Monday, December 14, 2009

The I'm-Not-So-Smart "Learning Experience"

I was eighteen the first time I realized I wasn't as smart as I thought.

I spoke last week about being a precocious reader. Placed very early on in 'gifted' classes, I was buoyed  along in a wonderful school system that recognized and plucked us 'gifted' kids out of the regular classroom and placed us in a kind of free-form classroom, where we determined our coursework, challenged our peers, self-graded. I flourished.

Then we moved.

In seventh grade, I came into a school system that had no advanced track and few options. Along with the obvious upheaval that followed in my social life trying to find my place at that very tender age, I was lost in the shuffle. Anonymity isn't great for any kid, much less the antithesis of a 'squeaky wheel'.

"No grease for you, Rhody!"

So I slid along in regular classes, acing classes left and right. Barely cracked a book, even in high school. I could listen in class, read what I had to, and get A's in everything, with the occasional B+ in classes that didn't interest me or which had a teacher I didn't like.

Took all the college placement courses without difficulty.  Took all the tests too.  I've always tested well, and the PSAT's, SAT's and ACT's were no exception.  Had my choice of full rides and was accepted to every school I applied to. As a junior, I had was awarded a Nat'l Merit Scholarship, which basically gave me carte blanche to decide where I wanted to go for free.

I chose a huge state University in the south, in the state where I had spent my happy childhood. You know how they say you can't go back?  Very true. But that's another story.

My freshman year was unforgettable.  I was in this enormous U's honors program, in premed, living in the honor's dorm, and had a very heavy course load. I've blocked out most of my memories of which classes I actually took, but know it included honors chemistry and an interesting honors class, the Social Psychology of Friendship.

I flunked. Badly.

My GPA coming out of my first semester was less than 1.

You may think, oh, all that partying, those wild times. But I hardly ever went out, much less to parties.

Nope.  The reason I flunked out was simple: Smart as I was...I didn't know how to study.

Surely it's self-evident. You open the book, work things through until you have it all memorized, and spit it back out at test time. But through all my years of education to that point, I had never, EVER had to study.  So it didn't occur to me that I would have to start.

That was the first time I realized I wasn't as smart as I thought I was.

Home on holiday break, I was appalled when my grades arrived in the mail (this was the 80's, they're probably online these days).  I was still smart enough to realize my free ride was in jeopardy, confirmed by the 'warning' letter I got soon after. I also realized I would have a hell of a time trying to get admitted to any other college with this academic non-perfomance on my record.

I almost didn't go back. I literally stood there in the airport, listening to the last call for boarding, before sucking it up and heading back down to the place I now hated.

I knew that I needed to ace this semester to even have a shot at moving on, and either way my Merit scholarship would go bye-bye. Facing my parents, especially Dad, was just awful.  He swallowed his shock and disappointment and called it a "learning experience" instead of raging at me.  I moped around, depressed and lost for the first month I was back, and then somehow pulled myself up and privately vowed to do everything I could to dig myself out of this hole.

So I learned to study.

I had no dearth of subject material to practice on. I was matriculated right along, so now I was in second semester honors chemistry...and I had gotten an F in the first semester.  So I had to learn the whole first half of the book while trying to keep up in my labs and lectures in the second half of the book.

My insomnia was at its peak during this stage of my life, and it actually stood me in good stead.  I got to be a regular at the libraries and lobbies, anywhere that was quiet. I watched the students around me and even studied at the dorm complex pool (nobody ever swam there even though it was hot as hades most of the time, just tanned and flirted and studied). At first I memorized, then I actually worked through the process of studying to learn.

Just so I won't leave you hanging, I came back and aced that semester.  I even, in my chemistry lecture class that was over 1,000 students, got the high grade on the final.  Truly.  I checked the printout of the grades posted outside the department just before I climbed into the van and started the long drive home with my parents. 

Twenty years later, I still haven't been back to that state. But I'll never forget the life lesson learned there.


  1. Devon,

    Wow. This brings to mind a recent discussion I was having about the benefits of pedagogical tuition over andragogical (which I won't bother reiterating here).

    Thanks for posting a wonderful observation that proves the point I'd been making.



  2. Hello, Devon,

    I really admire you. That must have been a hell of a wake-up call. If it had happened to me, I think I might not have just dropped out of college, I might well have dropped out of life completely.

    Hope that some younger folks are reading this blog. There's definitely a life lesson here.


  3. Unfortunately, your story is a bit familiar. I personally didn't hit that "I'm not as smart as I thought I was" wall until grad school, but I can still vividly pull up the pain and the memories.

    Hope it all turned out well in the end.

  4. OMG! I had a HUGE wake-up call when I hit my 300 level classes in college. I was stunned when I learned I'd gotten my first-ever F on an essay test! In the previous two years, I'd breezed through those essay tests with no less than a B+! Turns out I'd failed to get analytical, and did better in subsequest tests. But then burnout set in...I still graduated, but was tired of studying!

  5. Hi Ash...glad you understand how difficult it was to go backwards in that respect! Even at twelve, I knew that and chafed against the system before giving up and rolling over, so to speak. Not much more one can do at that age, and definitely a memory that sticks with me.

  6. Hi Lisabet!

    It was a very tough time in my life, and I felt very adrift and alone. I suppose if I'd had any less traditional upbringing, I might've 'dropped out' and swung towards writing 20 years ago...interesting thought.

  7. Big Ed, grad school must've been a tough time to hit that wall. It was bad enough in the 200-300 level coursework.

    And thanks for asking; yes, I went on to wrap up a not-quite-stellar, but passable BS degree which I don't use at all anymore! ;)

  8. Hi Molly, thanks for commenting. Yes, I think when it's done 'right', studying is actually pretty taxing (which is why many students don't do it!). I was so glad to wrap mine up as well.

    This is probably why so m any adults have nightmares about failing classes and missing exams so long after the fact! Very stressful and intense time in our lives.

  9. Devon,

    I was an academics officer for the
    Cadet Corps during 3 of my 4 years of college at Virginia Tech, and I cannot tell you how common that experience is. Kids come into school having breezed through high school, not realizing how different college will be. I was one of them too, my freshman year, and to this day, I wonder how I survived that first year.

    I don't honestly know what would really prepare someone in that situation for college, unless it's to start challenging them earlier with harder courses. The good news is, you met your challenge when you had to. I recall a lot of kids who lost scholarships, switched majors from engineering to history, or even just plain dropped out. They just couldn't do what you did.

    Good on ya for picking yourself up and facing up to the challenge!


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