Thank you to my dear friend Sarah for inspiring this piece and encouraging me to write my truths. And for being the loveliest, as always.
The first time I joined a study group was in my senior year of high school. After a slew of hard subjects and struggles in junior year, I decided to try out a new study strategy— nothing unexpected, yet.
Throughout physics, calculus and chemistry, I had studied alone, hunched in front of my computer and a textbook, my notes draped across the dining room table like stiff curtains stained with graphite and ink. I attempted to memorize formulas, methods and problems, hoping that my struggle to swim through immeasurable oceans of acid-base reactions and integral functions was hidden to everyone around me.
I’ll never forget the day I asked for help in my calculus class. I was the designated Smart kid at my table — the only junior at a table of seniors. In a paradoxical equation that no textbook could help solve, I was supposed to be the smartest one there, the one with all the answers. Out of fear, I kept to myself because I knew next-to-nothing about how to solve for the volume of a pile of chains or the volume of a cement barrel. But as we worked on problem sets in class that day, my patience with one in particular splintered, and I turned to the girl next to me. What even is this, I asked. I don’t get where to start. Her mouth opened, then closed. Her eyes went blank. She looked shocked and confused, all at once. Her face seemed to say, I thought you were supposed to know? Why don’t you know? The boy across from her glanced up for a moment. He blinked. Um, I think you… Though he had given me an answer, I glimpsed the same disbelief written across his face. Why don’t you know?
There were a couple of other incidents like this, and I called them incidents in my head, painting them in loathing for the longest time. A classmate accidentally saw my (extremely low) calculus test score, then looked at me, mildly horrified. He then commented that he didn’t think something like that could ever happen to me. In physics, my utter failure to understand concepts and solve practice problems led to puzzlement among my groupmates. Why don’t you know? These “incidents” were the cracks in my facade, fissures through which my lack of knowledge, my ignorance, shone.
I had been part of a strange cycle since elementary school—my classmates put me on the ever-so-revered “Smart Person” pedestal because I was Asian, supported by their assumptions by the undeniable fact I was on the Science Olympiad team, and I did everything I could to stay there. Being Smart meant being respected, meant fulfilling my role in my school’s inconsequential little society. Being Smart meant people liked me, even if it was only a part of me that they liked. Being Smart also meant that everyone saw me as nothing else. I was Smart, after all. Set for life, effortlessly. What else could I possibly have to worry about? What could I possibly not know?
If there was anything the incidents in junior year showed me, it was that I didn’t want to stay on my pedestal to be respected. I didn’t want to be alienated whenever I couldn’t solve a problem — maybe the type of respect I had been getting wasn’t right for me. Maybe it wasn’t really respect at all. Just because I was Indian did not mean I didn’t face the same challenges others did. I now wanted to make that transparent—I would not be the know-it-all, the high-achiever, the perfect girl. Because I was not. I wanted to be liked as a human, as people’s classmate, not an untouchable idol who generated answers like a calculator. I wanted a different kind of respect.
And then, in that unrelated turn of events during my senior year, I joined my first study group. The moment I approached the girls to ask if I could join; however, I was met with the same flavor of surprise I had tasted before. Why is she here? Apprehension already building, I asked if I could join their study group in two days’ time, and hesitantly, they agreed. Each girl’s face was swimming in doubt and confusion — What could she possibly gain from this? But I attended my first session that Wednesday night, and everything changed.
I showed up with my blue five-subject notebook and my computer in tow, highlighters and pens tucked into the pockets of my jeans. Dragging out the plastic chairs at our local library, we began. Thread by thread, my facade was unraveled. I didn’t know the function of an endoplasmic reticulum off the top of my head. I kept mixing up what osmolarity meant. Each time, I received a little glance of incredulity — from the corner of an eye, from the opposite end of the table — but they disappeared entirely by the end of the session. Throughout it, I bit my lip in uncertainty, laughed in unison to joke about the impossibility of memorizing every organelle present in a cell and thought up analogies and strategies to help my new group remember things. And by the end of it all, I was just their classmate. I was finally just myself, without the weighted implications of my Asian-Smart-Person pedestal attached.
At the next session, feeling less nervous about revealing my true self, I admitted to understanding barely anything about a unit we had covered a month ago. Like, how do protein complexes even work, I said. I don’t even know —I struggled so hard with that unit. It was the single most empowering phrase I could have uttered. In an instant, my shoulders no longer bore the weight of learning, knowing, and explaining all alone. There was no shame in it, not when the others nodded in partial agreement, sympathizing about how miserably hard they studied for that unit too. In that moment, I was my human self again, on the same level as the four girls around me. I was imperfectly, tangibly, ordinarily human, with all the same flaws and gifts in a subject that anyone else could have.
Today, over a year later, I’m far more comfortable with my lack of knowledge in so many areas. Every time I utter the phrase “I don’t know,” I feel the weight of the pedestal I am placed on at first sight lighten. It is chipped away by my continued effort to be seen as a flawed, growing person rather than a calculator or textbook in a suit of skin. I surprise people with all the things I don’t know, and I hope that one day, they won’t be surprised anymore.