I’m 5’2″. I’m blonde. I’m pretty quiet. I dress nicely.
Most people take one look at me and assume they know exactly what they’re dealing with: a basic white girl, small and kind, with basic opinions, in need of guidance and possibly even protection.
Little do they know; “though she be but little, she is fierce” (William Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream).
The other day at work, I was standing behind the customer service desk with one of my coworkers, a man in his thirties, when a customer, also a man, probably in his late forties, approached the desk. He asked us to help him locate a particular book, speaking only to my coworker, without so much as a second glance at me. After he had given us the title of the book and the author’s name, my coworker began to look up the book in our database, as we often did, not knowing the location of our entire inventory. However, having read the book myself, I said “I love that book! I know where it is,” and my coworker passed the customer off to me, as we so often did, helping each other out. As I handed the man the book and attempted to make small talk about it, he was oddly quiet. I went back to the desk, leaving him to look around on his own.
Later, he approached the desk again to ask for another title. This time he marched straight up to me.
“Ok, know-it-all,” he began, “how about this one.”
Only then did I realize he was mocking me. Only then did I realize that his quietness earlier had been a reaction to my knowledge, a knowledge he had presumed I didn’t have. Now he was making an effort to prove me wrong. A justified smile spread across his face when I said “let me look that up for you.”
“Haven’t heard of that one, huh?” he quipped.
The book was On the Road, by Jack Kerouac.
Haven’t heard of that one? Oh, sir, not only have I heard of it, but I have read it and am currently resisting the urge to blurt out the plot line, main characters, and popular critical lenses surrounding the book since its release in the 1950s.
I’m an English major, from Santa Clara University, with an emphasis in American literature. I also am double majoring in Theatre Arts, with a minor in French. In addition, I am the associate editor of my university’s literary magazine. But you wouldn’t know that, would you, sir? You took one look at me and underestimated my ability to hold any knowledge that you might not.
I want to thank you for that. Because I took one look at you and your snide remarks and was instantly reminded of how beautiful it was to be underestimated. Thanks to you, I was reminded just how awesome I was, not only because I held the knowledge you disliked me for, but, more importantly, because I had the self-confidence to look you in the eye and say “I just want to make sure we have that in stock for you. Give me one moment.”
“Everyone said I couldn’t, which is why I did.” – Right Where I Should Be, Us the Duo
I was lucky enough to grow up believing I could do anything. I went to small, private schools. I was exposed, most often, to environments full of people that knew me well and consistently encouraged me.
I didn’t know how lucky I was.
I didn’t realize how unusual and amazing and kind it was for the people superior to me to look at the tiny, blonde female person I was and tell me I could do anything. I grew up believing in the power of my dreams.
But eventually, I graduated my small, all-girls, private high school. I got a real job. I moved away from home. I went to college.
I was shocked by the brazen audacity of the people around me. I had no idea that there were people in the world who would assume that I was incapable of intelligence, of strength, of leadership, simply because I was blonde, because I was young, because I was a girl.
But since then, I have learned to fight back.
At first, I thought I could prove them all wrong. I fought back with words, working to impart my knowledge and impress the people around me in any way I could. I fought hard to make a good impression.
But you can’t change other people, you can only change yourself. So, I learned to fight right.
Fighting right is fighting with your actions. It’s remaining confident in the face of adversity. It’s being polite to those people who underestimate you, only to turn around and become what they thought you could never be.
Fighting right wasn’t telling that man at work that he was wrong, that I was smart, that I had accomplished many things that he would never have know, that I had worked hard to get where I was.
Fighting right was biting my tongue and being confident in my own knowledge, despite his determination to tear me down.
People always say “Kill ’em with kindness.” And this is true. For sure, kill ’em with kindness.
But also kill ’em with strength and courage. Kill ’em with growth and power. Kill ’em with grace and intelligence. Gather up a well-educated, put-together fight, whatever that means to you. Whether that means lacing up your running shoes and getting your butt to the gym. Whether that means putting that criticism to good use and working to better yourself. Whether that means going to the library and reading up on that subject until you could give a speech on the subject in your sleep.
Being underestimated makes you better. Being underestimated motivates you to grow.
Because sometimes growth is failure.
Sometimes growth is rejection.
Sometimes growth is the power to say “no.”
Sometimes growth doesn’t feel like growth, until you turn around, look back and realize how far you’ve come. It is evident in the confidence that will inevitably result from your stinging growth.
And the next time someone underestimates you, you will have the confidence to bite your tongue. The next time someone underestimates you, it will only be an affirmation of who you are, because you will be self-assured enough to simply smile and shrug it off. You won’t need that person’s approval, because you know that you are so much more than that person has made you out to be. And if there is some thread of truth to what they are saying, you know that the next time they come around, there won’t be, because you will have fought so hard, through your actions, through your growth, to become a better version of yourself.
So thank those people that underestimate you, that assume the lowest of you. Bless them, and pray for them; without them, you would never be who you are.
“I thank you, one and all, the ones who thought I’d fall, who taught me how to fail, who helped me to prevail. I’m standing here today, cause you helped me find my way.” -Elle Woods, Legally Blonde the Musical