In A-level German, I learnt the reference “Kultur Mischling”, a sometimes derogative way to describe the children of Turkish refugees in Germany, a mixture of both cultures. As well as having a nice mouth feel, the term resonated with me back then. This word ‘Mischling’, belonging to both worlds and neither.
I warn you: this is one of those my-wallet’s-too-small-for-my-hundred-dollar-bills type of blogs, but bear with me; I may earn your pity yet.
I guess I have always been “a bit too clever for my own good” – a phrase which runs through me like a stick of rock. A lot of people who know me would use words like clever and intelligent when describing me. My cleverness is showy, on the surface, obvious and glaring. I always found school easy and invariably got good marks, until I got to university and forged a reputation for other activities. Even then, my college peers would comment on how irritating it was that I could get passable marks from a few hours of work. I got 10 As at GCSE and went to Oxford University. I am now paid well to do a fairly simple job. I am a cringingly undeniable clever-clogs.
Like those lucky enough to be born with good looks, or a sizeable trust fund, my intelligence came to me for nothing. And what have I done with it? I am the intellectual equivalent of a fuck-boi, using my gifts to merely ease my way through life, with academic easy lays and a career akin to getting bought drinks at the bar.
What is gained by fluke rather than hard work is rarely valued in my experience. I am nowhere near a Good Will Hunting but “I could always just play”. And I can understand why Matt Damon’s Will hid his intellect – he did not want to be different.
An acquaintance from primary school, whose mother was a teacher at the school, told me that I received a very high score on a standardised test at that age, high enough for his mother to remember and comment on it years later. My parents didn’t tell me that. They neither encouraged me nor challenged me. They just let me read books in my room all the time. They didn’t have to worry about me. My Dad always told me I would do well wherever I went to school, that I didn’t need extra help. I don’t think he worried about me at all until I got pregnant at 23.
My parents are two of the most intelligent people I know. My mum – for all her inability to send a simple bloody text message – I could believe there is nothing she doesn’t know. Before Google, there was Mum. My Dad is full of practical knowledge and business smarts, and he used to read the New Scientist so he could argue about it with his friends in the pub. He is from a rough area of Glasgow and left school at 15 but I have never doubted his intelligence.
For all our similarities, my Dad says he could never relate to me. I pulled him up once on why he wasn’t happy or proud when I got into Oxford. When the letter arrived he only said, “Well, it’s nice to get an offer”. Many years later he explained, “Why would I tell people? It doesn’t mean anything to anyone I know.” It wasn’t embarrassment he felt, or even a lack of enthusiasm, it was simply all lost in translation. My father could not articulate about something that was totally alien to him. As much as it hurts to be seen as something so different, by someone who you take after so much, I do understand. I remember him now refusing to help me unpack the car when we arrived at college – neither of us able to say how out of place we felt.
I was not bullied at school about my grades (much) – my large breasts were a much easier target. I was not a swot (or spod, as we said in the 80s) and was always pushed forward to argue with teachers. Then as now, I never considered myself above anyone. I count myself as intelligent in a particular way but I find it easy to see and value the skills and intelligence of others. In fact, I always envied the confidence, good looks, popularity and happier families of other girls.
However, I always felt my school performance drew attention to me and that was not a good feeling. For some reason, it felt more conspicuous than positive. A good example of the different responses to precociousness – the head of sixth form for the girls’ school hated me, twisting her face into a sneer of disbelief when her counterpart for the boys’ school suggested that I apply to Oxford and offered to give me preparation classes. When I left school, I convinced myself that my old friends would treat me as an outcast – as someone who had got too big for her boots. I convinced myself that they would resent me and accuse me of being posh. In that horrendous Peppa Pig cartoon, Edmond Elephant is openly ridiculed for being a clever-clogs – which is all I need to know about the world views people who dare to give the answers in class. [Edited to clarify that my school friends never said such things – this was all anxiety and conjecture on my part. They were never anything but supportive and accepting.]
You cannot tell someone you went to Oxford without them making some comment or assumption: “you must be so clever”, “your parents must be so proud”, “I bet you really went to the Poly”, “0ooo la di da”, “I never realised you were so posh”. So I avoid telling people and cringe when it comes up.
And so I felt particularly betrayed this week when Polaris joined the ranks of those who point and stare. Polaris – who knows as much as anyone what it’s like to feel out of place in the Daily-Mail-reading, small-minded, formica-covered kitchens of our youth, who knows how it feels when deep thinking dulls the pleasures of mindless frivolities, who knows what it is to be out of step with where you came from, to be teased for using a word deemed too stuck-up, to suffer the worst kind of crowing if you want make the smallest mistake.
Last weekend, we went on the march through London to support the NHS. Polaris was, in his own words, “among his people”, by which he meant trade unionists from the North. And apparently, it ain’t cool to be seen among his people, with this middle-class, over-educated, over-paid, Waitrose-loving Southerner. I was mocked mercilessly as though my support was somehow less authentic, implying again that my education and job make me “other”, not part of the people, or indeed his people.
I have always wondered if Polaris is slightly embarrassed of me; after all he has always been reluctant to introduce me to his friends. Perhaps this is just my paranoia, based on a lifetime of those put-on posh-voice put-downs, the shrill of my whole family mocking my use of “actually” always ringing in my ears. Nonetheless, I suspect Polaris is a working class snob, despite his own experiences and middle class status.
I don’t blame him – I used to be a terrible working class snob. Those first few weeks at Oxford were spent clinging to my equally-proletarian new best friend, terrified that we were seen as common as muck and humiliated for not knowing what Roedean was (look it up – I had to). But I learnt quickly that it was me that had a problem, not everyone else. Education is the great leveller, and in academia, I found that no one cares about your accent or your background if you have a good idea and make a good argument. At Oxford, no one cared that I was clever, it was not worth pointing out.
What makes me stand out, whether it’s my brain or my boobs, has always been a source of discomfort for me, a reason to hide. Looking back, that seems ridiculous. But it is a natural human need, no better expressed than by hundreds of thousands of people marching in the same direction, to feel part of something, to feel included. Nobody wants to be singled out. Everyone wants to belong.
Can I be proud of what I am good at, without it feeling like conceit, without being scared that it invites derision? I don’t know the answer to that.
(This is full of typos I think – I’ll edit later.)