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facts & arguments

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For as long as I can remember, I have needed to be told that I'm smart. My taste for academic praise began early. I thrilled at the sight of stickers and smiley faces on my elementary-school assignments.

In Grade 6, a teacher told me that my writing was of "high calibre." I've loved the word "calibre" ever since. Another time, a girl whose friendship I aspired to brought a dictionary to class for silent reading. She explained that she was hoping to know as many words as I did. I beamed. This smart thing had legs.

Determined to pay off my student loans after graduating from university, I felt lucky to get a job deep in the bowels of an oil and gas company, managing their off-site records collection. But I began to suffer the predictable pangs of withdrawal from the highs of the postsecondary equivalent of smiley faces. My boss was not around to nod approvingly each time I completed a task. My paycheques bore no stickers. I spent my days alone in a windowless storage room filled to the ceiling with boxes of files unable to indicate their appreciation for my efforts.

The room was at the end of a series of snaking hallways, each identical to the last. I never knew my location in relation to the outside world, leaving me with a profound feeling of disorientation. Once, a pallet of records arrived from a shed on the prairie where they had made a cozy home to mice and other less cuddly creatures. I suited up in a human-shaped plastic bag to avoid the hantavirus, mentally writing my will as I sorted through page after page of documents in an attempt to locate those few that carried some nutritive value to the company before excreting the rest through the shredder. My fall from the heights of undergraduate glory was complete.

It came as little surprise to many when I enrolled several years later in an online master of library science program. I was at home with three children aged 7, 5 and 3. My youngest would be in preschool for two mornings a week. That would give me five whole hours a week to read, write and dazzle profs once again. Oh, the joy of it.

I could feel my ego filling out and growing smooth again, losing that shrivelled look. All those alpha moms in the schoolyard will have nothing on me, I thought. I'm going to be a master's student. I will assume my rightful position in the world once more after years spent as a virtual non-entity. This was my destiny, the little voice in my head said. Go for it.

True to form, I dazzled those profs. I earned the esteem of my classmates for my witty and erudite discussion board posts on library missions and information retrieval. I wrote what I humbly considered to be a landmark paper on the ethics of collection development (the policies that determine how a library selects its materials). I was fully immersed in the world of libraries and basking in the glow of high academic achievement. I was home.

Meanwhile, my other home had begun to show signs of neglect. I signed up my son for a gymnastics class and simply forgot to take him to four of the eight classes. Finding it much easier to answer the call of an assignment (which had a due date, after all) than the cry of a tired child who needed a bath and a story, I disappeared to the basement night after night, leaving that pleasantly familiar man I lived with to pick up the slack.

Incessant requests from my children's school for cheques, volunteering and homework help made me feel like I was being nibbled to death by piranhas. Always looking for shortcuts, I admit that meals had become a dismal affair. I stopped going to the gym because I couldn't bear to leave my husband alone with the bedtime routine yet one more night each week. Around April last year, my shoulders had taken up permanent residence at my ears and I knew I was stretched dangerously thin.

When I wrapped up that semester, I was too exhausted to feel relief. Spring had sprung and I had hardly noticed. I had my perfect GPA and I felt nothing. I was already dreading the fall semester, which was four months away.

It began to occur to me that if I didn't need to be told all the time that I was smart, I could enjoy a far more pleasant existence. Further, I asked myself, what the heck was the point of being smart if it didn't help me have a happier life? Where was the gift in being gifted?

With growing suspicion, I began to question who the "I" was that got so much out of satisfying these academic drives. Because how could "I" be so happy when the rest of me was miserable?

In June, just in time to sign up for my next semester, I broke rank with my ego and began to regard it as something separate. I told it that if librarianship was my "destiny," as it had so often told me, then it could surely withstand being put on hold until I had more time to devote to the program. And then I quit.

That was nearly a year ago. I admit with almost guilty glee that I've had a great year. I'm still immersed in the library, but now as a regular patron, browsing for cookbooks, good children's stories and parenting books. I have time to exercise again. I have more energy for my kids and that lovely man I live with. I feel I'm able to absorb all the little demands of daily life and am ready for the big ones that are always around the corner. And I feel happier (and smarter) than ever.

Laura Kraemer lives in Calgary.