I signed up for a French class a couple weeks ago. It’s the first time I’ve set foot in a classroom since I graduated from college some three and a half (!) years ago. It’s entirely for fun—not for work, not even for a grade—and yet every time I enter the classroom, I feel myself transmogrify into a vicious hand-raiser of the Hermione Granger variety. Long-buried instincts from my school days gurgle up from some corner of my belly into my throat and before I know it, I’m practically jumping out of my seat to demonstrate to the class that not only do I know that the French word for “hotel” is, uh, “hotel,” but I knew it BEFORE EVERYONE ELSE.
Ladies and gentlemen, I must confess: I am what they call a gunner.
I learned this term from my many friends who have attended law school. They tell me that there’s one particularly obnoxious breed of law student defined best as “that asshole who shows up having read not just ALL the required reading but the supplemental reading and also some additional research by a scholar that has influenced the professor’s career, which they knew to be true because they read all the professor’s books, too.”
The gunner accrues this knowledge not to further their education, but to demonstrate at every turn that they are smarter than you and to ensure that when you answer the professor’s questions incorrectly, they can chime in with the right answer and probably some supplemental trivia about habeas corpus or torts or whatever it is you law school people learn.
Here’s the thing: in an academic setting, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been utterly incapable of conducting myself like anything but the nerd equivalent of a WWE wrestler. I get that what you’re supposed to do is sit quietly, absorb information, and provide input when called upon. What I don’t get is how anybody manages to do that.
This need to be heard—this need to prove that I have something to contribute and that I’m totally worthy of being wherever I am, whether it’s in a classroom or a business meeting or on Earth in general—is something that’s plagued me for as long as I can remember.
I have referenced previously on this blog that I was, shall we say, unpopular as a child. I like to explain this away by saying that nobody liked me because I was smart and bad at sports, but I’ve neglected a central truth of my childhood personality: I was… a little obnoxious. Actually, if we’re being perfectly honest, I was kind of an asshole.
To clarify, this wasn’t a permanent condition. I was often quite pleasant, especially when I was tucked into some corner engrossed in a book or otherwise occupied. Really, when I wasn’t trying to engage with other humans, I was a pretty great kid. I drew stacks of pictures and wrote stories and poems and built houses out of Popsicle sticks and lived fairly quietly on a diet of dry cereal and Cran-Apple juice. Stick me in a classroom setting, though, surrounded by a bunch of jerks who came out of the womb knowing how to kick a soccer ball in a straight line, and my inner gunner flew free like a butterfly. Or, more accurately, like a cicada. A really, really persistent cicada.
This is what I was like as a baby gunner: I devoured books at the same rate that I devoured dry cereal and consequently had a killer vocabulary for an eight-year-old. The year we competed to see who could recite their times tables the fastest, I spent the preceding week stalking back and forth down the halls of my house, furiously whispering “ONETIMESONEISONE-ONETIMESTWOISTWO-ONETIMESTHREEISTHREE” until I could do it without taking more than a couple breaths. Then every day at school, when the other kids tripped over words they didn’t recognize as we read aloud Round Robin-style, I corrected them. (No. Seriously. I was an asshole.) I Hermione Granger’ed my way into answering every question the teacher asked: hand up, waving frenetically, frantic to demonstrate to everybody else that even if they knew it too I knew it first and therefore better. When the teacher didn’t call on me, I would purse my lips and shift my weight petulantly onto one arm in my desk, staring pointedly at whatever sucker got to answer the question instead of me.
I wasn’t good at much when I was a kid, and so I decided that being smart would be my domain. The girls in my classes were always athletic and pretty and confident and I was uncoordinated and geeky and constantly uncomfortable. I wanted desperately to prove that I, too, was good at something even though it wasn’t soccer or dodgeball or the kind of code-word-and-inside-joke-laden interaction that is so common among eight-year-old girls. It’s unsurprising that the other kids responded by concluding that I was annoying. Frankly, I’m surprised I never got trash canned. I probably deserved it.
Thankfully, it didn’t take me long to connect the fact that I had no friends with my behavior in class. After a couple of years of tortured journal entries—“Everyone thinks I’m annoying and I know I’m annoying, but I don’t know how to stop being annoying”—it occurred to me that it would probably behoove me to stop constantly insinuating that I thought everyone around me was an idiot.
It was around this time that the other baby gunners started to come out of the nerd woodwork. We were finally released from the torture that was playing foursquare during recess and instead, we passed the time comparing scores on math tests and vocabulary quizzes and competing for the high score on the Logical Journey of the Zoombinis. (Does anyone else remember this game? I liked it at least as much as the Oregon Trail. Better, maybe, because you never died of cholera. Or while fording the river.)
I passed several years blissfully competing with my fellow nerds for the top prize at the spelling bee and a speaking slot at graduation. We spent classes trying halfheartedly to outgun one another, growing more comfortable with ourselves. Basking in the knowledge that there was still an unwashed mass of Prettier and Better at Ballet/Soccer/Tuba/Mime but Not Nearly As Smart suffering beneath in some English class not designated as Advanced Placement, we began to understand the joy in learning for the sake of learning.
Then I went to college and the bottom dropped out. I was now not only less pretty and less good at ballet than everyone else, but they were also smarter than me, and some of them had even written “theses” in high school, and also a lot of them were not virgins. I had nothing to flaunt because I didn’t even understand half the words they were throwing around in class—dichotomy? Heteronormative? Semiotics?—let alone know how to use them in a sentence. One time, I made the mistake of using the term “symbolism” in a 200-level American literature class and the professor gave me such a dirty look that you’d think I was dropping racial epithets in an Africana Studies class. I shut up after that.
After a while, I picked up enough of the vocabulary to understand that nobody knew what they were talking about and to string together enough bullshit literary theory terms to sound as pretentious as the Mason jar-toting, keffiyah-sporting hipster on either side of me. By that point, though, I had come to terms with the fact that I would never be Phi Beta Kappa. Being smart at Vassar wasn’t my domain, and I lost interest in “gunning.” I felt like a much more tolerable human being: quieter, if you didn’t count every second that I wasn’t in class; more social; more in tune with… okay, yes, I drank a lot of cheap wine and sang a cappella. “Tolerable” might be a stretch.
But by all accounts, I was—am—less obnoxious than I was when I was eight. I recognize that I am never the smartest person in the room, and even if I’ve read the most books or can spout off the most state capitals, there’s probably someone else there who should be saved from the coming apocalypse before me. My gunner instincts lie dormant except for those occasions in business meetings where I feel the need to prove that even though I look like I’m twelve, I’m still totally competent and know many words with lots of syllables and would own many leather-bound books if Anne Tyler would only release a special series of her collected works bound in leather. (People tolerate this because I’m still less obnoxious than people who say things like “close the loop” and “synergize.” You can get away with a lot of behavior in a business setting as long as you never say the word “synergize.”)
I try my best to stay away from trivia leagues, where I fear that my inner gunner would flow free and wild and I would be shunned by the rest of the mid-twentysomethings and forced to live out the rest of my days eating peanut butter and jelly in the toilet stall without even a half-price Yuengling to keep me company. I keep my hands down and my thoughts on social media where the universe can choose to listen to me or not, unlike the elementary school classroom, where “Dana Cass never shuts up and if I spend another hour in class listening to her screech her times tables I’m going to off myself” was not an acceptable excuse for an absence.
But this French class? This French class might out me. If you see a bunch of yuppies chasing one of their own down Embassy Row, hurling workbooks at her as she seeks asylum with the Kazakhs, you’ll know what happened: I just had to prove that I could count to “quarante-quatre” the fastest.