Live Through This

The Rise and Fall of Me

You have to fly pretty high if you want to look down on everyone else.

Illustration by Caitlin

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. ♦

32 Comments

  • emseely January 23rd, 2013 11:35 PM

    This made me want to cry. I am so sanctimonious.

  • purrr January 24th, 2013 12:33 AM

    Ooh,I just remembered a diary entry that didn’t leave my mind for a while when I was in school.

    I wrote that every time I come to a new school I identify the people I would like to befriend, but if they don’t work through my shyness and timidity and end up ignoring me, I would gradually change my opinion of them – it would go from “These kids are really cool, I want to hang out with them!” to “Ugh, pretentious self-absorbed freaks. I don’t even like them anyway, that girls’ hair is greasy. And that kids’ bone structure is imperfect. What losers.”

    I guess it was some sort of defence mechanism, but it’s a pointless one – I’m trying to protect myself from my own fear of befriending people? Silly.

    http://sanctifiedyouth.blogspot.com/

  • Erin January 24th, 2013 12:49 AM

    ah, this is so like elementary school me. my moment of recognition was when i was in the midst of tattling on someone who was out in the hallway on time-out (because i had already tattled once) and was making faces against the window next to the door. “I see him,” my teacher curtly cut me off. i was so ashamed. unfortunately i think i’ve made too much of an about-face, and now could probably work on my sense of self-worth.

  • Kiara_D January 24th, 2013 12:49 AM

    this was so good and deep, you seem so self-conscious. it took me many places and got me lots of food for thought. thanks. x

  • marineo January 24th, 2013 12:51 AM

    this is spot on. I was such a little jerk kid, mostly because I had a ridiculously good vocabulary and I brandished (there I go again, sorry) it over everybody’s heads, throwing all kinds of shade and basically just making everyone feel bad that they didn’t have my awesome word skizzles

  • Jessica W January 24th, 2013 12:53 AM

    This was totally me during my first years of school and during my I’m-sah-hipsta phase around age 12 onwards. I was filled with so much –not hate– but distaste towards the majority of people. It all added up to a great sense of loneliness and intense sadness.
    Boy have things changed. Once you learn to take yourself less seriously things become soooo much easier.

    The Lovelorn

    • all-art-is-quite-useless January 24th, 2013 12:07 PM

      I went through a total “I’m hipstaaa no body gets me because they’re so superficial and uncultured” when I was about that age too. I still like music and other stuff my friends don’t like, but just because I like it, not because “I’m sooooo alternative its unreal (but don’t tell anyone that I’m trying to be, that’s not cool)”.

  • AnaRuiz January 24th, 2013 1:11 AM

    I have a similar problem. My problem with keeping it down is that if I quiet my “sanctimonious” tendencies too harshly, I end up becoming self destructive. It’s a daily struggle, but one worth fighting!

    anaruizwriting.blogspot.com

  • takebackyourpower January 24th, 2013 2:16 AM

    Love your writing. As a teacher, I was upset to hear how both your teachers in the story treated you! Calling you a fancy name (NOT COOL!) instead of asking you to elaborate on your opinion about the movie or taking you aside to talk about it later. UGH!

  • CombatOwl January 24th, 2013 2:27 AM

    That’s how I’ve been acting for the past year or so…..oops. I think I need to go apologize to some people.

  • sophiethewitch January 24th, 2013 3:06 AM

    Ugh, this. From my journal in seventh grade (paraphrased):
    “Sometimes I think my life would be easier if I was just a normal, superficial, appearance-obsessed idiot like the rest of them”.

    I thought I was the only person who had problems (even though I don’t have real problems, as I learned once I started to meet people who do), just because everyone else didn’t act miserable and complain all the time.

    There’s so much I could say about this. Between the way bullying is discussed convincing me that if you didn’t have many friends it must be because you’re an innocent victim and not just a jerk, and my defensive belief that everyone else is dumb and superficial, and the fact that I am actually above-average intelligence. (I’m not proud of this. I didn’t work for it, and it’s pure luck, so it’s nothing to be proud of. It’s just a fact.)… my point is that I was (and maybe still am) a jerk.

    I didn’t realize what a jerk I was being until I reread my journal a couple of years later.

    • sophiethewitch January 24th, 2013 3:09 AM

      Every time I say something about my intelligence, I manage to mess up my grammar or punctuation… wow.

  • Malin January 24th, 2013 5:31 AM

    Wow, such a brilliant story! Very very true I can see myself there, not as a child but as an adult, thanks for enlightening me!

  • catpower44 January 24th, 2013 8:47 AM

    Ruby, you are such an amazing writer! I always love reading what you write! :)

    http://cosmicballerinas.tumblr.com/
    http://flowyshirtsminiskirts.blogspot.ca/

  • Mary the freak January 24th, 2013 10:44 AM

    God, I can relate to this so much!

    I used to be a very selfish person. When my parents got divorced seven years ago, I went through a weird, rough time. I was literally drowning in feeling sorry for myself. I even kept a sorrows-journal, where I used to write all the bad stuff in my life down and felt sorry for myself. But one day, I made a change. I was sitting in the car, imagining that it isn’t possible for me to laugh anymore, like to really really laugh, and then I realized that I was drowning in all that shit. And I said “fuck it. Stop feeling sorry for yourself” and it really worked.

    I skipped a grade, and I always used to be, like, smarter than the others. I actually was, I could read better than anyone in my class, but I wasn’t incredibly great and smart or something, only slightly… faster. It was really hard for me to find friends in elementary school, because I was totally interested in nature, I buried every dead mouse I found, and I was pretty selfish and unable to connect with others. It changed, however, when this one girl started to bully me. She once was my best friend, but suddenly, she didn’t give a fuck about me anymore. And I cried secretly in the hallway, wondering if she’d ever stop. She did. She completely ignored me. I had not a single friend, it was awful. But one day, in PE lesson, I went to the coolest group of girls ever (they were a girl gang, they even had t-shirts! I still own mine!) and asked them if I could join them. They let me. And they seriously made me change. I got nice.

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • yesacehannah January 24th, 2013 11:25 AM

    I would cry if a teacher called me out for being sanctimonious like that, not coool

  • hadley January 24th, 2013 11:49 AM

    thank you for this article. i was that girl all throughout elementary school and up to 7th grade when i took a step back and realized how much of an asshole i was. I’m working on it everyday, but this article reminds me that I’m not the only one out there. We’ve all got a journey ahead of us, and sometimes, we’re going to fly too close to the sun.

  • Booklover97 January 24th, 2013 11:53 AM

    I just want to say, I relate to this so much. Thank you. I’ve spent so much of my life looking down at people.

  • ellthemighty January 24th, 2013 11:57 AM

    I had this problem, but substitute the tattling for thinking snarky, sarcastic comments counted as wit. I blame movies for this. In real life people just think you’re a bitch.

  • eliselbv January 24th, 2013 2:53 PM

    There’s just a few people who admit they did something wrong or acted stupidly. I guess this is why i liked this post !

    http://www.iloveyourjokes.blogspot.com

  • grace elizabeth January 24th, 2013 4:01 PM

    I was definitely like this in middle school. Mostly I thought that I had better taste in music and books than everyone else and that my classmates were all just thoughtless and shallow. I also got super jealous of anyone who was more talented than me. I was pretty quiet about it though so the only person I hurt in the process was myself. Lovely article!

  • ♡ reba ♡ January 24th, 2013 4:58 PM

    this is such a lovely article!! only a few points i can identify with but those few i can REALLY identify with xxxx

  • LouderBlues January 24th, 2013 5:01 PM

    I used to act like that (and still do from time to time) with people I disliked. I felt that I needed to put distance between them and me because, you know, that thing that I disliked about them, whatever it was, could be CONTAGIOUS. And obviously I wasn’t going to fall that low.

    It took me some time to realise that disliking someone doesn’t mean they are monsters or something like that, just not compatible with me.

  • Bumblecake January 24th, 2013 5:23 PM

    This is insanely me! I have been looking back on myself , I’m SO ashamed, I didn’t think I was smart at all, I had no self esteem, but still I managed to think I was above others in some ways, I was just so naive I am SO ashamed of myself. But now as I’m older I have more confidence and I think that whole comparing to others has just gone away and I don’t think of people like that anymore I think it’s all to do with how you feel about yourself really

  • Fierywish January 25th, 2013 6:21 AM

    This is me

  • AllieBee January 25th, 2013 12:44 PM

    Dear goodness, I think I’m sanctimonious.

    http://thatalisonwonderland.blogspot.com/

  • TropicanaLuxx January 25th, 2013 2:26 PM

    Totally me in high school. Thinking I was better than everyone because I listened to “indie” music (gag) & knew a lot about fashion & was a feminist. Even though I genuinely did not like most of the people at my high school I see now how judging people for not being like me is just as bad as judging people for not abiding by the constructs of society. I still struggle with this now going onto my 3rd year of uni. Loved your article Ruby.

  • GlitterKitty January 25th, 2013 4:49 PM

    This represents my entire personality for almost my entire life. I’m trying to get rid of it but old habits die hard I guess.

  • stephiewonder January 26th, 2013 6:20 AM

    Word.

  • Charlotte January 28th, 2013 7:29 PM

    yo, not to be a know it all (and kind of go against the entire point of this article), but minerva was actually the roman goddess of art and wisdom, therefore athena’s roman counterpart.

    yeah, i know, i’m the worst.

    • Anaheed January 28th, 2013 9:31 PM

      Yes, art and wisdom both, as well as trade and defense—we just didn’t think it was necessary to list everything for every god and goddess, y’know? But you are not the worst! I love it when commenters correct us!

  • stellar February 4th, 2013 11:25 PM

    it can be weird how we’re all supposed to ‘excel’ (in *everything*?) at school–can anyone say ‘unrealistic’? it makes more sense to just be average; way easier than brain drain…