The process of finding an identity seems to come up repeatedly in life, or at least one would hope so. Those moment mean that some major change is occurring. Starting college or graduate school or a new job all requires one to adjust. Being the ‘smart guy’ isn’t as sexy in high school, but it really seems to help in college and then when getting a job.
I was lucky to have that revelation when I was 15-16 years old. Many might remember those classroom sessions in high school where a guidance counselor came in during, say, sophomore year and talked about how college planning would be starting during junior year, with ACT or SAT testing. Most people perhaps paid such things passing attention at best, but it served as a bizarre wakeup call for me.
I’d always been an in-the-middle guy, in terms of popularity clique. I suppose I remain so in some ways today, at least politically and the fact that I live in the middle of the country. Anyway, my parents were always happy with B’s in school and I didn’t try very hard to score much better than that in junior high or during the first half of high school. My parents had both come from working-class backgrounds and they figured that, worst case, I’d just get a factory job. They hoped that life would be a little easier for me than it had been for them. Since I thought that meeting their expectations should be my goal and I could easily get B’s, I was happy, since they were happy. They didn’t hassle me and I had plenty of time to read comic books or watch movies at night instead of studying.
The counselor’s presentation made an impression because it was the first time that I’d realized that my parent’s expectations might not have been as high as the expectations of the college admissions office. The expectations of my immediate peer group was probably not in line with the admissions office either. It was always assumed by my parents that I’d go to college – neither of them had gone to college, but it seemed like the logical thing for their kids – of course, no one knew what it would mean. My parents’ world view simply wasn’t that wide.*
After that presentation, on a whim, I made a little deal with myself. I can’t explain why, other than likely being motivated by a general sense of fear. I figured that if I didn’t get into college, I’d end up working at a factory or something like that and I had no interest in that sort of career. Mind you, I was lazy and the idea of breaking my back all day had no appeal whatsoever. So, starting soon after that presentation, I went home and actually studied for a quiz that I had the next day. Instead of watching TV that night, I turned it off and – somehow – managed to keep it off. The next day, I did really well on the quiz and that was a turning point. Within a couple of weeks, my peers noticed that I was suddenly the guy getting good grades in class and, I kid you not, I was getting a reputation as a ‘smart guy.’
I’d not realized it before, but prior to that moment, I hadn’t had much of an identity in school. As I said, I was middle-of-the-road popularity-wise with no blemishes against me, but I was not really interesting to most people. Being a ‘smart guy’ though was something… certainly not as ideal in high school as being a star athlete, but suddenly people who’d never talked to me wanted to be my friend. Yes, some of those associations were obviously to leech off of my knowledge, but I was in control of the situation and met some genuine friends that way… smart people who really wanted to hang out with other smart people.
Having an identity proved downright addicting and it became more important to me than vegging out with a movie or comic. I felt like I might fall behind if I slacked again and I didn’t want to be washed up so quick, so I hustled. Suddenly, I was getting mostly-As and my parents were scratching their heads. They weren’t sure what had gotten into me.
Moral of the story: The sooner a person figures out a positive identity, the better. That identity doesn’t have to be about good grades, but it certainly comes in handy for most people if it is, since good grades open up doors and give a person many more choices in life. The hope is that one discovers that sooner than later. I missed out on a $2000/yr scholarship at college because I was one person too low on my class rank in high school. That wasn’t a huge amount of money, but I’ll take $8000 in free money anytime I can get it and it’s painful when one realizes how a little extra effort somewhere along the line would have made it possible.
* Aside: The happy ending to this is that my parents never envisioned that they’d later travel more and seeing parts of the country with their children that they’d assumed they’d never really see.