The Dumbest One in the Room
“Don't be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.” ― George Saunders, The Braindead Megaphone
“I love it when I’m the dumbest one in the room!”
My students, who never really know what to expect when I open my mouth, erupted in laughter. I figured I should elaborate. I explained that I enjoy putting myself in situations where I am surrounded by much more informed and intelligent people than myself. It is humbling and empowering at the same time. “You absolutely, positively, have to learn to ask questions,” I pleaded. It is the only way we can grow and figure things out for ourselves.
My younger self was not comfortable being the dumbest person in the room. I needed to play it cool and act like I knew what I was doing. As a young teacher, we were taught that students, like animals, could sense fear. We had to act like we knew what we were doing, even if we did not. It was survival of the fittest. To ask questions was to reveal uncertainty - that you did not hold all the answers. Asking questions was a sign of weakness.
With age and experience, I have come to realize the limits of my own understanding. Admitting when I don’t know something only opens up an opportunity to learn and deepen my knowledge of humanity and the world around me. When I am the dumbest person in the room, I can release the sense of obligation accompanied with being an “expert” or guardian of some absolute truths. The teacher becomes the pupil, and I no longer have to hold all the answers. I listen, question, probe and wrangle with ideas and theories I learn from my surroundings.
In my profession as a college instructor, I am surrounded by colleagues who are experts in their fields. My office is located on a hall filled with faculty who teach history, economics, sociology, English, religion, psychology and anthropology. It is fertile soil for growth and continued education. I engage in conversation with these people almost every day. I am on committees and in clubs with these intellectuals. They are artists, social activists, world travelers, dancers, musicians, poets, writers and so much more. While I have my strengths and areas of expertise, most days I knowingly sit at the table as the dumbest one in the room.
When I first met one of these fellow faculty members, I assumed he was a pretentious, stuffy professor based on the fact that he was very reserved and seemed to only speak in theoretical jibber jabber. In time, I began engaging in conversation with him about teaching, art, books and current events. With each conversation, I came away with some new idea or concept on topics ranging from cultural grooming practices to religious theories. I used to feign understanding and nod when he started talking of Socialism, Marxism or Capitalism, but these days, I have become much more transparent. I am quick to tilt my head in a dumb, labrador retriever manner and ask, “Huh?” He always explains, and with each conversation, I become a little less ignorant.
In other areas of my life, I am also reminded of just how little I know and understand. In her recent interview for NPR’s “Fresh Air,” author Zadie Smith described parenthood as a chance for humiliation. “Humiliation because we have so many ideas about ourselves, and children are here to destroy all of them one by one.” Yes, as a parent I am frequently reminded that there is just so much more to learn. Even what I think I understand often comes tumbling down when I am confronted with questioning or a need to explain my beliefs to an unrelenting eleven year old. In these cases, I do my best to exemplify my dedication to a life of learning. The journey will never be complete, and I can be open in revealing I still have so much more to learn.
I will admit that I do have my moments of expertise. When my colleagues need to know how to squat, deadlift, make healthy food choices, or rally any kind of enthusiasm, I am their person. But ultimately, I am irresistibly drawn to the moments when I sit back and comfortably assume the role of dumbest person in the room. I often say that if it was feasible, I would stay in school for the rest of my life. I absolutely love being a student, and for now, the world will have to be my classroom. My curriculum is an evolving compilation of books, films, articles and various art forms introduced by the people around me. My book shelves are lined with titles suggested by fellow parents, colleagues, CrossFit community members, friends and online acquaintances. At the heart of my personal development, the critical thinker in me demands that I ask questions and listen. William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” After spending my early years trying to fill that pail, my present self is fully embracing this incendiary phase.