smart nothing.

in elementary school, i believed what people said, what teachers said. that i was a smart kid. to be truthful, i never really bought it. the only thing i knew was that the work was way easy. too fucking easy. either st. ignatius' standards were too low, or everyone around me was just that stupid. so i excelled like i never had before. on timed math quizzes, i always finished first with zero to few errors. i won spelling bees; i memorized definitions like a human dictionary; i did math like a stereotypical asian american student should. teachers loved me. they would always tell other misbehaving students, why can't you be more like james?

i knew what they really wanted, though. i knew that all i had to do was sit still and keep my dumb fucking mouth shut for eight hours a day, and at the end of the semester, i would get a shitty beige piece of paper that read, "high honors." and i actually thought these things mattered. my mom bought me a sundae each time i earned straight a's. around sixth grade, it started getting competitive. noel, edgar, kendall, michael - these were my competitors; they were my enemies; i wished to crush them.

mrs. mangino was my biggest obstacle. i always fucked something up in her stupid science class. she couldn't even teach. she was just some crazy old woman who believed in creationism, and they had her teaching science. so i got one c on a quiz, and that was it. there goes my chance, i thought. and sure enough, when report card time came, there was a little dash (-) next to my perfect row of a's.


it means you're deficient. you're lacking something. something's missing. it's a negative, a symbol used to indicate subtraction. you're less than what you think you are. you're not going to get what you deserve.

coleman mccarthy, teacher of nonviolence, once said that grades are a form of "academic violence." it's taking me a while to still process that thought. i've read teenage liberation and i've read school is hell, and i still don't know what to think about grades as academic violence.

at st. ignatius, i wasn't valedictorian, the way i always imagined i would be. mrs. mangino's science class always brought down my gpa. i guess the other teachers never gossiped about me in her presence. at that point, i didn't want to be valedictorian anyway, because i didn't like standing up in front of people and feeling terribly important.

i do remember, though, getting our grades toward the end of the year, maybe in sixth or seventh grade. noel and edgar trailed behind me. "what'd you get? how'd you do?" i told them. they made little frowns and said in their pathetic mocking voices, "aww, what happened? how come?" i didn't answer them. i just walked away.

thinking about that moment, i begin to understand the connection between grades and academic violence.

by the time i reached high school, i didn't care anymore. i knew that grades were meaningless, and that i wasn't actually learning anything. that i was, and always have been, doing nothing more than busy work. that my teachers were simply preparing me for the bleak reality of a mundane nine to five. all i had to do was keep quiet, keep to myself, and do the work.

i didn't want to go to an all boys school, but i did anyway. what other options did i have? even at fourteen, i knew the public school system was a joke.

so i went, and for four years, i reached an unprecedented level of boredom and depression. if it wasn't for music, i never would've made it. i'm sure of that. that's about the only thing i'm sure of.

freshman year was a disaster. i received my first c in geometry. i wished the worst kinds of horrible cancers upon my teachers. i won't even go into p.e.

when they saw my first dismal report card, my parents were shocked. "what's the matter?" they said. "why are you doing so poorly?" when i didn't have any answers, they offered solutions. "you need to try harder," they said. "maybe you should go to counseling," they said.

i refused. for the first time in my life, i would learn how to turn myself off and become completely disconnected: socially, spiritually, academically.

i'm not smart, i wanted to say. what is 'smart' anyway? what does it mean to be smart? smart people are the ones who fit in, who know how to play the game. it helps if you're white. it helps if you have money. it helps if your parents are together. it helps if your friends aren't complete fuck-ups. it helps if you don't actually mind doing busy work. it helps if you know how to write what your teachers want to read. it helps if you can deceive yourself into thinking that this system, this educational racket, will lead you to college, which in turn will lead you to a good career, which in turn will bring you loads of money, which in turn will bring you happiness.

it's the simplest math equation. you weren't supposed to think about it. that's why it was a timed test. school + good grades + college + smart decisions = joy.

i didn't study for the sat's. i told myself, if i don't know it by now, i'll never know it. minus. i didn't really research colleges. i just applied to jesuit ones because i liked the jesuit philosophy. minus. i majored in creative writing because i liked to write, and i didn't know what else i could do. minus. i didn't apply for a single scholarship before, or even during, my four years in college. minus.

during my years at seattle university, i heard a lot of people talk. professors, guest speakers, fellow students. the majority of them were white. it's a private school, what else could you expect? i'd listen to them talk and talk, and i'd usually keep quiet. i didn't really keep track of what i owed, until i graduated. i just knew it was a lot, and that i'd rather not think about it. i guess that's how the system works. don't let the poor know they're poor, until it's really too late.

i don't know what to think. i thought college would fix my negative attitude. i thought it would make me more forgiving, more understanding. i thought i'd become more aware of what's going on in the world, or i'd learn to write great stories, make lifelong friends, and do something of value, do something important. and i did get some of that. but i'm just not where i want to be, and i worry that i will never get there.

i can only think of what other people are doing. i can only listen to older people go on and on about so-and-so doing this and doing that. people just a little older than me who are now electrical engineers, lawyers, anesthesiologists, etc. people who've made their families proud, who have something to talk about when they're invited to family gatherings.

me, i could talk about the last short story i read, or else talk about the new sigur ros e.p. or how i feel like my only option in life is to go back to school and accrue more debt, or get some mind-numbing job (if i'm lucky). but, usually i have nothing to say.

because in life, like in school, i've learned to keep quiet.

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