcing competition between peers over trivial problems like Pythagoras or the dates that specific events happened in WW2. I look forward to a day where hopefully my children don’t feel pressured to conform to typical academic standards. 


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