I recently overheard a conversation between two teen boys that is still replaying in my head two weeks later. One of the boys asked the other a trivia question from the bottom of a Snapple bottle cap. Unable to answer the question correctly upon multiple attempts. The boy said sheepishly, “Ya, I’m not very smart.” As soon as the statement came out of his mouth a mixture of anger and sadness washed over me. I know this boy has never considered himself smart. Not only has he struggled in a school system that hasn’t fit his learning style, he’s also followed the shadow of an older sibling that navigated the system quite well. He has never been in advanced placement classes, scored high on state testing, or been listed on the honor roll however, he is one of the smartest kids I have ever met.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “smart” as:
Mentally alert; bright
Neat, Trim: Stylish in dress or appearance.
This kid is the epitome of each one of these definitions. He has a vibrant personality, the quickest wit of anyone I’ve ever encountered, an uncanny sense of fashion and rhythym, and is extremely knowledgeable in the areas of his passion. Why does our culture have such a narrow and skewed perception of “smart”? I am not pointing blame on his teachers, parents, or schools. I think it goes much deeper than that. It’s embedded in our conversations, television shows, movies, and music. Often the kid who doesn’t excel in school is labeled as “dumb” or not "college bound”. Flippant comments, movie lines, and song lyrics become a repeating dialogue that replays in the minds of people that have gone through life thinking they are not “smart”.
I am a perfect example of somebody that has repeated this dialogue in my head throughout my lifetime. I struggled in school. I had a very difficult time focusing and learning the traditional way. Being a very quiet and well-behaved child masked my very strong indications of ADD/ADHD. So not only did I go through school thinking I wasn’t “smart” I didn’t have the accommodations that would have helped me navigate the school system. I was fortunate to live in a supportive home and have amazing parents and yet, I still listened to the echos of a society that painted "smart" in a way that didn't describe me. It has taken me half a lifetime to finally realize that I am “smart” in a variety of ways and I still struggle believing it. I know that my intuitive and sensitive nature enables me to read the emotional climate of a room very easily, I can see an idea or strategy and be able to find ways to adapt it to a variety of situations, I have an eye for design, and I can make food that is not only delicious, but also beautiful to look at. However, I can’t tell you how awkward it is for me to even share that. In fact, I battle negative self-talk in my mind on the daily. Every time I’m in a room with people who fit my former definition of “smart”, anxiety and imposter syndrome attack me. I have to make a conscious decision to flood my mind with reminders of why I belong in the conversation.
When I think about this teenage boy and my younger self, I am more motivated than ever to help today’s youth discover all the ways that they are “smart” and help our schools foster environments where all of our students can thrive. We live in an amazing and exciting time in education where we can access resources and technology to create absolutely magical learning experiences. Let’s all work together to help all of our students realize how incredibly “smart” they really are so they can discover their true potential.
Student Engagement & PD Specialist in Southern Oregon, Canva Learning Consultant, Canva Education Creator, and author of Make Learning Magical. I'm passionate about finding innovative ways to transform teaching and create unforgettable experiences in the classroom.