Many would describe me as an overachiever. After all, I managed to earn a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in quick succession even though my ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic background made it much more likely that I’d drop out by the ninth grade and serve time in jail. I’ve been writing and teaching and working (full-time for the most part) since ’92, and especially since ’97.
At the same time, I had a number of teachers — just about all of them coming from my Humanities years — who told me in so many words that I was an underachiever. After all, I only graduated fourteenth in my class out of over 500 students, scored a “5” on the AP US History Exam, got into college and was awarded an academic scholarship. So which is it? Was I the overachieving, Tiger Woods-type student who ran over his opponents on the way to a doctorate, or was I the aloof and underperforming Sergio Garcia-type with a ton of talent but nowhere near the resolve to apply or discipline it?
I was both and neither at the same time, an important lesson for those who are in high school and college and yet read my blog anyway. For most of my Humanities years, it would be easy to say that I underachieved, considering the way I had performed in school between fourth and sixth grade. I’d been a straight-A, reading-and-math-at-the-twelfth-grade-level-scoring student before middle school. I remained a high performer, but nothing that made me the incredible standout I was in elementary. Throughout my Humanities years, no less than a dozen teachers complained or sighed to me about my underperformance in their classes. Some of them, like my eighth-grade English teacher and ninth-grade Geometry teacher, practically tried to embarrass me into a better performance, often in front of other students.
It’s true, to the extent that one can say anything is true, that I underperformed. As is well documented here, I spent my Humanities years at war and in chaos at home, between a bizarre religion, my stepfather’s abuse, our slide into welfare poverty, and my mother popping out four kids in a five-year span. It was difficult to impossible to study at 616, especially once my sophomore year of high school rolled around. My choices were studying in study hall, studying at Mount Vernon Public Library (when I had the free time to do so), or applying my unconscious coping mechanisms for home in a way that allowed me to memorize information, if only in a semi-photographic way.
So I did all three, with imaginative memorization being the biggest one of the three. I only had one study hall in tenth grade, one in eleventh, and none in twelfth. After my brother Eri was born, I really didn’t get to run over to the library much to study, with constant runs to the grocery store, Friday evenings and Saturday mornings tracking down my alcoholic father for money, and Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings washing clothes. When I could focus, when I could find moments of clarity at home, I did study. Oftentimes visualizing the classes from the day before, almost word for word in the process. Or when I’d fall asleep, I’d often replay the day’s lessons in my head or even in my dreams. Or a song that I liked or a touchdown throw from Simms to Bavaro would become the way I’d remember a quote from a textbook or a concept for a math problem. That’s how I made it through most of my Humanities years.
I didn’t even study for my AP US History exam. I started reading history for fun when I was nine, and had read forty or so books on World War II alone before I finished sixth grade. Between that and Meltzer’s idiosyncratic teaching methodology, I never saw the need to read the eternally-boring Morison and Commager textbook that year. One of my former classmates said to me, after our class rankings came out at the beginning of our senior year, “the only reason you’re in the top-20’s cuz of history.” That wasn’t true. The only reason I was ranked in the top-twenty was because of History and because I had the power to memorize in semi-photographic and imaginative ways. Though I had A’s in history in ninth and eleventh grade, my grades overall were generally in the high-B range, and with weighting because I took mostly Humanities classes, gave me a pretty good GPA in the end.
But that wasn’t the same as being able to put in the hours to study and study in a vigorous, disciplined manner. That was something I couldn’t do regularly until I went off to college, to Pitt. It was there — once I found myself with sufficient free time for myself — that I would organize my semesters around a calendar telling me what was due for a specific class on a specific date, and then work to meet or beat a deadline accordingly. It was in college that I found a balance between living my life and imagining a better one. It was at the University of Pittsburgh that I had to strike a balance between work, social life and school, and learned how to study again. Combined with what I learned how to do out of necessity during my Humanities years, it was a matter of time before I became an overachiever, at least as defined by teachers and the media.
Still, I think that there are too many cases when we as parents, teachers or even students make assumptions about other students because they don’t sign up for National Honor Society or because they’re not all stressed out about an 87 on an essay exam. I thought one was a bunch of nerd popularity BS meant mostly to pad our records and placate teachers. As for the other, given my circumstances, an 87 was fine. I didn’t have the luxury of only worrying about my grades until college and especially grad school. By then, I had so many different ways to learn material that it made me a bit of a standout.
If there’s any lesson here at all, it’s that other people’s perceptions of your performance are overrated, and too often based on some biased notion of what maximum effort is or isn’t. You have to set your own standards, ones high enough so that when you meet or exceed them, you know you’ve overachieved.