Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?

Last Saturday I went to the Natural History Museum in New York.  I was serving as the welcome committee to a person who had never been to New York.  One must do “New York” things when a newbie arrives, lest you want to be known as the worst tour guide in the world.  I initially had thought that it would be a new experience for me as well, as I had mistakenly thought that I had never been there before.  But as I walked through the doors I was immediately reminded of pictures of me there standing under a skeleton whale of some sort and my friend Alex pretending to run away from a fish.

The last Natural History Museum I had been to was in London five months ago.  This spoiled me.  It’s like going on a date with Rob Pattinson and the switching off for…well, somebody less attractive and with a weaker jaw line.  The place looked like Hogwarts.  It was magical.  The New York NHM, while grand in scale, often had the feeling of walking through your elementary school auditorium looking at science projects.  It just doesn’t have the “wow” that comes with a building designed and executed over one hundred years ago.

As we walked through the halls I began to remember that I have little tolerance for places like this on the weekend.  The coughing children, mouths uncovered.  The humidity created by the breath and body heat of too many people in a small space.  The messy bathrooms.  The boogers.  When I was a kid, these places were so much fun.  What the hell happened to me?  At a certain point I became more preoccupied with my neuroses than learning about the outside world.

The other week I was talking to a new friend about a book and reading books in general.  Both of us lamented about how difficult it is to finish a book these days, or rather, find a book that you want to finish.  Aside from living in a culture that I propose induces and nurtures ADD, there is a specific point in one’s life when reading and learning becomes a pressurized task and not something one does for their own personal benefit.  I believe this tipping point happens between the end of elementary school and the beginning of junior high.

Every week or so during my childhood, my mom would take my brother and I to the library.  I loved it there.  I loved the yellowed pages and how the only sounds I would hear for that hour were those of accidentally dropped books.  A weighted thud and a quick flutter of pages.  I loved the thick, lined paper check out cards placed snuggly into their little envelopes inside each book.  I liked reading who last checked out my very same book and when.  I loved watching the librarian slide the plastic covered spine of a book over a worn brass rectangle that I imagined had something to do with security and magnetism.

There was something wonderful about books back then.  There was something wonderful about my mind.  My imagination worked in a way that I am unable to tap into now.  For what reason, I am unsure.  I still remember specific parts of books that I imagined so vividly that those images have remained in my head as an adult.  It’s like watching a scene in a movie that stays with you forever, except in this case it’s just a brief moment that passed through my own brain and stuck.  I developed a horrible fear of being buried alive after reading an R.L. Stein book about a girl from the 1800s getting buried alive in her own backyard.  She tore at the inside of her wood coffin until her fingernails bent back and blood smeared on the surface just inches away from her face.  I read this back in 1993 and haven’t read it since.  I still remember.

Elementary school was Nancy Drew and The Boxcar Children.  It was The Bridge to Terabithia and The Baby-Sitter’s Club.  Back then I could pick up a book and finish it from start to finish without hesitation or non-commitment.  I long for the focus of my youth, where you are distracted by nothing but the present moment at hand.  If I was reading a book, that’s what I was doing.  I wasn’t concerned about if I was making the best use of my time.  I didn’t have anxiety about my career or if I should be doing something about it right at that moment.  I didn’t get hungry and insist on eating a snack while in the middle of a page.  I just…read.

By the time junior high came around, something changed.  I had to take an admission test to get into my school.  I had to prove that I was smart enough to the outside world.  Before sixth grade, I only had to prove that I was capable of getting good grades to myself and my parents. I liked getting As, but it wasn’t something I thought about.  That all ends once people starts talking about your future.  You need to think about your future.  You can’t just go on enjoying yourself and learning all willy-nilly.  It was time to get serious.

I stopped reading books I enjoyed because I didn’t have time for them.  I forgot what kind of things I really liked because I became too preoccupied with what my peers liked.  I didn’t remember what I liked to wear because I had a uniform.  I became a serious student who seriously thought about her future.

In high school, it gets even worse.

Give me Grapes of Wrath.  Make me learn about vectors and cosecants.  Tell me how to write.

1.  Topic sentence / support thesis

2.  Lead-in to concrete detail

3.  Concrete detail

4.  Commentary

5.  Transition and lead-in to next concrete detail

6.  Concrete detail commentary

7.  Concluding or clincher sentence

Teach me how to be like everybody else.  Get me into a good college so I can make a good salary and eventually have a good life.  Teach me to live like everybody else.

As the years between my childhood and adulthood passed by, learning and education became more and more of an expected chore.  Learning was never for the sake of learning, but for the grade, for the future.  All I ever needed to do was pass.  Rarely was I interested in what I was actually being taught.  I was there because I had to be.  As a result, I barely remember anything I read between the years of 1999 and 2002.

In fact, one of the only things I remember with clarity is an opening line from a ridiculous book I had to read in a ridiculous required religion class I had to take: “Life is difficult.”  Each class my teacher would open with this line, this first line, and she would read it with gusto.  “LIFE.  IS.  DIFFICULT.”  Ironically, the book was called “The Road Less Traveled.”  All my high school education was preparing me for was a road worn down by the feet of obliging masses.

As I stood in the Natural History Museum on Saturday, I became sad and angry with myself for losing that part of me.  The part that wanted to learn.  The part that was unwilling to be distracted while working on a task.  I walked past African bowls and thought about things like how my mom would like something like this or that to decorate her living room.  I walked past an Indian necklace and thought how that would go well with a scooped neck dress.  I walked through the hall of taxidermied animals and thought about that Sheryl Crow “If it Makes You Happy” video.  Who the hell am I?


2 thoughts on “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?

  1. Jessica says:

    Love your writing and your voice, Jenny! You’ve got it.

    I remember reading all of those great books, too. The Boxcar Children — yes!

    PS. Thank you for your great “other” work the last 2 days. Very much appreciated.


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