rom the age of 5, I devoured books like some kids overdose on Twizzlers and Twinkies. Apparently I aced the test they made us take in first grade, and was promptly labeled “gifted.” Some years, I was put in a class with other little precocious tykes, other years, they’d mix us in with the general population. The regular kids tended to resent our tendency to finish filling in the bubbles with our number-two pencils in record time, our resistance to allowing others to copy off our papers, our self-satisfied hand-raising before the teacher had even finished asking the question.
Who could blame them? We were doubtless insufferable little know-it-alls.
In time, we learned to dim our brightness to a tolerable level, figured out that comparing IQ scores was no way to make friends and even stopped showing off our vast vocabulary in mixed company. By middle school, most of us decided that avoiding social suicide was far preferable to getting straight A’s.
I coasted for years. Doing just enough to get by, opting out of trigonometry even though geometry had been surprisingly fun. I’d long since stopped reading a book when I walked down the school hallways, even if I was at the best part and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. I learned how to be popular and forgot the joy of devouring knowledge for the sheer pleasure of it. In retrospect, it’s downright painful to think of the missed opportunities that were sacrificed in my quest to conform.
But hey, laziness, thy name is teenager.
My second semester of college changed everything. The smudged paper that listed my classes didn’t seem particularly promising: Economics 101, Astronomy, Critical Thinking, World Religions, Racquetball (a girl doesn’t live by books alone). In fact, the lineup was a little intimidating, especially after the last several years of academic avoidance. But required courses are just that, required, so I resisted the urge to swap out at least one dust-dry class and headed off to what sounded like the epitome of torture: Economics 101.
And it could have been, especially with my less-than-stellar attitude. But professor Jimenez got so excited by the subject matter that he was practically bouncing off the taupe walls. He railed and cajoled, told involving stories about currency, made us laugh about interest rates, got us doing math without realizing it, had us competing to be called on. It was thrilling, and utterly unexpected.
Heading to Astronomy class, I was still in a daze, wondering if I should seriously consider declaring myself an Economics major. But when the lights went out in the planetarium/classroom and the cosmos appeared, a tingle of pure pleasure swept through me and thoughts of anything but the universe were blocked out for the next 90 minutes. When I emerged, blinking, to the sunlit afternoon, I was intoxicated, elated, buzzing with possibility.
In the weeks to come, I found myself equally sparked by sojourns into Critical Thinking, forays into Buddhism, delving deeper into macroeconomics, opening my mind wider to encompass the universe itself. Even learning to slam a serve into a brick wall kept me on my toes.
I worked hard, and for the first time in a very long time, none of it was easy. I didn’t get an “A” without trying. In fact, a paper that would have surely been praised in high school now got returned with a big fat C+ scribbled in red ink. Standards were high, and we were expected to not just meet them, but to embrace them. Tough? Sure. That was the point. At the end of the semester, I ended up with two A’s and two B’s. (Racquetball was pass/fail. I passed.) It wasn’t perfect, but I’d done my best, I’d worked hard, and I was proud of myself. I felt like a grown-up, maybe for the first time.
In the pages to come, there are many examples of how academic rigor not only resonates but invigorates. From the ways that a solid college foundation can echo throughout a lifetime to the importance of inciting students to stretch out of their comfort zone to the ways that engaged professors got that way, and how they keep the spark alive.
It’s a lesson worth learning again: Doing things the hard way can be the smartest thing you’ve ever done.
Trust me. I know.