By Shannon Collins
Public service announcements sometimes feel patronizing, except when they directly apply to us. As a parent, I took seriously the one that warns to child-proof kitchen cabinets in fear that a toddler or pet may get ahold of common, but deadly, household chemicals. When I was about three years old I managed to get under the kitchen sink and accidentally drank from a bottle of bleach. My mother was in shock when she found me because I was completely blue with a strong chlorine odor perfusing from my body. I nearly died. Luckily, I was rushed to the hospital in time, but not before suffering chemical burns to my esophagus and vocal cords. Prior to the incident I was probably the most talkative kid in the family. Afterwards, I was unable to speak for a year which delayed my language development. At that age, proper language development is at a critical stage. Once I began primary school, I saw a speech therapist on a weekly basis for my speech impediment. I was fascinated by my speech pathologist. She would instruct me to study her lips as she sounded out different words. To this day I tend to watch a person’s mouth when in a conversation instead of their eyes.
Aggravated by my delayed language development, I was falling behind most of my classmates in primary school. As I sat there listening to my third-grade teacher explain to my mother that I had a problem with reading comprehension, I began to accept that I just wasn’t ever going to be a good student or a smart kid. I was always the slowest to finish reading a passage, had trouble reading aloud, and struggled overall to complete school work. Of my classmates, I had a pretty clear idea which kids were smart and I simply was not one of them. The exclusive group of smart kids became an elusive idea that I found myself repeatedly fearful of in life. Interestingly, normalcy comes to be defined by what is familiar, so I was okay with not being smart because it was the only way I had ever seen myself. My perceived limitations were corroborated by my poor academic performance all the way through high school. To say that I did poorly in high school would be a euphemism. I completed only two years before dropping out.
In all honesty, working fulltime in high school probably exasperated my poor school performance, albeit I reasoned its cause was due to an inferior intellect. I had to work to help around the house since it was only my mother, my two younger sisters, and myself in our family. Life was not easy during these years and I was aware that a college education could change that, but I did not believe that it was realistic goal for someone like myself. Somewhere in desperation I reconciled that self-education was better than no education. So, I began my journey to intellectual growth at the local public library. As I browsed books at the library I thought how strange it was that this was probably the first time I was to check out a book for interest alone, and not because it was required reading. I devoured book after book during this period, sometimes staying up all night just to finish reading. It was like a domino effect. One book would turn me onto new ideas and topics that I sought when searching for the next book to read. I learned about many interesting topics, but philosophy and psychology really held my curiosity. The word philosophy, loosely translated from Greek meaning the love of knowledge, recapitulated how I felt during that period. I was surprised to discover that I actually liked learning. I read an immense number of books and it improved my reading comprehension. It also opened a doorway in my mind to more avid thinking. I became known by friends for never tiring in intellectual discussions, and willing to stay up all night in an existential debate. I had an insatiable appetite to learn and to improve.
I kept revisiting the possibility of attending college. Regardless if I was not good at school, I was willing to work harder than everyone else to succeed. I was prepared to do whatever it took. With perfect timing, I received an advertisement flier for the United States Navy. Joining the military provided a path to my seemingly improbable prospect of attending college. In the Navy, there were a couple of moments that should’ve signified that I may not be as ignorant as I believed. There’s a saying that first impressions are hard to change. People hold onto them even when all other evidence points to the contrary. I think that self-perception may be prone to a similar expectational bias. I saw myself as intellectually deficient, and always behind that exclusive group of smart kids. I could not see that my performance directly contradicted this falsehood. For instance, I did very well on the Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), a test given to new recruits to assess their aptitude. Going into the exam my concern was that I would not score high enough to meet the minimum score for enlistment. When my score arrived, however, my recruiter exclaimed that I was well above the minimum and had scored much higher than most high schoolers. It felt like a fluke, though, until I made top in my class in the naval aircraft engine training program. I started to question the low view I had of myself. Naval training programs have dense material and a very fast pace. Many of the students worked very hard and I still out performed them. Our instructors would jokingly call me Professor Collins, since I was the first person to ever get every single question correct on all the exams.
While in the military I wanted to start college, so I registered for a full load of night class at the local community college. At first, I was terrified that college was going to be full of incredibly smart students. I figured I could only keep up by working harder than they did. Most likely, my classmates thought I was an overachiever because I would read every piece of supplemental material. In math and science classes I did extra problems that were never assigned. Little did they know, I was mostly driven by fear. There was one incident in college that shifted my perspective of myself. It was midterms in my second semester calculus class and everyone, including myself, was outside the classroom waiting for the instructor. We were all very nervous and talking about what was on the exam. I made a comment that I hoped the exam wouldn’t be too hard and the other students let me have it. They accused me of destroying the curve and causing most of them to fail. I had been the top student in almost every class up to that point, but I still didn’t think of myself as a smart kid. In that moment I realized that I was the smart kid to everyone else, even if that wasn’t how I saw myself.
I always looked for an excuse to explain my exceptional performance in the early years of college. I bought into the idea that maybe community colleges were just less challenging. I was doubtful that I would have the same success once I transferred to a four-year university. In my first semester at the university I registered for physical chemistry, the introductory course for quantum mechanics. I was worried that I would finally encounter the exclusive group of smart kids, that I was never a part of as a young child. However, I found that even the most challenging parts of quantum physics and thermodynamics were relatively easy, easier for me than for everyone else at least. I could read the text and do most of the complicated math in my head. I continued to score at the top and graduated college with a new confidence in my intellectual capabilities. I accomplished a great deal since, ie. tutored and mentored many students, taught calculus, physics, and chemistry in high school, scored in the ninetieth percentile on the medical school entrance exam, and was accepted to a highly competitive dual doctorate MD PhD program. My life today is very different than where it started.
I discovered that there were others out there like myself, that do not feel smart or capable. Our first impression is that others are always smarter. For the doubtful, our own self-image is the greatest challenge that we must overcome. It is the fear of not being as good as others that is our only true disability. With preparation and confidence, we are capable, not disabled. And I learned that being smart is not an exclusive group after all.