The Smart Kids Don't Know
She passed by me on the bus. I looked up, and we caught each other’s eyes. She smiled at me. I knew her name, but we’ve never had a conversation. I just saw her around. The exchange lasted only seconds, but I found myself looking back at her as she sat down rows away from me.
It was mid-February and we were on a week-long Junior trip where students from the AVID and Scholars program got to tour universities around California. Due to our enrollment in these academic programs, we were rewarded with a special trip while “the cool kids,” or students who didn’t belong in either program, had to show up for class. While I felt uneasy about this, I didn’t do anything about it; I was too busy packing travel-sized toiletries and planning Instagram-worthy outfits.
For most of us—a group of Black and Brown kids from a small town—we were just excited to see what our future could look like.
At the end of 8th grade, I got accepted into the high school Scholars program.
Being a Scholar meant that because of your “stellar academic history,” you were part of the intelligent elite. And that, as a 14-year-old, you were ready to take on the most rigorous courses the high school had to offer. Typically catered to low-income minority communities, the ultimate goal of the program was for its students to be accepted into prestigious universities across the country and, inevitably, increase the reputation of the high school.
At the end of 8th grade, she got accepted into the high school AVID program.
AVID stood for Advancement Via Individual Determination and its mission was similar to the Scholars, except AVID accepted students who were in the “academic middle.” You didn’t need perfect grades, just a willingness to work hard and learn skills to be successful. While most of these skills were not particularly useful beyond the classroom, AVID believed in giving anyone a chance, as long as they worked for it.
Once we became friends she was surprised that I wasn’t like the other Scholars, that I actually had a genuine interest in the lives of AVID students. She said this as a joke, but I knew what she was implying.
The Scholars’ bourgeoisie reputation preceded itself, therefore we were seen and defined by that reputation. But I wouldn’t say we didn’t try to uphold it either. At the time, I did think I was better than those in AVID, at least academically. Wielding a quantifiable level of intellectual power made what teachers had told me since I was 8 years old true, that I was “gifted and talented,” that I was special.
Moving through the American education system as a Filipino immigrant kid, I quickly caught up to the fact that when I did my homework, behaved in class, and got good grades, I would be rewarded. Conditioned by this positive reinforcement, I kept doing it over and over again that by the time I reached high school, I was an expert at the game. While it formed an anxiety disorder that would go undiagnosed until college, I kept playing the game because I believed that it gave me value, a place to belong.
The kids who did not participate in the game—for reasons that included not having the same privileged conditions I had—were shamed and left behind. Witnessing this in 3rd grade led me to form a deep desire for acceptance and validation. A longing so immense that I freely participated and benefited from academic programs structured around exceptionalism. But, at the time, I knew that I’d rather be part of something than nothing at all.
I knew I was falling for her, but didn’t quite understand what that meant for my sexuality, or our friendship for that matter. I just knew that I wanted to be around her, hoping that things would naturally evolve into something more.
Out of our graduating class, she ranked #7, and I ranked #4.
While this GPA measurement didn’t really mean anything, I still saw it as a subtle power I had over her. A power that revealed itself when she needed me to proofread her essay, or when she’d ask for help with the math homework. She’d often tell me I was the smartest person she knew, and I loved it.
The power she held over me felt different in nature. She was a top student, President of the biggest club on campus, and a Varsity Cheerleader. Teachers loved her, boys had crushes on her. She had an ability to move through various spaces and be exactly what people wanted her to be. It looked effortless, or even more impressive, not an act. Unlike me, she possessed a social capital, an outwardly-perfect persona that I could never attain.
So when she, with her beauty and power, gave me time, attention and love, I felt that I was finally worthy of what I had been chasing after all my life.
By March of 2016, we started to hear back from colleges. When I saw the enjoyment on classmates’ faces after getting their acceptances, it seemed like all the hard work was finally paying off.
Teachers and counselors often sold us the idea that certain colleges had weight and prestige over others. By that understanding, we believed that those who got into those colleges had weight and prestige over others. So, I relied all my future success and happiness towards the opinion of historically-white institutions. On paper, I had a good chance of getting into these colleges. I’d gotten straight A’s, passed 9 AP exams, did over 200 hours of community service, and had 3 officer positions at school. I was that well-rounded student that every teacher said we had to be.
But my dream was to get into film school, a career path that hardly any educator knew about. So, one by one, I got rejected from these schools and was left with 3 colleges that I thought I was too good for. In my own clouded perspective, they were average, and after years of thinking I was special, I was just average.
She was sitting down on my bed, naturally, like many times before, when she got a phone call. I could hear the other person on the line, they were an admissions officer from a top university in California. Her face lit up, mine did too. She moved down to the carpeted floor, trying to ground herself. I sat down next to her, mouthing my excitement. As she nodded along and responded with various “yes” and “thank yous,” she grabbed my hand, caressed my knuckles, then interlocked it with hers.
I forgot she was on the phone until she said she got in.
We stayed on the floor until the sun went down. She comfortably laid her head on my shoulder and suddenly spoke about the vulnerabilities and worries in her life. She wasn’t the person that everyone, including myself, saw her as. At least not entirely. Like me, she participated in the game because that was all she knew, because it gave her comfort and stability while everything else fell apart. It wasn’t effortless. It was a lot of fucking work.
That evening, our personas fell down onto the floor with us, both of us trusting each other to let go, not judging one another for who we would be without it, without the sparkling glory of success, achievement, and praise. We were just there, existing in the private sphere of my bedroom. It was then that I felt our friendship transcend the rules of the game entirely.
After graduation, she spent the summer in Berkeley. Just like the AVID program had intended, she got into the college of her dreams and became a success story. While I didn’t get the same outcome, I realized that the programs we were in did have some validity in changing people’s lives. Students got to see their future open up before them, often being the first in their family to see this realized.
But still, I wondered why this meritocratic system was so valued in the first place, why we relied on it so much for validation, and what effect this would have on us later in life. The intentions of these systems did not serve every student, even the ones that participated in them. We got pushed down a funnel, made to adapt to who we had to be rather than who we actually were. Under the guise of freedom and liberation, the system continually subjugates us, as students of color, into a colonial ideology, making us reach for an image of whiteness that we can never attain.
And in the end, the only real winner seems to be the system itself.
The last time we saw each other was just before college and just after I told her I had feelings for her. A heavy silence fell upon us.
We sat on my bed, neither one of us knowing what to do or what to say. In the two years we had known each other, we struggled to realize that social relationships didn’t operate the same way tests or essays did. You couldn’t just pull an all-nighter, taking notes from a Houghton-Mifflin textbook. There wasn’t a grade to be had, no award to be won. You were dealing with another human being, whose actions didn’t always add up to something definite or explainable. It was hard for us to see it this way. As 17-year-olds, we simply didn’t have the capacity to process our feelings because no one ever taught us how to.
During the silence, I felt our high school identities dissolve into the past. It was then that I saw that between the two of us, there was no winner or loser. There was something freeing with us exiting the game in a draw, having to surrender to the feeling of finally not knowing.
Chloe Samillano is a Manila-born, Riverside-based writer and filmmaker. By tackling structural inequities, power dynamics, and self-delusion, her work explores the ways larger systems influence our lives. She has written for Balay Kreative, Kapwa Gardens, and Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity, and has received fellowships from BAVC Media, Ava DuVernay's ARRAY, and Lambda Literary. Website: chloesamillano.com