I’ve been thinking recently about self-sabotage. I can think of at least two forms, dishonesty and conformity. I wrote about dishonesty the other day, in the form of recreational and pathological liars.

Conformity is the more subtle form of self-sabotage, and in many situations, is not only accepted but also enforced. It was the name of the game in middle and high school.

The kids who stuck out too much became easy prey for the bullies. The stinky kid, the first girl to wear a bra to school, the first boy to go through puberty and grow pit hair, the unathletic pudgy kid, the kid with painful-looking acne—I can still remember their names.

camouflaged grasshopperThe more socially adept kids learned how to wear camouflage. Smart girls, for example, learned that cute, popular boys were intimidated by girls smarter or more successful than they were. Maybe they watched certain pretty girls flirt a certain way and tried to imitate them. Maybe they felt the ironic sting of making the highest grade on a quiz only to meet their classmates’ jealousy disguised as disgust. The girls keep their excellent grades a secret, pretend to be ditzy, and being smart and working hard become un-cool.

Cool is the organizing principle of most schools.

When I was teaching English at David Lipscomb High School, I watched this phenomenon from the other side. One of my best students was a skinny, blond-haired, blue-eyed cheerleader. She may have epitomized the teenage bimbo, but she wrote excellent papers, aced tests, and turned in her homework on time.

Listening to her speak frustrated me. If you hadn’t seen her report card, you would have assumed she was two IQ clicks ahead of “Imbecile.” She said “like, ”as in “Like, can you believe, like, what happened on The Bachelorette last night,” so many times in a single sentence that I began to think her record was scratched.

It was a charade. She was playing a part that didn’t fit her intelligence and gifts. In an effort to fit in, she became a self-saboteur. I wanted to shake her and say, “You’re better than this.”

Unfortunately, shaking wasn’t allowed at DLHS.

When I started teaching First-Year Composition 101 and 102 at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, I did have the pleasure of telling several students that being dumb isn’t cool in college, or in life, really. I informed a freshman named Jason that I wasn’t amused by his anti-intellectual remarks in class, no matter how many of his equally moronic classmates laughed; that I didn’t count “That’s gay!” as a contribution to the class discussion; and that he’d better find something more thoughtful and significant to say if he wanted to do well in my class.

I had his attention. We got along swimmingly after he realized that he could no longer rely on the canned meathead jokes that had served him so well in high school. Flunking expensive college courses is most definitely not Cool.

I’ve already written about Kelsey who, one day in class, said “Stop calling on me. I obviously didn’t do my homework.” That didn’t end well for her.

Conformity can serve as camouflage in middle school and high school, but by the time you get to college, the camouflage may have become an entrenched part of your personality. Where does the airhead act end and the true identity begin? How long can you stupefy yourself without becoming stupid? How long can a girl like Kelsey use her looks to manipulate people before a teacher, administrator, boss, or cop calls her bluff?

I’m confident that all three of those students are remarkable in some way. I just hope that they don’t sabotage their originality long enough to bury it.

Do you revel in your originality, or are you still afraid to be remarkable?

I have finally come to grips with my love of young adult fantasy fiction, a la The Hunger Games and Enchantment. What is one of your nerdy hobbies, interests, or passions?

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