One of the highlights of the last few months happened over an entirely brief conversation I had in Jamatkhana. A young man with a very similar name to mine came up to me and said: “hey Aqil, you know stuff.” He then proceeded to ask a question, but it was his introduction that grabbed my attention because I am Aqil and I know stuff. I know how to be an English major, I know how to spell my own name, and despite what people on Reddit say, I know what’s in Newton Scamander’s wand (come at me, Mathias Greyjoy). I even have a jumper to prove that I know stuff.
But in addition to the stuff that I know, there’s also a lot of stuff that I don’t know. In fact, there’s more stuff that I don’t know than stuff that I do. The jumper doesn’t say “Aqil knows a lot of stuff”. And while I bask in the stuff I know, most of my life (and spoilers: most of my job) is just figuring out stuff that I don’t know and then subsequently knowing it. I’m told that’s called “learning” but who needs new words for stuff.
Aqil knew stuff.
I have a lot of family and family-friends in Vancouver and Toronto. However, I’m hesitant to go back and visit those places for one reason: when I lived there, I was an asshole. Granted, I moved from Toronto just before my 5th birthday and I lived in Vancouver before that, so I was a tiny protohuman at the time and I don’t remember being an asshole, but people sure do like to remind me. And I wasn’t your typical asshole, like most children are: I was a smartass. According to family in Vancouver, I would often shout “YOU KNOW WHAAAAAAT?” in my obnoxious child voice before babbling on about some ‘new fun fact’ I’d just learned which probably was not new or fun to the people to whom I regaled. And the family-friends in Toronto haven’t forgotten that I would pedantically correct every little thing that came out of anyone’s mouth: they’re not flip flops, they’re sandals; there’s a difference (but again, in mewling child-words).
I like to think that now, I’m better. Yes, I still get frustrated when people are wrong about things they have no business being wrong about. But I keep that frustration on the inside, like an adult. And I no longer share every new thing I learn with every new person I meet, instead I use social media and blogs, like an adult.
Aqil didn’t know stuff.
I was never particularly good at school. I wasn’t particularly bad, either. But for those 20 long years of my life, school was always a bit of an uphill battle. Class was consistently not-engaging, studying almost never happened, and homework seemed more like a Sisyphusian chore than a necessity to understanding.
I never failed any classes (until university) but I also never needed a tutor (except for French parce que bien sur j’avais besoin d’un tuteur). I didn’t graduate with distinction, or even make the honor roll. I just kind of did school.
But what I heard over and over from my teachers (and from my parents, repeating my teachers) is: “You’re smart, you just need to apply yourself”. And I wasn’t the only one hearing that. It’s reflected in two of the top posts from the ADHD subreddit, it’s in a real live book.
But it wasn’t until I was listening to a recent Cracked Podcast that I actually figured out what that phrase meant: absolutely nothing. “If an entire set of adult teachers are telling you that you… aren’t being a good student,” notes Alex Schmidt, in the podcast. “After a year… it wouldn’t be good.” “And when you multiply that year after year after year,” adds ex-teacher Kristi Harrison, “something’s gonna snap.” And I can go on about how shitty and outdated the schooling system is (I have before and I probably will again), but this is about the specific and repeated feedback that, without doing anything wrong, I’m bad at school. And since, between the ages of 5 and 18, school is most of anyone’s life. I was bad at life for most of mine.
Aqil knows nothing.
Outside of school, I was a separate kind of mess growing up. I remember many, many times, I was pulled aside, in public and scolded for doing something rude or inappropriate. Each of these instances was literally heart-wrenching. Even as a child, I couldn’t keep my composure after the vice-like grip on my arm pulled me into a disused corner and my parents whisper-shouted about whatever I’d done wrong. The worst part is they’d never tell me why what I was doing was wrong. It was never a learning experience, only: “you’re bad; be better” with no regard to how I was bad or how to be better. And events like these would sit with me for hours and later (as my mental illness developed more) days.
I couldn’t control it, but I also couldn’t fix it because these scoldings came seemingly at random. I know now that it was usually because I transcended some social norm but at as a child I’m not sure how I was expected to know all of the rules grown ups are supposed to follow. I still don’t know all of society’s rules, and I still stuff up sometimes. And, because of all that negative reinforcement growing up, I still get all bent out of shape about it, just now it’s more shameful because I’m a grownup. Plus it doesn’t help that my parents still throw the mistakes of my childhood in my face as recently as this week.
Aqil doesn’t say anything.
There were a few years when, according to my parents, I fell almost completely silent. This is a phase I’ve only recently come out of in the past year or so. All the buildup of being told that I’m not good at school or being a person had finally settled in, and in an effort to not make anyone mad at me (no more scoldings and no more backhanded insults from teachers) I just sort of clammed up completely. If nothing I could do was right, I would rather have done nothing at all.
Aqil knows a little.
In an effort to avoid the constant discouragement, I did two things: 1) I tried to learn everything I could and 2) I escaped into my own fantasy world (as anyone would). These are both textbook defense mechanisms for anxiety. But not knowing that I had any mental disorders at the time, both seemed like reasonable actions. Besides, they’ve allowed me to express myself in some amazing ways. I’ve got my two blogs where I talk about cool stuff that I’ve learned. I have a weirdly extensive knowledge or fictional universes, I’ve made an entire Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon (and DMed). That’s not to mention the countless comics and writings, and the fanart. It’s all stuff that I’m super proud of.
But there’s one issue. I can’t share this side of myself with other people. Yes, I find all this stuff interesting, and I would love more than most anything else to be able to share it. But whenever I so much as mention something that I’m interested in, even to friends that share that same interest, the looks come back, the laughter comes back, and I know it’s time to stop talking before I even start.
And that’s just the way it goes now. In fear of repeating my entire upbringing, I continue to hide myself from even people that I’m “close” to.
Aqil knows stuff.
There’s a lot going on in my head. And a lot that I want to share. It’s not something I can do in person. But I have ways of doing that. This is one of those ways, and if you’ve made it this far into the post: thank you. Hopefully, one day I can find someone that I can share with, and break this glass bubble that I’ve had to build up around myself. Until then, I have my blog, and my notebooks to fill. But I’ll probably continue to keep things to myself.