The Shame of Being Smart

I was lucky. I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood and attended a small all-girls Hebrew day school, where the teachers valued their students. I never saw myself as a stranger in that land.

My luck changed when I entered a large, public high school. In this world, I discovered, girls weren’t supposed to be too smart, and certainly not smarter than the boys around them. I had boyfriends whom I helped with homework, but I had no “boyfriends.” Judging from photos of myself back then, I was pretty enough, but the boys I knew preferred cute and flirty girls to bookworms like me.

In my senior year I was nominated for “class genius.” Instead of feeling proud, I felt shamed. I knew such a title would make me more of an outsider than ever. So I tried to act dumb and silly, to undo my image of braininess. I lost the election. The boy who won had much lower grades than I, but a lot more self-confidence.

I cannot draw a straight line between those painful high school years and my writing today. The world has changed greatly, and women’s intellectual achievements are held in much higher regard now. Still, I never take that regard for granted. In everything I write, whether about sibling relationships in adult life or the Sabbath, I make a point of highlighting women’s knowledge and viewpoints.

Although growing up I loved “girl books,” like Little W)men and the Nancy Drew mysteries, I had a special male hero also. He was The Scarlet Pimpernel, an outsider, who through his smarts outwitted extremists after the French Revolution. I admired his daring and dedication to what he believed to be right, no matter what others thought. His adventures inspired me.

Francine Klagsbrun is the author most recently of The Fourth Commandment. She is a regular columnist for the New York Jewish Week and Moment magazine. She was editor of the best-selling Free To Be… You and Me.