What Nobody Will Ever Say About Me After I Die

I don’t know if, in the course of my life, I will ever become notable enough to warrant a published obituary (and God knows some people whose obituaries make the front page didn’t exactly achieve their fame in a wholesome way).  At least, especially if I mellow in my later years and become less of an uppity smart-ass, someone will give a nice eulogy at my funeral.

I’m not sure what my mourners are going to say, assuming there will be any. But I know what they most definitely will not say.

No obituary of mine will ever start like this:

Alaina Mabaso, freelance journalist and polymath….

The journalist part is true. But alas, I will never be a polymath.

I went to school with a polymath. If you don’t know what a polymath is, listen to this. This guy excelled at writing and English, science and math, and was a wonderful artist. Adding insult to injury, he was handsome and athletic. He was good – no, excellent – at everything on campus. Now, there are plenty of brilliant people like him – however, they sometimes lack social know-how. But as a final, stinging injustice to ordinary people everywhere, this guy was universally liked.

Whenever anyone exclaimed over his abilities, he insisted with humble sincerity that he wasn’t smarter or better than anyone else – in fact, quite the contrary; his wits were sub-par – he simply worked very hard to overcome his failings. He never lorded his brilliance over anyone and could usually be found sitting quietly in his dorm room, studying.

I’m sure I could’ve benefited from his example.

Instead, I spent most of my own school years in a searing cloud of self-hate every time I lost points on an exam, which was pretty much every time, and keeping mental lists of what I was and wasn’t good at.

These are the subjects I was good at:

  • Writing
  • Languages
  • History
  • Art
  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Philosophy

These are some of the subjects that I muddled through:

  • Chemistry
  • Arithmetic
  • Algebra
  • Functions I
  • Biology
  • Geometry

These are some of the subjects in which I consistently humiliated myself:

  • Music
  • Functions II
  • P.E.
  • Sewing
  • Dance

These are some of the subjects that would have probably killed me had I ever attempted them:


  • Pre-calculus
  • Calculus
  • Trigonometry
  • Computer science
  • Physics
  • Probability and Statistics

My greatest intellectual shortcomings seem to echo out of the very word “polymath”.

It may be that my hatred of math, and my persistent numerical incompetence, was rooted in an elementary school classroom. My third-grade teacher didn’t exactly enjoy catering to the slower kids. If, in the course of the morning math period, you became confused and put up a hand to say, “I don’t get it,” she’d bury her face in her hands.

A sound like the hissing of water in a hot iron pan would emanate from between her fingertips. Then her face would reappear above her hands, pulsing redder than a sunrise over the African savannah.

“What,” she would intone with quiet menace, “don’t you get?”

Of course, it’s entirely possible that I would’ve turned out to be bad at math no matter what. It’s a plain fact that most of my music, science and P.E. teachers were fine individuals, and it didn’t stop me from turning out pathetic in those classes.

Adult life has shown me that, so far, most of the subjects I hated in school have had little impact on my actual career. And I’ve found out there are other things that I’m good at: like hospice care, networking, raising goldfish and making soup.

However, the problems continue apace, like my failure to keep the house clean and meet my deadlines, my failure to successfully grow plants, a failure to understand the world of fashion and attire myself accordingly, a definite failure to make lots of money, a failure to embrace my parents’ faith, and a failure to learn how to drive a manual transmission that’s plagued me since I was 16. Plus I am terrifically bad at counting change.

Give me a challenging crossword puzzle and I’ll fume because I’m never quite able to fill out the whole thing: I totally suck at geography, general sports knowledge, and the names of TV stars past and present.

For ten years, psychologists and psychiatrists have been asking me the same question. Why I am so fixated on demanding perfection of myself? Flanked by Kleenex boxes, clocks and Abnormal Psych texts, all those years on tasteful couches seem to drive home yet another personal catastrophe: my obvious failure to solve my glaring psychological problems despite a decade of therapy.

Damned if I know why I feel the way I do. You should know the objective truth about my work in, for example, my high-school math courses. The fact is, I would get some help – kind teachers, a math-savvy-boyfriend, an extra-credit assignment – and then usually pull an A-.  This information isn’t meant to subtly imply my self-deprecating smarts, which would be super-irritating to everyone. It’s meant as a glimpse into the dark, stinking perversity of my mind. Instead of being happy that I got an A- in a class that was extremely challenging to me, I wanted to drown myself because it wasn’t an A+.

All I know is that when I’m not beating myself up for being good at a few things instead of being good at many things, I’m haranguing myself for having that crazy mindset in the first place. Who can be good at everything? (Except for that kid I knew in college and maybe Leonardo DaVinci.)

The worst was when I realized that the very act of tabulating my shortcomings is moving me even further away from the polymath label I always wanted. Not only am I rotten at math, most sciences and anything requiring a modicum of physical coordination: I clearly lack inner emotional expertise as well.

In this case, berating myself for every imperfection doesn’t encourage humility – it actually seems like a terrible kind of arrogance. Why should I of all people be perfect? It’s a total conundrum. I won’t expand my skill areas, and therefore my self-worth, unless I relentlessly pursue new knowledge. On the other hand, I’ll be a much better person all around as soon as I stop wanting to excel at everything.


Add yours →

  1. Why couldn’t “polymath” be called “polyEnglish” or “polyester”?

  2. Wow, we are exactly the same and exactly opposite at the same time. I wish I could explain that comment, but I can’t.

  3. Interesting diary entry, and surprising blog material. Thanks for the glimpse. I hope that sharing these intimate details make you feel better about–everything I guess…

    Dying to know who that perfect classmate of yours was, and you’re too rough on our poor 3rd grade teacher, even if she hissed once or twice.

    I will never forget when our 1st and 2nd grade teacher mockingly waved her hand in front of my face over a math problem and said, “Bradley… Heeeelllllloooooo!!” One would hope that I was too young to remember such seething disgust at my inability to learn on that day. I held a grudge for a long time, but now it’s just something that I think about occasionally, because I remember it like it was 3 hours ago–stored in some instantly re-callable cranny of my brain. It was an act of god that I didn’t break out in tears, and it still makes me wonder, ‘what the f*** was she thinking?!’

    “When adding two small numbers and one number is a 9, you take ONE away from the other number, and make the 9 a 10, NOW add them. It’s SO much easier!” she nagged. I think I finally understood what she was talking about by about 8th grade. No, arithmetic was not my forte, either.

    Fast forward to 5th and 6th grade–my touch typing class. My report card said something akin to: “Bradley is a good student, but he peaks frequently at his fingers when typing, which hinders his ability to learn.” You could have made one of your signature soups from the heat pouring out my cranial orifices. Never once did I look at my fingers, and I was one of the best in the whole damn class. This would be my reply, if there ever was such a thing:

    “Teacher X is not peeking frequently at her students, and is completely missing who is doing a wonderful job, and who needs extra help. It’s apparent that she has no clue how I’m doing in her class, and decided that, based on her knowledge of my general academics, that she would create a report that sounded like it would fit my personality, and not take the proper steps to invest in her students very thoroughly.”

    Wow, my turn to vent! Hope that’s ok…

    Love ya

    Your brother,

    • Yeah, this post is uber-personal compared to a lot of the stuff I write. It is a bit cathartic, I guess, especially if other people can relate.

      Not too rough on 3rd grade teacher. Only the truth reigns here…

      Funny how the scholastic humiliations of our youth endure throughout adulthood.I don’t know what my typing teacher said about me, but I probably annoyed her to no end, because I picked up typing very quickly and then became unbearably bored by the repetitive typing assignments. I figured that she must be unbearably bored by checking the correctness of said repetitive typing assignments, and I’d purposely bury random words or comments in the assignments. I lost points over it on otherwise perfect assignments, if I recall, but I just couldn’t take the boredom so it was worth it in that case.

      Thanks as always for tuning in. You should keep your own blog.

  4. I enjoyed this one a lot! It reminds me of my dad, who always talks about wanting to learn Spanish someday but never does anything because it just seems too impossible. And it may be impossible for him to become a fluent speaker. But the way I see it, the very best anyone can do at any time is get a little better each day, or do nothing not get better at all.

    I don’t know if that’s relevant at all to your post. But I guess sometimes it helps (for me) to think of things in terms of my brain being more capable than it was the day before because I pushed myself a little, rather than worry about the outcome. Bleh, easier said than done.

  5. “I won’t expand my skill areas, and therefore my self-worth, unless I relentlessly pursue new knowledge.”

    What if self-worth doesn’t have anything to do with expanding one’s skill areas? I kind of think self-worth is inherent to existence, and self-acceptance – even of all the parts of us that’re supposed to be better than they are – is a way to feel and experience, rather than just believe in, our inherent worth.

    • Sometimes I wish I could scrap myself and start over with whole new self-definition…There is almost nothing I’m worse at than accepting the parts of myself that I deem sub-par. Part of the problem is that I always defined myself professionally and intellectually more than I did emotionally, trampling on my feelings to exalt (or denigrate) my smarts.

      Thanks (as always) for your comment.

  6. hello, alaina,

    i like your categories of subjects – good at, muddled through, consistently humiliated yourself and would have probably killed you, hahaha. ^^

    i once had a classmate in college who was just as you described – good-looking, uber-intelligent and well-liked. my classmates and i didn’t think he was for real, lols!

    regards and cheers! 🙂

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