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.