Not All Scholars Go to Heaven

Posted on July 20, 2011 by

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by Kyla Marshell

It was Valentine’s Day, the spring semester of my freshman year of high school, and I was again suffering through a bullying-filled Honors English period. Oddly, in that small, and sometimes backwards Eastern Kentucky town, I, Black Girl 001, was never teased. But on this day, I felt more strongly than on other days, one particular victim’s pain. I don’t know what it was that made him unable to read aloud—because he was in all Honors classes and a very smart boy—but whenever it was his turn, he would stumble, mispronounce, and misread words, mangling the text to an unrecognizable state. And he would get harassed, horribly harassed, because of it. On this particular day, I burst into tears in the middle of class, overwhelmed and frustrated by what I had witnessed.

I kept asking my best friend why those boys had to be so cruel. In so many ways, they were great kids—intelligent, high achieving students who had already seen a way out of Morehead to bigger towns, bigger possibilities. But what I remember better than their intellect was their insensitivity. And I wondered, at age fifteen, if a boy, or anyone for that matter, could be smart, but also nice.

It seemed, from those experiences, impossible. At that juncture in my life, I’d never dated a soul, but I knew what I wanted—someone smart and kind. I’d never met a combination of the two. The brilliant boys were all jerks. The nice boys were all dummies. And in my opinion then, only nice “because they didn’t know any better.”

The smart versus nice dilemma would become a theme in my life. Once I got to college, I found the same dichotomy—super intelligent guys who could not even acknowledge me in public. Super nice guys who bored me to big, fat, salty crocodile tears. But I always chose smart over nice. Always. It was what I valued most, as an intellectual and artist.

But then my junior year of college, I changed my tune. I spent the first semester of the school year at Barnard College here in New York, and all of a sudden, I was overly surrounded by smart people. There were other serious poets, world-renowned scholars of Shakespeare and African-American studies, people who had started their own bands—so many independent thinkers. There were also a lot of people who were not my scholastic peers—writers I met at numerous readings around the city. Mostly “grown-ups.” Mostly accomplished and talented. Mostly Black. And somehow, strangely, mostly awkward and/or stiff. Sometimes, even cold.

Coming from Spelman, which is practically a daycare in the amount of nurturing we receive, I was a tad bit culture-shocked to be around people who were into me, but in such shallow ways. Especially when those people were other Black writers. I went to a hefty amount of readings around the city, and strengthened relationships with Black poets I’d met in other settings. But at every engagement, it seemed, no one really engaged. Everything was awkward small talk, and “Oh, we should hang out! Here’s my card!” but nothing of the spirit. Nothing real.

I began to realize that being surrounded by genius was not enough. There were people who had published great books, who owned successful businesses, or had fancy degrees—but without their kindness, without any effort made to be gracious, there was no point to any of it. Their brilliance wasn’t getting them into Heaven. Ultimately, it didn’t matter at all.

This became more apparent as I dealt with friends with whom I shared no common interests other than our love for one another. It had once seemed impossible to really value someone without sharing something tangible. I’d thought the same about certain family members, the ones who were not artists or intellectuals, or whose political views I did not share. It was a question of love as an idea or love as a practice. I had always chosen the former. I had always neglected love of the unconditional sort. The kind your mother gives you. The kind so foreign to me as an over-thinker.

Wrapped up in all of this are far greater issues than “nice versus smart.” There’s religious culture, and biology, and sociology, and class. The common denominator, though, is humanity. Our network is typically thought of as people from work or school, or who can help us get ahead. But within those six degrees, there’s the possibility for so much more. The possibility to appreciate someone not for their natural talents but for what really matters: compassion.

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