When I first left home for college, two years ago now, I had been assured, up to this point for many years, by test scores, letters of recommendation, the gold and silver seals stamped in the upper right-hand corner of my high school diploma, and awards of no less gravity than “Most Likely to Succeed,” that I was exceptional. I left home with an ego fast approaching critical mass, eager to demonstrate, once again, just how bright, gifted, and extraordinary I was to my new classmates.
What I found, however, were four-and-a-half thousand freshman eager to prove just the same thing. Four-and-a-half thousand freshman who had, for the most part, been told all the things I had been told throughout my life — that they were gifted, special, destined to do great things; that had received all the same awards, along with a few of more substance (I was no valedictorian), and who had been guaranteed, via standardized testing’s shallow, obsequious ways, of their own unique genius.
And for those who bought into all the paper certificate achievements, as I did, and figured there must be some correlation between test scores and innate intelligence, as I did, freshman year was a nightmare.
There was something very Buddhistic about my first year of college. I grew up. And like any period of growth, it was frightening, and it was humbling, but I needed to do it. I grew up Buddhist, but it wasn’t until I went away to college, and got the pilings atop which I had erected my elaborate, outsized ego kicked out from under me, that I understood much of which I had heard at my home temple in West Covina: that distinctions are no more a part of who we are than a particularly flashy item of clothing, and slide off of us just as easily in those rare, awful moments of clarity when we see our squabbling attempts to distinguish ourselves from the rest for what they really are.
I think the words we use are key to understanding this phenomenon. Words like “exceptional,” “extraordinary,” and “outstanding,” all words that many of my classmates have been characterized by, I’m sure, at some point in their lives, imply, at their very heart, the quality of being better than the norm. Being better than ordinary, an exception to the usual, standing out from the rest. These types of words have no objective quality whatsoever; you cannot be “exceptional,” “extraordinary,” or “outstanding” in a vacuum. So what happens when the norm, the ordinary, the usual, is kicked up ten notches overnight?
I, for one, found myself hovering somewhere around the middle, relegated to the drab domain of mediocrity. What I had thought of as extraordinary was the new ordinary. My exceptionality was no longer an exception.
Perhaps many of my peers felt the way I did; perhaps I was the only one. I never asked my friends, ashamed as I was to recognize, finally, just how adept I had been at deceiving myself. I felt naked, stripped of anything concrete to hold up and say, “Look! I am special. I am better. Here’s the proof.”
In Dharma school, I’d been taught that this vulnerability is a good thing, that we should admit that we’re no better than anyone else because it is undeniably and unavoidably true. But I didn’t feel awakened, or enlightened, or good about myself at all. I felt small, insignificant, destitute of confidence. But that was the moment I began to grow up.
I’ve regained my confidence by now — not the old, swaggering one, the one who wore sweaters emblazoned with my school’s name, the one who would have bought a “Go Big Red” license plate holder, had I had a car. It’s a different kind of confidence now, and the foundation it rests on is more elusive, and less tangible.
I still feel small — because I am. I am a very, very small facet of an enormously multi-faceted university, and an enormously multi-faceted world. But I no longer feel insignificant, for reasons not entirely known to me. All I know is that scores and grades and awards are not among them.
Matthew Ormseth writes from New York and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.