When the Smart Kid Fails

Things came so easy, I thought they would last forever. So when things got hard, I bailed.

AA year before I was born, my mom left the Comoro Islands — an archipelago northwest of Madagascar — to start a better life in France. For a long time, we lived at the bottom of the economic pyramid and had to rely on charities and social services to get food and accommodations. Expensive private schools had been the only option back on the islands, which meant my mom never received the privilege of an education. So, as many tales of the poor immigrant child go, school was the only thing that mattered when I was growing up. I collected good grades and report cards filled with compliments. Parent-teacher conferences became a pleasant routine of pats on the back for me.

When you’re a “smart kid,” validation wraps around you like a veil, becoming the most significant part of your identity. My teachers would say I was gifted, and my mom would radiate with such pride that I thought I’d forever be her greatest gift — a trophy she could hold up to the world the same way Rafiki did with baby Simba in The Lion King. Her pride fueled a love of learning. In elementary school, some might say I was a full-blown nerd; I just say all the librarians knew me. (I was that kid who always tried to borrow textbooks that only teachers could access.)

But the “smart kid” persona came with the burden of nonchalance. Boys like me grew up in an environment where caring too much about grades was uncool. Like most Black kids in predominantly White spaces, I badly wanted to fit in, and a humblebrag or five — “Psshh, I didn’t study” — could go a long way.

So I gave up. I gave up the same way I had given up on drawing, knitting, and learning my mom’s mother tongue when I was younger — with ambivalence and with ease.

Over time, that nonchalance became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I lost interest in learning and studying and in the work it took to push myself to get better. Like the time I wanted to make cool YouTube videos: I studied photography and videography; I watched hours upon hours of videos on lighting and editing and color grading; I got all the useful apps; I even paid a yearly subscription to Skillshare. But when it was time to actually film something, my output was mediocre at best. So I gave up. I gave up the same way I had given up on drawing, knitting, and learning my mom’s mother tongue when I was younger — with ambivalence and with ease. The veil of the “smart kid,” it turns out, is thin and fragile.

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award–winning musical In the Heights, the character Nina drops out of college because her scholarship doesn’t cover all the expenses, so she ends up working two jobs, with no time even to read the books she struggles to buy. In contrast, my college scholarship covered all expenses, and I still lived with my mom. But after college, I ultimately dropped out of law school in my twenties—its demands were like nothing I’d ever experienced. I burned out because, for the first time in my academic life, I had to work hard.

For a first-generation immigrant, there’s no failure quite like not working hard enough. I love the saying “Immigrants: We get the job done.” I just wish the idea had grown inside me. Being the first to go to college brings a tangible urgency. It also brings family members repeatedly reminding me of the time I wasted. My mom sacrificed seeing her family, spent money she didn’t have, raised her kids to speak a foreign tongue, all so they could have a leg up in France. It’s not my opportunity I squandered; it’s hers.

The guilt that comes with not living up to my potential ripples through many aspects of my life. Not only do I fail to start new hobbies, but on a grander scale, I also fail to meet the perceived requirements of the immigrant’s life. I set out to become a lawyer and stumbled at the first hurdle, and my mom’s tongue is just another foreign language to me. It’s hard to refer to the inhabitants of Comoro Islands as “my people,” leaving me to wonder if I even have a real claim to the parts of the identity I write about.

After making the decision to drop out of law school, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in English. I was already bilingual out of high school, with a good reading habit and a keen interest in Western cultures, so this was an easier path. I felt like my younger self, taking tests I didn’t spend much time studying for and passing them with flying colors. A friend confessed to me that she seethed when she knew she worked 10 times harder than I did and still got below-average grades.

I might be graduating soon, but succeeding in English studies doesn’t sound like a win. Here in France, this degree usually leads to a teaching career, a road I’ll likely never go down. Even in success, I can’t celebrate my graduation. The prospect of succeeding in a field that won’t bear fruit is terrifying, but with my fear of failure, I might need to admit that uncertainty turns me on. Uncertainty is home to the academic complacency I’ve basked in for so long, where I can comfort myself thinking that I’ve succeeded. But the pats on the back still feel amazing.

As I write this, I’m on the tram with my earphones, on my way to my last final exam. I can see the law school on my right and my current university on my left. My commute has become the literal line between what I should have been and the uncertainty of what I might be. When I get off the tram, I have to face what I failed to become—and then turn my back on it.

I wish I could finish this story with a neat little bow, a sense of resolution, but it’s still ongoing. Just like the hobbies I gave up and the weak attempts at connecting with my multifaceted identity. But I’m still here, trying to get the job done.

English graduate student and freelance writer based in France. Words at Level, Elemental, Gen, Human Parts, etc. Email: abderemane.m.assad@gmail.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store