I’m not afraid to look like an idiot.

Over the weekend I received an excruciatingly long email from my Humanities professor. She imparted on us a ton of information, policies, course standards and, in the end, asked each of us to come up with one quote. Not just any quote, but one that revealed a bit about ourselves – what motivates us, inspires us, drives us to move forward in our educational endeavors. Naturally, I became anxious and didn’t want to choose the wrong quote or submit something to her that could be misinterpreted or that would give her a false impression of me based on someone else’s words.

I really tried not to think too hard about it and, after about 20 minutes or so, I replied back with this gem by Anthony Bourdain: I’m not afraid to look like an idiot.

This isn’t entirely true, but I want it to be. And terribly so. Here’s why:

On Saturday morning, my husband and I woke up the kiddo at 6:30 and dropped her off an hour and a half later at a school for three hours’ worth of intimidating placement tests. Then he and I went on a breakfast date, came home to play online and read books (his and my weekend hobbies, respectively), and went back to the school and waited until noon to collect our child. As the hopeful students filed into the gymnasium, Matt counted approximately 230-250 kids. I expect only about a third of them will be accepted. We hope ours is one of them.

Matt and I sat patiently on those hard bleachers and talked about our school experiences. Many of you may not be aware of this little fact, but my husband and I have known each other since we were freshmen in high school in the early 90s. Our fathers’ military retirements and subsequent departures from the Air Force took our families to different parts of the country and we lost touch for about 15 years or so. In those first years after high school, my husband befriended people who motivated him to go to college and now he has a master’s degree. I, for whatever reasons, was not so motivated by the people around me. In fact, my parents seemed much more concerned with getting me enlisted in the military than prepared for college. That is not meant to be a criticism. It’s just a fact. And a telling sign of how life is for many children of military families.

Our high school wasn’t exactly a breeding ground for young intellectuals. Very few people in my graduating class seemed destined for greatness out there in that big world of careers and academia. Some of my friends did enlist in the military because they felt they had so few options. A couple of girls were pregnant during senior year and were left with even fewer options. Still, others ended up dead, on drugs, or in jail for violent crimes. Me? I never applied myself in school and so little was expected of me. Truthfully, I hardly even showed up. Yet here I had a diploma and a letter declaring my place in the top 10% of my graduating class. What I didn’t have was a clue about what to do next.

So I went to work at my decent-paying military hotel job every day, the only civilian surrounded by people who had to follow protocols and procedures that would never apply to me. I enjoyed that freedom, no doubt, especially when they got deployed to awful places, but it only made me question things even more, particularly when I became good friends with the young airmen and enlisted singles who very much regretted not going down the other road, the college road. Other people’s regrets are remarkable learning tools, by the way.

I finally became serious about starting college when I was in my early twenties and worked out a few meager credits. In all honesty, I had set no goal to finish college; I simply wanted to get my feet wet. But then I became pregnant and soon after motherhood became single motherhood followed by a couple of years devoted only to working, working, and working harder for nothing less than chump change to keep the bills paid. When my daughter started school, so did I. AGAIN. It’s been a long time since her first day of kindergarten but she still sees me studying, striving, enduring (that’s a very appropriate word sometimes), and achieving something I didn’t know I ever wanted until recently, but probably because nobody around me told me I could do it. That is, until I figured it out for myself.

As a teenager, I struggled daily not to get punched in the face in school for being different.  I even once threw a spelling bee because I didn’t want everyone to know how smart I really was (seriously, I have this crazy natural ability to spell words I’ve never seen in my life and I’m quite proud of it). My early years of being in the upper math and reading courses only led people to befriend me so they could beg me for my help or, even worse, solicit me for my answers. Being smart was a pain in the ass.

What does this have to do with not being afraid to look like an idiot? Everything.

I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but my teenager-self was the biggest idiot of all my selves. Too much time was spent trying not to look like an idiot by personally pursuing something, anything, and letting people know that I actually had an interest in something other than what they thought about me (with the typical exception of my parents). I know better now and, while the fear of looking like an idiot still seeps into my precious ego sometimes, looking like an idiot means something different to me. It means giving a damn, going for it anyway, and hoping you walk away happy, successful, and unscathed (though that’s always an unlikely ending when the ride is worth all the hell involved).

Now, as parents, Matt and I have assembled a damn good cheerleading squad for Elle in all her pursuits, whether artistic or academic, in the family and friends we have chosen to surround ourselves with. We want her not only to hear us tell her it’s okay to be smart, eccentric, likable, creative, and all those wonderful things, but we desperately want her to believe us when we say it. Go off into the world! Be you!

Being self-conscious is not something we’re born into. I cannot go back into the far-reaching depths of my mind and pull out the memory of who first made me this way and how. Can any of us? It’s doubtful. But even as an adult, I often worry about how someone might look down on me for voicing an opposing view (no matter how well thought-out and rational I believe it to be) or for sharing my feelings (oh, help us all) through a blog post.

So, professor…you asked. I’m not afraid to look like an idiot – IN PROGRESS (end note mine). Because no matter how hard we work at trying to avoid this unfortunate label, it happens to the best of us, to all of us, whether we like it or not. Those who don’t understand your interests, your pursuits, will always think you’re wasting your time, throwing away your talents, or squandering precious hours toiling away on some nonsensical project. Someone will always think you look like an idiot. Just don’t let it be you who thinks this.

Note: While I have written about Anthony Bourdain a few times before on this blog, please believe that I am not a superfan. I simply just finished reading his book Medium Raw in which he apologizes to quite a number of people he feels he has wronged over the years by behaving like an ass. He has many regrets, too.

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14 thoughts on “I’m not afraid to look like an idiot.

  1. Dena – this might be my favorite post of yours that I’ve ever read (and that’s saying a lot!) I especially identify with the last couple of paragraphs. And with this most particularly:

    “Those who don’t understand your interests, your pursuits, will always think you’re wasting your time, throwing away your talents, or squandering precious hours toiling away on some nonsensical project. Someone will always think you look like an idiot. Just don’t let it be you who thinks this.”

    It’s so important to remember this – and so hard sometimes!

    Thanks for this post!!

  2. I am SO asking this of my students. If it causes even just one of them to have this amount of introspection, I will be pleased.

  3. I have to agree this is one of my favorite posts of yours too. I’ve had the opposite problem of never really caring what people think. I got used to beig called weird, strange, whatever the name, and took it as a badge of honor. Kids especially liked to call me weird, and I sould counter with, “You just figured that out now??” 🙂 And I love that quote, I am so going to write it down because it’s great!

  4. Dena I loved this very introspective post. As a teenager I was so afraid of looking like an idiot that I would shut my eyes and stand still if anyone threw me a ball, rather than try and catch it and miss. It took my sports loving husband to teach me not to be afraid. I think fear made me miss so many opportunities. Your words “Someone will always think you look like an idiot. Just don’t let it be you who thinks this.”, should be taught to every child (and many adults too). Here’s to looking like an idiot sometimes!

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