Friday, November 1, 2013

Getting Over My Toxic Exceptionalism

I'm applying for grad school this fall. Specifically I'm applying for MFA programs in order to study both poetry and creative non-fiction.

As some of you may know I have a fraught history with education. I dove straight into college after high school and after college straight into graduate school for teaching (which I failed to finish).

My motivation for crashing headlong into academia was a strange amalgam of insecurity, fear, shame, and a trust in the messages public school had taught me about exceptionalism. I was taught and believed that I was exceptional based on my high achievement in early schooling and ability to charm adults. I believed I was exceptional and this belief has derailed my life for a long while.

In high school my grades started to slip little bit, for a few weeks this terrified me, but eventually, in order to maintain my view of myself as exceptional, I decided that some parts of high school just didn't matter, that I was above them and that I should just concentrate on getting out because college was where I would really succeed anyway.

Being a fist generation college student I always felt a sense of non-belonging in academia. There were words and social structures I didn't understand (like fellowship), and even though I was sure that my intelligence made me exceptional, I felt constantly terrified that I would be spotted as an impostor in this unfamiliar world of academia.

In order to blend in I concentrated on more "rigorous" studies. I eschewed full time focus on some of my greatest passions poetry, writing, feminism, queer studies. These where things I KNEW I loved but didn't let myself do so openly. Somehow I learned that no successful person ever showed anything but ancillary interest in such topics.

By the time I reached my senior year in college I had been able to weave some of my passions into the conventional academic success route. I was working as a tutor at the writing center and taking courses in education and literature.

I knew that to survive and be acceptable as a literary & creative person in this world I would have to be a teacher. And my current politics and conception of the world told me I needed to be a public high school teacher. And I LOVED the idea of teaching. I still do. But for a long time I ignored the realities of what a public school teaching position meant. I care about pedagogies and how people learn but I don't have the capacity to throw my full self into the physically demanding often 60 hour work week of being a radical high school teacher.

Though I ultimately failed in the program, it was through Evergreen's MIT program I learned the most invaluable tool for deconstructing the lie of exceptionalism.

On the very first day all the students in the cohort read a small section of a study by Carol Dweck. It demonstrated that children who were taught that their intelligence and skills where changeable attributes vastly outperformed children who where taught that their intelligence and skills where fixed. The belief that your skills are changeable enables you to take the risks necessary for doing great work. Even though I learned it that day on a conscious level it has taken years to really sink in and integrate into my views of the world.

My intelligence and skills are not exceptional. Nor do I need them to be. Knowing this frees me from the burden of "using my gifts wisely and graciously". It frees me for the expected paths of people of high/exceptional intelligence. Part of me is ashamed that I once thought of mysef this way.

But another part of me knows that thinking this way was a reflexive short cut to getting myself into a different situation in life.

I knew I didn't want to have the same sort of life my older cousins and my neighbors where having, so I latched onto an idea that obfuscated my responsibility for those wants. I didn't want a different life because I just wanted it, I of course wanted it because I was a different sort of person than my family and community. I let myself believe I was excpetional.

This was of course a mischaracterization of both myself and those in my communities. I wanted the things I wanted because I wanted them, it was simple as that.

The terrifying freedom in Dweck's growth mindset is that I no longer have a excuse to duck the things I feel compelled to do and to do well and frequently. I can no longer hide behind my "gift" of intelligence as an excuse to do what the world has deemed to be the right thing. Now I'm forced to look into my own wants and based on what I find there, create "the right thing".

Increasingly in the last 3 years this has been writing and the study of feminism, classism, and queer issues. I never directly studied such issues in college (though I enjoyed supplemental courses and queer/class/feminist lenses whenever they were brought into classes).

It's funny that being in the "real world" rather than in school has really brought home for me in a material way how very little it matters whether one is exceptional or not. Commitment to and showing up for what I want to do matters so much more. Effort is the only real measurable form of progress I can make toward creating a significant body of work.

In some sense I have always known that writing was the life for me (mind you not the only life I live). Even before I knew how to write, I remembered the thrill of telling stories to my siblings and friends on camping trips or on the playground.

I had a strikingly beautiful realization my junior year of college that's resonated since. When assigned to do an anthropological study on the language of students who are in the age group you anticipate teaching. I chose to record a conversation between my two sisters (15 &17 at the time). In listening to the tapes afterward I realized that the family & community I had so tried to escape and exceptionalize myself away from where the very source of my love of language and my ease at slipping into playing with it. My family's dinner tables is rife with puns and amusement at near/internal rhymes and regularly engage in both intentional and unintentional spoonerisms.

When I started writing poetry in the 9th grade My father claimed to have no interest or ability to understand poetry. To this day that moment, or I suppose the many moment that led up to my reaching this conclusion, infuriated me. At the time I used my frustration as an excuse to distance myself from my "lowbrow" family. But today I know, my lowbrow family is the source of much of the rich, risky, unselfconscious choices I make in my writing. And that my father was simply reciting what his teachers had told him about his ability to understand language.

I am not an exception to my community of origin. I am what I am to a large extent because of that community. My family taught me not to be afraid to play, and they didn't teach me that because they thought I was exceptional, they taught me that because they loved me and I was a part of them. I still am. My family will always be a part of my writing.

Since leaving school I'm so grateful to have gone through the euphemism of "getting back to my roots". And so as I start drafting my artists statement and gaze over grad school applications I am terrified. I am terrified that by going back to school I will once again fall into thinking about myself as exceptional or that I will not be accepted if I refuse to. I am afraid that this deeply important connection I have developed to my families (both blood and chosen) will not be seen as valid or rigorous enough. I am afraid.

But I am applying anyway. Because I want learn how to put a book together. I want to learn what tools I need to make a living out of my passion and how to use those tools. I want the credentials to teach and to have the professional and academic communities offer a venue for my ability to recognize and mentor the voices of others.

So yes, I'm scared. But it is no longer the fear of being found out as non exceptional, or as an impostor. I know that I will always feel a little bit strange and out of place in the academy.

I'm afraid of the cost, not just in dollars (most application to grad schools cost at least 50$) but also on my psyche and on my relationships with the people in my communities and families. I know that schooling will pull me away from the people I love (especially considering that some of these schools are hundreds of miles away). Never again do I want to be encouraged to disregard my roots. But if through an MFA program I am pulled closer to my craft and I'm able to cultivate a more sustainable relationship with my passion it might just be worth it.

This post was of course inspired greatly by the work of Carol Dweck, my family, my own failures, the process of deciding to apply for grad school and Sherman Alexie's fantastic piece for the Atlantic about the poem that changed his life (which I found both deeply inspiring and unfortunately slightly dismissing of his culture of origin).

Some of my upcoming posts may include drafts of my artists statement.

1 comment:

  1. Your story of feeling 'exceptional' reminded me of my own life. I was trained to believe I was exceptional. I struggled under that complex for a long time. It caused me shame and embarrassment. Caused me to be arrogant, and mean to other people. Made me more isolated. Prevented me from having a lot of fun, bonding, and enriching life-experiences with my peers.

    You said Carol Dweck helped change your mindset. My progress was different. It happened through being confronted with evidence in my life. People who demonstrated gifts and abilities I didn't have. People who achieved things I couldn't. Many small bites, from many different angles, each weakening the complex a little bit. A friend scoring very high on her SATs. People beating me at competitions. Showing deep knowledge of things I thought I knew.

    I think people need their complexes, in a way. The mind needs a system with which to explain things. If you believe something, and life gradually breaks down the illusion, your mind needs something else to fill the void. Another way to orient the self with the outside world.

    For me, I think I partly replaced exceptionalism with the concept of freedom. Something like, "I may not be better than everyone else--but neither are they better than me. I get to decide for myself what is valuable. What kind of life I want to try to live."

    That helps me accept things when the inevitable situations arise, in which people outshine me at things I care about. Cultivating a sense of humour about it also helped.

    It resonated with me, when you said the real world does not care whether you're exceptional or not. As I've gotten older, I've seen a phenomenon, sort of like "slow and steady wins the race." In the end, what gets recognized is achievement, not talent. When people accomplish exceptional things, there's some mixture of talent, effort, persistence, and luck. It's beautiful how many different ways it can happen. No person or situation is the same.

    The shift in perception continues as time goes by. I'm gradually seeing life, less as a competition, with winners and losers, and more as an environment of possibilities. A community of participants who can interact and enrich each other.

    I also want to point out--the exceptionalist mentality is tied up with ambition. Ambition is a two-edged sword. Sometimes enriching, sometimes torturing. I've come to see in in a lens of relativity. One person's high achievement is another person's coasting-along. It's a personal thing. It's based on people's situations, histories, luck. There is no right answer to how ambitious you should be. But people act like there is.

    I would caution you about trafficking in the concept of 'failure.' On the surface, the word just means 'not achieving what you expected or intended.' People sometimes use it to mean that. But dig deeper, and 'failure' is the idea that one's personal worth is contingent upon meeting some specific expectation that is imposed from the outside. It's a toxic trap; but it's also something to mature and grow out of. The young inherit their beliefs, while the fully mature are able to decide for themselves.

    Anyway, thanks for posting about this. It's good to see we've gone through some of the same things. And to write about what's been affecting me in my life.