Anyone who has met me in the past few years would probably never guess that, while chatty, confident, and vivacious now (why, thank you!), I was an incredibly shy little girl. As in hide-behind-my-mother’s-skirt shy. First-day-of-school-terrified shy. Quiet-as-a-mouse shy. I was always really smart (although being voted Most Intellectual in my senior class was a double-edged sword — in those days, that title wasn’t very sexy and I’m not sure it is even today). I’m not too shy to share that with you, and that’s the difference between then and now. I got past my shyness and lack of confidence to be proud of how intelligent I am. But it wasn’t always that way. To wit:
In one of the later grades of elementary school, my teacher entered me into the school spelling bee. I won. (“What?” I remember thinking at the time. “Was that supposed to be hard?”). The difficult part for me wasn’t the spelling, it was being the center of attention. From there it was on to the regionals. Lots of entrants from several schools. One winner. Yup, me again. And again, it wasn’t difficult (probably because I was such a voracious reader, the words came easy to me). I won on the word “conscientious” — the little boy ahead of me misspelled it as “conscience” — while the whole time my subconscious was screaming for me to get the hell out of there. Afterward, I felt huge relief at finally being able to get off the stage — and huge agita at the thought of having to take the next step to the state finals. So I took home my little trophy and engraved pen-and-pencil set and made up my mind. I was through. No state finals for me. No national spelling bee for me. No more spotlight for me. And that was that.
Of course, in looking back, I wish I had been brave enough to stay with it. It wasn’t the fear of losing that stopped me. It was the fear of losing it, of spontaneously combusting in front of all those people, of having all those eyes on me. I knew that I was smart enough; what I didn’t know at the time was that “smart” was enough.
Since then I’ve learned that being smart and showing it is never a mistake and never something to hide (being a smartass, on the other hand — something else I excel at — does have its time and place). Have there been times through my professional and personal life when my intelligence has been a threat to others? Unfortunately, yes. But I’ve never ever forgotten how hiding that light of mine kept me from the chance to experience something potentially wonderful. And I’ve never hidden it again.
Which is why I make it a point when meeting young women and girls to reinforce and compliment their sense of themselves in terms of their intelligence versus their looks. Sure, “adorable” and “cute” have their place, but letting a girl or young woman know that she’s bright, that’s she’s gifted, that she’s accomplished — all that, I believe, is worth far more.
It’s way past time to break the spell of women’s intelligence being a threat. To break the glass ceiling of women achieving at the highest levels and being recognized for it (brava, Kamala). To break through the myth that a woman’s accomplishments should be talked about in soft voices rather than shouted from the rooftops.
To no longer shy away from naming women’s achievements as they deserve to be named.
Namely, Dr. Biden.
©2020 Claudia Grossman