When I started school, I was the kind of kid who ate with the teacher at lunchtime and tattled on classmates for saying bad words like crap. My “mortal enemies” were just the less well-behaved kids in my class, and I held serious grudges. I had a hard time making friends because I thought I was way smarter than everyone else and generally adopted a holier-than-thou attitude.
“You don’t know how to draw an 8 the right way,” I said to some girl who always had three scrunchies in her hair.
“Shut up,” she snapped.
“Teacher, she told me to shut up when I was just trying to help her because I’m a better writer!”
The teacher (obviously the smartest person like ever) took my side, and I felt my status instantly rise. From my new lofty perch, I looked down on the rest of my class, and savored the sight of them gazing up at me.
Like lots of kids, I was really into Greek mythology. I knew the family tree of Greek gods like my brother knew dinosaurs. I thought Minerva (goddess of art) and Athena (goddess of wisdom) were cool, but my favorite was Icarus, because he was (like me, I thought) the most misunderstood. Icarus was the son of Daedalus, a great craftsman. When King Minos unjustly imprisoned both father and son at the top of a tower (long story), Daedalus made two giant sets of wings out of feathers and wax for them to fly away with. He warned Icarus not to fly too high, because the sun’s heat would melt the wax that held the wings together. But Icarus was so proud and ecstatic about his wings that he flew way, way up into the air, and everything Daedalus had warned him about happened: the wax melted, the wings fell apart, and Icarus fell into the sea and drowned.
When I read this story as a child, I was pretty much on Icarus’s side. I mean, if I could fly, I’d be excited too. However, I wouldn’t be stupid enough to do what he did. I would be more careful. (Yes, I actually felt superior to a mythological figure.) Every time I read this story, I would shake my tiny head and chuckle at Icarus and his utterly idiotic mistake.
So why did I keep coming back to it? I think that deep down, I sensed that it had something to teach me, and that I was more like Icarus than I was comfortable admitting. Like him, I had a gift that I was excited to use. In my case, it was an above-average intelligence. The powers of this gift, like those of Icarus’s wings, were limited—I felt like I was smart, but I wasn’t a child prodigy or a genius or anything. But I had a curse, too—I was so insecure about every other part of myself that I put way too much value on, and derived too much false confidence from, my smarts. My family moved a lot, so I was always the weird new kid at school, and I had a hard time making friends. I told myself that people would like me more if I tried to “help” the “stupid” kids by constantly correcting their mistakes. Wow, they’d think. The new girl is so tolerant, so helpful, so nice!
But I wasn’t fooling anyone (except maybe that teacher). My classmates saw right through me—even the “stupid” ones weren’t stupid—and in hindsight I do too. I wanted these kids’ friendship but I didn’t know how to get it, so I got mad. I blamed my loneliness on them. And I expressed my anger with withering condescension.
By second grade only a handful of people would even acknowledge me, usually with a little head jerk instead of saying hi. These were the quiet kids who were just as lonely as me, but not as dickish about expressing it. The head jerk was a sign of recognition: I know how it is, I’m in the same boat.
All I did for the next four years was read by myself or talk to my two imaginary friends, Amy and Shadow. Amy was a cave girl who went on all the adventures that I was too scared to try. Shadow was a shadow, and also he could fly.
“Did you play with anyone at school today, Ru?” my mom would ask.
“Shadow and Amy,” I’d say.
“What about that girl who invited you to her birthday party? Is she your friend?”
“No. She’s dumb. And she invited the whole class, not just me.”
And then I would go to my room and try to look at the sun and wonder exactly how close Icarus got to it, and whether he drowned because the impact with the water knocked him out or if he just couldn’t swim. I could swim. I took lessons at the Y every week. I bet I could handle the fall.
In sixth grade, our art teacher showed us the movie Napoleon Dynamite (no idea).
“That was stupid, it wasn’t even funny!” said most of the class. Neanderthals.
“You need to have a very specific sense of humor to appreciate this,” I snapped. “It’s dry and witty.” A few eyes were rolled.
“You sound kind of sanctimonious,” my teacher said. “Do you know what that means?”
“I, um—of course. Yes, I agree, but I don’t know exactly…I mean the definition…”
The teacher cut me off. “It means you seem to be looking down on their opinions and implying yours is smarter.”
I went white. I was mortified. Nobody had ever really called me out like that before. I buried my head in my pottery project, repeating the word sanctimonious in my head over and over and blushing furiously each time. I started mentally replaying scenes from second grade, and this time around I didn’t seem like a nice, helpful girl who was unfairly ignored by others. I wouldn’t have talked to eight-year-old me, either.
You’d think that would have been a turning point for me, but my pride and anger were stubborn. I acted a little nicer, but that’s about it. My grades were still great and I still only did things that I was really good at, so I maintained my illusion that I was better than everyone around me. It took a few more years for me to understand that (a) it’s impossible to be the best at everything, and (b) trying so hard to win everyone over only drives them away. (Luckily, my social status during this period was low to nonexistent, so I didn’t have the power to bully anyone. I was never truly mean on purpose. But I know how I felt at the time—if I could have made myself feel bigger by making someone else feel smaller, I probably would have.)
Then eighth grade happened. We moved from China back to the U.S., and my new school was a lot harder than my last one. I had missed five years of American popular culture, so a lot of my peers’ conversations flew over my head. I wasn’t the best at everything anymore—I wasn’t the best at anything. For the first time in my life, I felt like one of the “dumb kids.” I got my first F that year—it was just a baby project for health, but it stung. I still didn’t know how to make friends, though, so I still tried to project an air of superiority, which must have seemed ridiculous coming from me. People understandably avoided me, except for a few kids who were similarly angry and socially stunted.
One day I was sitting around with some of these fellow misfits, and someone said something totally harmless to someone else, and that started a fight. The scene felt eerily familiar. I was starting to sense a pattern (yeah, it took this long, but like I said, I was stubborn): if you act like an asshole, the only people who will hang around you are other assholes. I imagine that these kids developed their behavior much like I did, as a defense against pain. But at that moment I decided I didn’t want to be like that anymore. I wanted to be part of society, to have friends who didn’t hang out with me only by default. I started taking baby steps toward becoming a real person—with all of the sensitivity, vulnerability, and imperfection that entails—instead of some self-proclaimed supergenius. I started asking for help when I needed it (which was often). I complimented other people, and I meant it. It wasn’t as hard as I’d expected it to be.
When I thought about Icarus again, he didn’t seem idiotic anymore—he seemed insecure. Why did he ignore his father’s warnings and plain common sense? Who was he trying to impress? What was he trying to make up for? If he hadn’t needed to fly so much higher than any other human had—to become like a god—he wouldn’t have drowned. And if I didn’t stop acting so full of myself, I would be friendless forever.
When I started high school last year, I walked in as myself, and kept my feet on the ground. My old wings, which had once seemed so special to me, and so important, just seemed sad, half-melted, pathetic. I mentally threw them away.
Now I have actual friends, people I respect not because I have to, but because I like them and think they are smart. When you’re looking at them face to face, it turns out, and not from some vantage point high above everything, other people are really cool. I still miss my flights to the sun from time to time. I still have to fight my urge to be competitive and show-off-y. Being earthbound is hard. But I’m getting better at it. ♦