I’m inching along in the line of cars outside the school one afternoon, when I spot my eight-year-old, Emma, standing at attention on the curb. She makes a beeline to the car as I pull up and roll down the window, and then she stops to look over her shoulder.
“Come on, Phoebe! Hurry up!” Her voice is impatient, but she waits for her little sister, arm outstretched, until Phoebe’s five-year-old hand finds hers.
Phoebe’s pink winter hat sits askew on her head, the right ear flap covering one eye. The laces on her shoes are untied. Don’t trip, don’t trip, I think as I watch her struggle to keep up with Emma.
The girls get buckled in, and we escape the orange-coned chaos of the school parking lot. Phoebe wiggles to sit up straight in her car seat: “I got something in my folder for you,” she says. “It’s very important but . . . I . . . just . . . can’t . . . open . . . this . . . .” With mitten-covered hands, Phoebe struggles with the zipper on her backpack, but the puffiness of her winter coat acts like a straight jacket.
“It’s our report cards,” Emma announces. “Can we open them now, Mom? Please?”
“Yeah, please, Mom?” parrots Phoebe. She turns to Emma. “What’s a report card?”
I wince. I dreaded report card day as a kid. Four times a year the card would come home, buried deep in my backpack, and every time my dad would say the same thing: “If we could just get a handle on this math, then . . . .” Then what? I would be okay? I could finally fulfill my dream of being an ice-dancing poet? Because I was pretty sure ice-dancing poets didn’t waste their time converting fractions to decimals.
“Can we open them now, Mom?” Emma repeats.
“No. Report cards are private and should be opened at home.” I catch Emma’s eye in the rear view mirror and give her a look that ends the conversation.
Phoebe is happy to move on. The minute we walk in the door she announces, “I am going to do karaoke.” She climbs the stairs, leaving a trail of winter outerwear behind her.
I turn to Emma, who is hovering behind me, eyes wide, the white envelope clasped in her hands. “Yes,” I say. “Now we can open it.”
The third-grade assessment scale is based on the following letters: Outstanding (O), Very Good (VG), Good (G), and Needs Strengthening (N). Emma’s report card is straight “O’s,” all the way down the row. A perfect report card.
I look up to meet her eager gaze.
“Wow, Buddy, this is an awesome report card. I am so proud of you and how hard you work at school.”
She plucks the report card out of my hand and holds it close to her face. Her eyes scan the rows until her pursed lips relax into a smile.
“Whew!” she plops into a kitchen chair, report card still in hand. “What a relief!”
I sit down across from her. “Hey, Em—you know Dad and I are so proud of you. But, even if you never got an ‘O’ we would still be just as proud. You know that, right?”
My words fly right over her head. She studies the piece of paper as if it holds the key to the universe. She swats away the stubborn wisps of blond hair that have escaped her tight ponytail, then looks up. “Can I have a snack?”
I smile and hand her a granola bar. “Sure.”
“Can I have it upstairs? I have a lot of homework.” She hoists a backpack the size of a body bag onto her shoulder. I watch her trudge up the stairs, holding the rail for balance.
I give the report card one last glance and shake my head in amazement. I never received an “O” on a report card—not even close. My sister, on the other hand, was a straight “O” kind of girl. She was the “smart one” and I was the “social one.” I may not have been a genius, but I knew I had been outranked in the labelling department.
My mother treated my less-than-stellar grades like a bad diagnosis. “We can beat this thing,” she would say, pointing to the long line of “NI’s” (Needs Improvement) stacked up in the mathematics section. But even at six years old I knew that the “thing” that needed fixing wasn’t math—it was me.
“Jessica, you are a daydreamer,” my first-grade teacher said, with a level of disdain typically reserved for ax murderers and sociopaths. Gazing out the window was a crime, and the punishment was back-of-the-room imprisonment. While my classmates sat at their desks arranged in cliquey clusters of four, I was sequestered to the back table, surrounded by a collapsible study carrel. Solitary confinement did not improve my math skills, but I did learn how to sketch a bunny riding a pogo stick on the side of the carrel.
I walk into the mudroom and pick up Phoebe’s backpack from the floor. I remove a half-eaten sandwich from her lunch box, along with an untouched bag of grapes. I fish out her folder and empty it of loose papers, including a stick-figure drawing of us eating ice cream on a merry-go-round, each with huge red smiles, like watermelon rinds. Tucked in the back of the folder is the white envelope. I take it out and perch myself in between laundry baskets on the mudroom bench. Upstairs, I can hear Phoebe singing Let it Go.
Taking a breath, I open the envelope. The assessment scale used for kindergarten is: Strong (S), On Target (T), and Experiencing Difficulty (E). My eyes scan the column of “Ts” until they stumble on two “S’s”: Expresses ideas well and Participates in group discussions. I smile, remembering the day Phoebe started “expressing ideas.”
She was almost two that summer, barely talking yet—just a word here and there—and we were in the process of having her evaluated for developmental delays. It was Emma’s first day of summer camp, and the minute her older sister jumped out of the car at the drop-off area, Phoebe started talking.
She spoke in full sentences, her face reaching for the open window to feel the sun on her face: “The wind is tickling me! I am flying! The sun is so big!” Phoebe’s internal world—a colorful, magical place—came to life. On those car rides to and from camp, she told me about her imaginary friends (Anna and Donny Trapp), and her dreams of being a ribbon-dancing rock star. It was a summer course on joy in the present moment, and Phoebe was my teacher.
But “Joy in the moment” is not a category on this report card.
I turn the card over and scan the list of tasks my kindergartener is supposed to have mastered: Prints Letters and Words: E—Experiencing Difficulty. Uses pencil/crayons properly: E. This does not come as a surprise. At Phoebe’s school conference a few months earlier, her teacher mentioned that handwriting was a challenge. She suggested hiring an occupational therapist. I listened to her observations and took notes. I followed up with an email for a list of OT referrals. But I never made the call.
I spent every summer of my childhood in summer school, trying to get a handle on math. As the teacher droned on about common denominators, I would shift in my seat, peeling one sweaty leg off the chair at a time. I cracked jokes and did animal impersonations to distract the teacher from how little I knew about fractions. I analyzed word problems, not for the equation, but for the story each one told: who cared what time the train traveling at 70 mph arrived in St. Louis? I wanted to know who was on the train and why they were going there. Summer school kept my brain active, but not the part that needed activating.
“Addressing the problem will give her confidence,” the elementary school principal told my mother.
He was wrong. Every tutor, remedial class, or “extra help” session reiterated the message that I needed help. That message sank in, like layers of paint being rolled on a wall, coat after coat, filling in every groove of my brain with the notion that I needed fixing, that I was dumb.
If I had told my parents how I felt, maybe they would have eased up on the fixing. If they had known, maybe they would have spent less time addressing what was wrong, and more time celebrating what was right, like my love of art, music, and storytelling.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I was spending every morning in extra-help lock-down with my pre-calc teacher, Mr. Ferguson, tucked away in his classroom in J-Building. He was the quintessential 1950s math nerd: Coke-bottle glasses, dyed black comb-over, high-water pants, and pocket protector. One hazy June morning, as I stared out the window of J-Building, watching the steam rise off the blacktop, something Mr. Ferguson said caught my attention: “Complex numbers . . . blah blah blah . . . complex plane . . . and the vertical axis is the imaginary axis.”
I snapped to attention. “Imaginary axis? How can there be a make-believe axis? It’s math.”
Mr. Ferguson removed his Coke-bottle glasses, rubbed his eyes, and returned them to his face. He closed the book and gave me a long, searching look. “You just don’t get it, do you?” he said.
Hallelujah! “No. I don’t. Not even a little bit.”
“You know, I think that’s ok. This is not everyone’s cup of tea. I am going to give you a C- for the semester. Enjoy your last week of high school.”
I wanted to kiss the top of Mr. Ferguson’s balding head. Instead, I jumped up, leaned across the desk, and wrapped my arms around him.
“Thank you for understanding,” I said, my face pressed into his pocket protector.
“Alright-y, alright-y then,” he said, giving my back an awkward pat.
I practically skipped out of J-Building. I was free.
Every day, in the weeks after the report cards are issued, I work with Phoebe on her handwriting. She plugs away dutifully at first—tracing, copying, and erasing letters—but she tires of it quickly. Resting her head in her hand, her letters take lazy loops outside the lines, or she tries to distract me with a funny dance, or a song she made up. I tell myself that she is still blissfully unaware of any “issue;” we’re just practicing letters, that’s all. I pray that she is still safe in her imaginary bubble with Anna and Donny Trapp.
But one day we get in the car to pick up Emma from field hockey, and Phoebe can’t buckle her seatbelt. She starts to cry, with a sorrow that seems to come from someplace deep inside. Big, fat tears leave salty streaks on the front of her pink ski jacket.
“Pheebs!” I crane my neck from the front seat to look at her. “What’s wrong, honey?”
“I’m so dumb,” she says mournfully, resting her head on the side of her car seat. I unbuckle myself and climb over the seat as if she were bleeding. I take her damp face in my hands, and her big blue eyes meet mine.
Dumb is an ugly word, one that fills you with shame. As a kid, feeling dumb stripped me of self-worth, until all that was left was a timid girl, defined by the one thing I couldn’t do, instead of all the things I could. If I can just fix this this one thing, I thought, as I struggled with my math homework, I will finally feel lovable and smart, capable of something beautiful. It took me years to understand that I already was all those things, that I had been too busy fixing what was wrong to recognize what was right.
Maybe Phoebe will benefit from an occupational therapist. If she needs help with her handwriting, she will get it. But before I make that call, I need her to know that while her lower case “q” might need to be fixed, she does not.
“That is not true,” I tell her now, soft but firm. “You are not dumb. There is not a drop of dumb in your body. I think that everything about you is . . . outstanding.” And through her tears, she smiles.