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SONET: Reading should not be marker of intelligence but of personal growth

Column: Anectdotes

It does not matter what you read as long as it brings joy and allows you to destress. – Photo by Florencia Viadana / Unsplash

I have very few memories from my elementary school days, but I do know that I learned to read and write during this time. I remember sitting with friends in the cafeteria while the principal went around with a microphone, making unfunny jokes. Overall, I look back on those years of my life fondly.

It was not until many years later I finally realized one major impact of my elementary school experience: the loss of confidence in my intelligence. While elementary school was a place for academic and personal growth, it was also the source of an inferiority complex, one that many others can probably relate to.

Ever since I can remember, my teachers and peers have stressed the importance of reading. To be a reader, I was frequently led to believe, is to be smart.

All throughout elementary school, teachers would give us reading logs, encouraging us to read more frequently. While some of my peers devoured series like "Harry Potter" and "Magic Tree House," I struggled to find enjoyment in reading.

I would hear kids teasing their friends about how slowly they read and brag about how quickly they were able to get through books meant for older age groups. I remember sitting at my desk during silent reading time, flipping the page every 30 seconds, focused more on appearing as though I was a fast reader than absorbing the information of the text itself.

Reading became something I hated. It served as a constant reminder that I was not as smart or efficient as my peers. I developed the mentality that I was too slow of a reader, and I was incapable of understanding complex vocabulary to read or fully enjoy books.

While I was unable to recognize it at the time, I made a distinction in my head that would follow me throughout much of my academic career — there are readers, and there are non-readers. The readers, in this mindset, are the smart ones.

This distinction profoundly affected my confidence in my academic abilities. I struggled to view myself as intelligent and continually reminded myself that all of my achievements, my good grades, were simply the product of studying and following rubrics — not my own capabilities or talent.

Even when we were reading a book in class that appealed to me, I would turn to my friends and say something like, "Ugh, this book is so long. I do not think I will actually read the whole thing."

I ultimately convinced myself that since I was not a natural-born voracious reader, I would never be truly smart.

Then, during quarantine, something changed. While spending an increased amount of time on social media is not the healthiest habit, one good thing did come from it.

I began to see girls my age creating TikTok and YouTube videos about books. I was exposed to countless examples of people who, just like me, struggled to focus on the text and read at a fast pace and got bored with books easily. Yet they confidently referred to themselves as readers and book lovers.

For the first time in my life, the association I had created between reading and intelligence shifted. I began to realize that you do not have to read all the time or read unbelievably dry and complex classic novels to be smart.

For so long, I believed that I did not deserve to read. I fell victim to the idea that I did not enjoy books because I was not smart enough to grasp the content. In reality, I realized, I struggled to enjoy many of the books I had attempted to read because if I am being honest, they were boring, long and outdated.

I finally decided that I would try to read books that actually interested me. I read "Kisscut" by Karin Slaughter, staying up for hours, unable to go to sleep without getting past the cliffhangers. I read "Where the Crawdads Sing" by Delia Owens, feeling sad when the book was over and wishing I could read it for the first time once again. Over time, I read more and more books, discovering the emotional power of words and the ability of fictional stories to impact my life.

Reading was no longer a measure of my intelligence or a dreaded reminder of my academic inferiority. I had reclaimed it, turning it into something that brought me authentic intrigue and excitement.

Growing up, my intelligence became defined by how many books I had on my reading log or how many words I could read per minute. Now, I define my intelligence by my love of learning and my ability to achieve academic goals that once seemed out of reach.

I never liked the "Harry Potter" series, and I probably never will. Reading historical documents for history courses will always be painful, but at least I know now that admitting these things does not make me any less intelligent.

Maybe I was not born a bookworm, but I will no longer hesitate to curl up with a good book when I am lucky enough to find one that interests me.

Joelle Sonet is a first-year in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences where she is undecided. Her column, 'Anectdotes', runs on alternate Wednesdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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