I don’t like to be embarrassed. Like, I really don’t. It’s too hard to deal with my inner perfectionist screaming at me to get it right. For that reason, I have actually made giant loops around buildings to avoid abruptly changing direction and looking foolish when I realized I was going the wrong way. I have avoided checking the mail on Sunday even if I didn’t check it on Saturday to avoid looking foolish. I have googled a store’s hours from the store’s parking lot in order to avoid going up to the door and looking … you guessed it, foolish.
How did I get this way?
I definitely had my share of embarrassment in childhood and my young adult life. Unfortunately, most of those stories are not even amusing enough to share
No one likes to appear stupid. And I would say no one likes to be stupid, but in that case, they’re probably too stupid to know they’re stupid. And despite being ostensibly smart, I recently have had an increasingly bothersome twinge that I might actually be stupid. I suppose it’s likely… the Dunning-Kruger effect would blind me to my own incompetence, while I think that my academic achievements and that I’ve managed to not get myself stuck in any sort of pipe are good signs that I’m not stupid. But perhaps I’m just lucky.
Stupid Moment #1
My learning style has always been very data-driven: I learn by reading, by seeing the thing in action, by absorbing the hard and fast rules. I easily memorized multiplication charts and Latin declension charts. I once watched a friend play guitar for a good hour and then simply picked up the thing and played a little melody despite never having had a lesson. Sometimes, though, this learning style made me stupid.
I had a first-grade teacher who was giving us a phonics lesson. For some bizarre reason, she told us that “f” and “th” were pronounced the same way. Although I had already picked up language by hearing it, as most humans do, I adapted my speech to this new guidance.
Let the mocking begin.
Math lessons were torture once kids realized I pronounced “three” as “free.” The movie Free Willy was popular at the time, so my nickname became “Free Willy.” Lovely.
My second-grade teacher told my parents I needed speech therapy, and they forced me to rather obviously go to special lessons. I was mortified, and moreover bored, because the lessons were for kids who could barely speak.
So I worked hard to change my “f’s” back to “th’s,” and I refused to go to the special lessons. The teachers and my parents met with me to insist that I go, and I summoned all my might and said,
“No. I’m fixing this before I start third grade,”
They let me go back to regular class. That was when I learned that my smarts could save me from my stupidity.
Stupid Moment #2
My first crush was on a boy named Caleb. Looking back, he was kinda goofy-looking and probably turned into an ugly man, but that matches his personality at least. I remember little about him except that he was obnoxious. But I could not contain my puppy love and got my first taste of being the “crazy” girl who was goo-goo eyed for this idiot. (As we all know, girls are always crazy if the boy doesn’t like them back.) He surprised everyone when he agreed to go to the dance with me. We had a great time (well, for a super-chaperoned excursion in which we dressed nice, “slow danced,” and took a horribly awkward photo that I should have burned a long time ago). But the following week at school, a girl’s worst nightmare descended:
He told everyone he’d gone out with me “to be nice.”
Cue mortification and many tears into my Hello Kitty pillow.
Looking back, I’m not sure who was stupider: me, so in love with a dumb boy with floppy hair, or him, sacrificing his evening for a charity case. Unless, of course, he actually liked me and just had to save face when Monday rolled around. Eh, that’s stupid too. We were both stupid. I told him off, dissolved my crush, and was never bothered about or by Caleb again.
That’s how I learned to not put up with boys’ bullshit. It served me fairly well until college when I fell into the stupid crush zone again, but hey, at least dating during high school wasn’t as stupid as it could have been. Twelve-year-old me and thirty-two-year-old me were a lot alike; twenty-two-year-old just didn’t listen to anyone. But that’s another story.
Stupid Moment #3
I’m going to go ahead and skip my teens and early twenties as a general era of stupidity and embarrassing moments from which I learned less and less as my twenties dragged on, and jump to a more recent event, in which I had a full-on Elle Woods moment.
I was in graduate school. Having a fairly absent “mentor,” I didn’t quite get all the ins and outs of grad school. I marched to a different drum partly because I didn’t know better, and thought that my endless hours on my research and studies were sufficient. They were not. I was expected to regularly visit the department’s office to “chat,” attend professional development seminars that were inevitably at a time I could not attend, and regularly publish papers that were not that good because I was a student and therefore stupid.
Panicking slightly, I sought to do better, and when a new research exhibition was announced, I jumped on the opportunity. The call for proposals was pretty basic and asked for the submission of posters and films. As I had both, I was eager to participate. I was short on time, but assembled a collection of clips of my graphs and charts and hypotheses and all the science-y things on a foamboard, then sent my film, published on Vimeo, to the exhibition organizer.
When I arrived at the exhibition, I discovered two horrifying things: one, everyone else’s poster was professionally printed and included the entirety of their research paper in the contents. Apparently, I had no idea how to prepare an exhibition poster. Mine looked like a high school science fair display in comparison. As though ashamed of its cut-and-paste composition, it was tucked into the back corner, facing away from the main aisle.
At least Elle didn’t know that her fuzzy pink heart notebook was not an acceptable note-taking device.
The other horrifying thing was that I was the only one to have submitted a film, so the exhibition organizer interrupted everyone to call attention to my work. Yikes, no pressure. I showed the film and was greeted with mild applause, after which the Q&A began.
No one had questions.
The organizer, ever helpful, decided to kick things off. “So what was it shot on?” he asked.
Before I could answer, he volunteered, “iPhone?”
I’m sure my face turned five shades of red as I mumbled my way through my list of $1000 worth of equipment, not at all missing his implication that my film was so shitty that it appeared to have been shot on my iPhone. I concluded the Q&A and slunk out, more embarrassed than I ever had been in my life.
Like Elle Woods, I prevailed. I realized that people were snobs and that, however iPhone-y my film was, that I had completed a film while no one else had. Fuck them and their fancy posters.
Needless to say, I did not go into academia. But I became a professional writer on many topics, including science, and continued making films. That moment of embarrassment was painful, but it passed, and suddenly, even knowing that an entire room thought I was stupid, I no longer was as hard on myself. My inner perfectionist shut up for a moment. As I walked out of the building that day, the sun beckoned over the tops of the campus’ trees, and I allowed myself to smile at my own stupidity.
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