It’s been 15 years since I was in high school, but I can still remember the moment that I made the decision to hide being studious. Yup, I was the girl who always did her homework and loved participating in class. But at my high school, like many others, it was severely uncool to be smart.
You know who was cool: Girls who cut class with the guys who spent most of their day high, that is if they even showed up to class; girls who walked around with a chip on their shoulder and bullied others for homework; girls who instantly snickered when you had the answer to a question the teacher asked the class. I was so scared to be made fun of for being different.
It all started in my first English class in high school freshman year when a fellow classmate (now a good friend) asked me for my homework so he could copy it. My ethical instincts kicked in, and I immediately denied having done it myself because I didn’t want him to copy my homework. “What nerve! Do your own homework! I worked hard all night to finish my assignment,” I thought.
So, I waited for him to turn around and quickly handed in my homework, hoping that he wouldn’t see me. I did almost every variation of this in almost every single one of my classes throughout high school: Always finding a secret way to ask the teachers questions without actually participating in class; asking for extra credit homework on the down low, or requesting tutoring and making it look like I was complaining about something. The teachers caught on and played along, which makes me feel like I wasn’t the only undercover nerd in high school. And I actually was not alone. According to a report by the Anti-Bullying Alliance, 90 percent of a 1,000 kids surveyed between the ages of 11-16 said they hid their talents to avoid being bullied.
Not only did I have to hide being smart, but I had to find clever ways to get out of situations as to not give it away. These conversations would usually happen in the hallway on my way to a class.
Classmate: Hey Cin, you wanna come smoke with us during lunch?
Me: Nah, I gotta go. I already smoked this morning.
Reality: I didn’t smoke. I was on my way to AP English, and knew I wanted to prep before my quiz on The Bell Jar.
Classmate: Hey Cin, wanna cut class with us today?
Me: Nah, I gotta go. I already cut a class today.
Reality: I almost never cut class, except for gym class (sorry!) and was probably on my way to my favorite class: Vietnam History.
Truth be told, I did it because I knew if I let them on to my normal self, I would be “the nerd,” and I dreaded the label. I wanted to hang out with the potheads and be invited to all the cool parties that I would inevitably have to leave early due to a fake headache or another fake party I had to attend. My Peruvian mother was super strict, and I had to be home by 10 p.m. — even as a senior in high school!
There were very few people in high school that knew how much I loved to read and get good grades. But even with my double life, I hustled in high school because I wanted to get into a good college and apply for scholarships, which I thankfully did. (Thanks, Rutgers!) It was so difficult to excel academically when the majority of those around me didn't care where they would end up after graduation. To make matters worse, it was very apparent to all of us that our high school was given the short end of the education stick in New Jersey, especially being a former Abbott District school and all. In other words, the state was in charge of ensuring primary and secondary education in poor communities like West New York — like other surrounding towns — was on par with the rest of state.
And, it seems not much has changed over the years seeing as New Jersey didn’t fare so well on Newsweek’s 2015 “Beating the Odds” list, a roundup of schools that “do an excellent job of preparing their students for college while also overcoming the obstacles posed by students at an economic disadvantage.” Sigh. However, I hope the situation changes considering the state just received a $555,000 grant from the federal government to help low-income students take Advanced Placement courses in New Jersey. I remember my mother only being able to afford one AP exam, which was about $100 a pop, even though I had the option to take two others. Yup, we were under served.
This is a realization that became very apparent to me once I was surrounded by middle-class kids at Rutgers University, whose resources available to them was something out of this world compared to what we had in West New York. In a nutshell, most of them were revered for being enthralled in academics. But at my high school, we had seriously old textbooks, not enough science equipment, and barely flinched when someone dropped out.
Cut to a conversation I had recently with that classmate who asked to copy my homework who said he knew I was purposely holding out on him. He called me an “undercover nerd,” but admitted that he understood and wished he had done more of his homework in high school. All this to say that I hope kids at Memorial High School read this and are braver than I was then. Raise your hand in class if you know the answer. Let that classmate know that you aren’t cool with him letting him copy your homework. High school is only four years long, and it’s super unlikely that you will cross paths in the future with the kids pressuring you to smoke weed and cut class. Own your nerdiness and don’t worry about the labels.
What do you wish you could have done differently back in high school?