Ann Crews Melton
Boys' club: In this high school yearbook photo of National Merit Scholarship recipients, the author was not only the tallest, but also the only one wearing a dress. (Submitted photo)

I have a confession: When I was a kid, I was known as "the smart girl." I realize that "smart" should be complimentary, not embarrassing, but for me it is layered with years of awkwardness, social anxiety and the trappings of being a dorky know-it-all. I got good grades, wore glasses and was a miserable basketball player. It didn't help that I had braces (twice).

Thus pigeonholed into the nerdy stereotype, I believed the truism that the smart girl was by definition neither the beautiful girl, nor the popular girl nor the best athlete. In junior high I dropped out of the math/science team, where I was the only girl, in a failed attempt at social cred. I was raised with two sisters in a house full of Barbies and not being exposed to "boy" toys may have put me at a disadvantage when I failed to build a functioning catapult at the Physics Olympics. I was embarrassed by my love for algebra and calculus and ran uncourageously in the other direction, toward literature and a life without a calculator.

Fortunately we grow up and realize high school stereotypes are false distinctions, not to mention there are many definitions of "smart" that don't depend on test aptitude or grades. In this issue of Be we celebrate smart women who bust open the "smart" girl stereotype, from farmers to scientists to marketing experts to moms. I never took a math course after high school, so it was with interest that I interviewed local women who have succeeded in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. I was struck by their shared desire to embrace challenges and never shy away from pursuing what they were most passionate about. A few are even accomplished athletes. While some career paths may still present challenges for women (see Amy Broadie's article "All fired up"), all of these profiles are a testament to how a spirit of determination can open up opportunities for success, regardless of gender.

Ultimately I learned my childhood categories weren't so smart after all. And that's the mark of a true smart girl -- lifelong learning, with a willingness to accept failure, embrace challenges and move on. I've realized smart girls turn into strong, unique women, who in my book are just all-around awesome.

Be smart, by any definition -- be yourself.

Ann Crews Melton, who occasionally integrates popular science books into her choice of literature, is a writer and editor who lives in Bismarck.