On Being Smart (Or: “Posted” is a Relative Term)

(November 2019)

for Pierre Archambault

Events from what increasingly feel like a past life led me to believe that I was “stupid.” Other events, from an era that similarly feels increasingly like a dream, led me to believe that there was no point to being “smart.”

Let’s talk about “stupid” first. The who/what/when/where/why/how doesn’t matter. The fact is, I was told I was stupid not infrequently while growing up. It was never in school; it was also never true. Nonetheless, I carried that message around with me wherever I went, for a long time, as a heavy, dense, and yet somewhat elusive — deceptive? — parcel.

The thing is, I never actually thought I wasn’t mentally capable of something. In fact, I always felt, instinctually, that limitations are mere perceptions, and that anyone can learn anything so long as they set their mind to it. So when it was revealed at a young age that I have perfect pitch  (“The microwave is in B!”), or when my father discovered that I could solve math problems in my head before attending kindergarten, I never really understood what the “big deal” was.

Can’t everyone do it?

Throughout childhood, I taught myself how to play several instruments, and excelled in most subjects in school (the exceptions: spelling and gym). After half-heartedly taking Latin classes throughout high school, I learned that I apparently have a knack for languages through my intensive study of Chinese in college. Basically, I love the process of figuring out systems. Below is particularly salient example:

Preface: I love maps. I have ever since I was a little girl, when I would stare at my 3-D map of the Green Mountains and leaf through my dad’s topography maps of New England’s Hundred Highest peaks for hours. And I love figuring out rail networks in major metropolitan areas. I also hate GPS and the overlords at Google and their crude, brain-numbing mapping system. But anyway…

An astounding 8 years ago (!!), my sister and I had just arrived in Moscow at the tail end of a fabulous 3-week long trip through Scandinavia and Russia, and were taking public transit from the airport to our digs in the city center. My sister, knowing that I like — nay, need —  to be the navigator on trips, had been generously letting me figure out the trains throughout not just Russia, but Scandinavia as well.

However, unlike in the (surprisingly!) tourist-friendly St. Petersburg, there was no English accompanying the Cyrillic signage in the outskirts of Moscow, where the airport rail link dropped us off, to gently guide us to the weird, most likely sketchy hostel that we had booked (thaaaat’s another story). Indeed, there was nothing but walls of what appeared to be hand-painted Cyrillic everywhere, guiding those in the know to various districts in the greater Moscow metropolitan area that would be overwhelming to pretty much anyone else. Meanwhile, the setting sun, sub-freezing temperatures, and slummy conditions of where this all was — I seem to recall people huddled around trash fires, eyeing us two lone non-Russian English-speakers with what seemed like vaguely threatening apprehension — contributed to an increasing sense of urgency to get the hell out of there as soon as possible.

So there I was, scrambling to understand where we were in relation to the district we needed to be, and trying to read the laughably analog Cyrillic signage in the waning daylight. Meanwhile, my sister was curiously and leisurely waiting, observing the scene, twiddling her thumbs (or so it seemed in my increasingly overwhelmed state). Annoyed and a bit frazzled, I asked her if she wouldn’t mind, you know, helping out so we could get the hell out of dodge and settle in for the night after a day of domestic travel on airplanes with ashtrays built into the seats, but she reminded me that it was I who had insisted on deciphering maps and trains in Russia in the first place– and that, you know, I “like this kinda thing anyway.”

And in a line that remains infamous to this day to everyone in my family (“That’s SO Jill!!”), I slowly, but impatiently inquired:

“… you’re telling me you can’t read any Cyrillic?”

(Love ya, sis. Dude, this is still so funny. Although you ended up coming through HARD when we were trying to find the entrance to Lenin’s tomb, and you pointed out the subtle difference between “exit” and “entrance” in Russian, and guided us to the correct waiting spot.)

Back to the principal topic at hand. So, objectively, I’ve always known that I’m clearly not “stupid”; beyond sheer capabilities, my credentials reflect that I’m not some idiot. But there has been a persisting sense of not being good enough that has haunted me for much of life. What’s tricky about these feelings is that they hide out not in any ideas that I’m outright “stupid” per se, but rather in ideas that my accomplishments are somehow due to luck or circumstances, rather than talent and hard-work.

OK, I taught myself how to play the trumpet, and the music teacher at Fairfield Center School repeatedly told my family that I am “extremely gifted.” Later in high school, Trey Anastasio called my high school to personally recruit me for the Vermont Youth Orchestra because of a concert at Carnegie Hall they were playing, and wanted “the best young trumpet player in Vermont” to serve as principal of the section.

But you don’t understand… trumpet really is easy. Once you understand the partial/interval ratio, the rest falls into place. Besides, learning to make a sound is simple– just visualize it and you’re good to go. And any musician will tell you that memorizing music comes naturally once you truly understand a piece.

So I have degrees, with honors, from two of the most prestigious institutions in the country.

Ah, but I was the risk candidate for undergrad– the poor country kid that ticks some diversity box. Plus, they probably needed to meet their Vermont quota and represent all 50 states in the student body. And for the PhD? Don’t be so fooled; Cornell is the “Dumb Ivy.” I mean, come on, haven’t you ever seen  The Office? Andy Bernard is funny ‘cuz he’s true.

Fluent in Chinese and Japanese?

Yeah, but Chinese grammar is actually quite simple, and tones really aren’t that complicated– just listen. And Japanese? I just picked it up when I lived there… anyone can learn anything in that environment.

I constantly put myself down to devalue my accomplishments. And it’s not that I even mean to do that; it’s more like I don’t want anyone to be impressed by me, or to treat me differently somehow.

Plus, I really do believe that anyone can learn anything if they set their mind to it; to me, it really isn’t a big deal.

This leads into the second idea presented in this article: that I grew to believe that there was no point to being “smart.” It wasn’t that I was actively picked on in school for being smart per se,  but rather that being different or outstanding in any way would threaten my already precarious social status among my peers. While I was definitely an outsider at school — the poor tall kid with homemade clothes from way up on the Ridge with divorced parents and a mom from New Jersey in an extremely Irish Catholic community –I wasn’t actively bullied. Instead, I was ignored at best, and at worst I’d hear under-the-breath comments about how I was “weird” or “annoying;” nothing too bad, considering the propensity for cruelty in children (who are, after all, merely acting out or against their roles at home). And the truth is, a part of me WANTED to be ignored, because if people found out that I as any more “weird” than my physical appearance suggested, I’d be ostracized further.

Because a lot of the people where I’m from have multi-generational family farming backgrounds — thereby reducing any societal impetus to ” go to college and get a good job” — there wasn’t a social emphasis on higher education. I still cultivated my intellect because I instinctually knew from a young age that education would serve as a ticket into a different world, but I did so in secret to avoid outwardly dealing with push-back from peers and even teachers.

This pushback was actually felt more acutely at my high school, which was the next town over in the county seat that drew students from all the local farming communities (such as mine) that were too small to support their own high school. After getting accepted to UChicago as a senior, classmates made biting, indirect quips about how “I thought I was better than everyone else” for not only going to some fancy college, but to one so far away.

“What they got in Chicago they ain’t got right here?”

Of course, college was a fun and meaningful time for me because it was the first time I felt like I could be myself without getting dragged down into Small Town Politik. No longer was I considered the “annoying, goofy weirdo”; I had friends– boyfriends! I could muse about social theory in peace without being told I was too dreamy, too unrealistic, too impractical… or “too” anything, for that matter.  And honestly, a part of me did feel like I was better than Franklin County, if only because I was continually singled out there as some kind of weirdo. I didn’t intend to have a chip on my shoulder by the time I left at age 17, but wouldn’t you want to get the hell out of where you grew up if you were voted “Goofiest” in your high school year book?

As I continued journeying into the academic world, though, I began to wonder more about the roots I had run so far and fast away from. By the time I had a few years under my belt in a PhD program at Cornell, the circular intellectualism, the unacknowledged privilege, and the self-congratulatory nature of academia began to sit wrong in my gut. After the 2016 election, when my colleagues threw a post-election “party” and complained — verbatim — that “anyone who voted for Trump is evil,” something in me officially snapped:

“Everyone in my immediate family, except for two people, voted for Trump,” I said. “Are you telling me my mother is evil?”

Silence; uncomfortable squirming.

”How many of you even know anyone first-hand who voted for Trump?” I asked.

More silence.

And that’s when I excused myself. Although I didn’t vote for Trump myself — or Clinton, for that matter — that’s when I understood that my roots taught me a lot more than I had realized. As a woman that grew up on a dirt road in rural America, I know of a place outside the sheltered walls of the academic world. I know how to listen and accept those who have different opinions than me.

And although I’m no Trump supporter myself, I know that elite, privileged intellectuals purporting tenants of tolerance and acceptance while, in actuality, talking down to anyone who disagrees with their opinions is one of the reasons why our society is currently so divided.

I went back to my childhood house this past June, which my mom sold after I went to Chicago. Driving back to Franklin County and seeing the signs for “Canada, 8 Miles” before taking the dirt roads back to my hometown, my heart skipped a couple of beats. Before going home, though, I did a little joyride to places of meaning and nostalgia.

The old farmhouses up on the Juaire Road haven’t changed a bit– weathered by harsh winters, they stand strong, if somewhat worn. That one barn that was held up by 2 x 4’s finally fell down. Tommy’s farm still looks like it’s up and running. The gate to the cemetery on the Bradley Road is closed these days.

At last I turned up onto the Ridge Road, where there are no houses for miles as you wind up through the woods and namesake ridge before arriving at the top of a big hill. Once there, you’ll see an old family farm on hundreds of acres of increasingly overgrown pastures, since they don’t keep as many cows as they used to. Go up to the fork; going right will take you to one outpost of the notorious Irish Catholic family that effectively runs this town, and going left to the dead end will take you to my old house.

I parked at the horse barn technically owned by the neighbors who live half a mile in the woods, in a beautiful house where no one ever stayed for long. Connecticut people, or city people, would move in and out after their first northern winter. I heard it’s just seasonal people now who live there– and apparently, the people who bought our house are seasonals, too.

I walked through the woods into the pasture with all the milkweed, sumac, and raspberry bushes, careful not to get into the prickers (apparently, “pricker” is a country word. But what else are you supposed to call ’em?).

Ah, they cut down the trees by the pond for some reason; oh well.

I went toward the old Hollow Tree, careful to walk on the outskirts of the property since I know the new people have loud dogs. But since I know that property like the back of my hand, I know exactly where to go to not get noticed.

Call it the same visio-spatial reasoning that piques my curiosity in maps!

My sister and I used to run away way into the back fields when things at home got chaotic. It’s a spot where an exposed granite ledge meets a tiny grove of apple trees; we called it the “Secret Spot.” We’d play house there, pretending that we had everything we needed and didn’t have to go home. I hadn’t been to the Secret Spot since I went to college fourteen years ago, and although the landscape had changed, I had no doubt that I’d recognize where it was by feeling it.

Alright, it’s around here somewhere… wow, it’s really grown up with pricker bushes, hasn’t it? 

When I found it, my eyes filled up with tears. I was at the nexus of my 7-year-old-self, figuring out triads and seventh chords on the piano, and my 30-something year old present self, teaching and playing music in New York City… a woman who’s travelled around the world, and has finally come back home.

I sat and meditated in the Secret Spot for about an hour. It was a windy, gray, not-quite-drizzly day; spring apple blossoms were fluttering about as I listened to the wind tunnel through the poplar trees. Everything was totally still; no one knew I was there. I’m sure no one has set foot in that spot in the years since I’d last been, before I was bidding adieu to important people and places in my soon-to-be Past Life.

What they got in New York they ain’t got right here?

There was a man who lived on our road at that family farm about a mile away. He had some kind of special needs, intellectually, but no one knew for sure since no one took him to the doctor. The man’s parents got divorced when I was little; thereafter, it was just him and his dad.

He went to the same schools I did growing up, although he was older. One time we played video games with him at his house and it blew my mind.

The house where this man spent his childhood and adult life was classic New England, but less in the Robert Frost way and more in the Russell Banks way. It would haunt me when I’d drive home from high school, seeing no lights on in their house except for a single yellow bulb hanging from the ceiling, with the man’s father sitting at the kitchen table, staring off into space.

The man loved to walk, and every day he’d go up and down the Ridge. Sometimes he’d be talking to himself; if he saw you, he’d always say hello, twice: “Hello Jill! Hello Jill!”

In some ways, every time I go back to where I grew up, I’m left astounded that this is where I am from. When I was younger, there was a sense of urgency to leave that makes sense, given how out-of-place I felt. But what I’ve learned since leaving is that, when you grow up in the country, you are gifted with a sense of practicality isn’t easily found in people from elite, sheltered backgrounds. This isn’t to say that one way of life is better than another, but that growing up the country gave me a sense of grounded-ness and, once I learned a few lessons in self-acceptance (which is a life-long path, to be sure), an ability to spot bullshit from a mile away.

Anyone who voted for Trump is evil? Like… really?

When I think of that man walking up and down the Ridge, I don’t think of any of the things I’m sure we could come up with that would paint a bleak portrait of this northern New England life. Instead, I recall a man whose humanity shined through in every social interaction he had, no matter how scarce they may be compared to hacking one’s way through a day in New York City. I recall a man who, while he may not have hit the books, knew how to milk a cow without getting kicked in the face. I recall a man whose generosity of spirit was remembered by a community of tough, high-minded people when he passed away in 2018.

I recall a man who would never call anyone evil for disagreeing with him.

Maybe “being smart” isn’t about how many things you can memorize, or where you go to school. There are some things that, if you have to ask about, you’ll never understand (which, by the way, is what Louis Armstrong said about jazz).

Like, for example, about venturing onto Posted Property without “permission.” Any native Vermonter — and perhaps any Country Person — will tell you that property is yours if you know it, and if you’re “taking nothing but pictures and leaving nothing but footprints” (the rule of hiking, as taught to me by my woodsman father).

Those Connecticut people would never know if I was there, anyway.

Rest in Peace, Pierre.

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