The Smart Girl

I just absolutely hate it when bloggers begin their latest blog post with something like, “Sorry, I’ve been so absent, and haven’t been posting on my blog, but…”  It’s a my-dog-ate-my-homework excuse.  Like, don’t apologize!  Keep up with your blog!  Make a blogging schedule and stick to it!  Come on!  Be disciplined, damn it!

But, despite that, I’m sorry I’ve been so absent lately.  I’m sorry I haven’t posted anything since, um, December?  I’m sorry, okay?  I’m actually sorry.  I feel guilty.  I’m not sure if anybody actually reads this, but, if you do, and you look forward to hearing from me from time to time, I apologize for failing you.  I will be better.  I will try.  Maybe.

Okay, moving on.  Let’s get started.

I’ve experienced a lot of ups and downs in my writing career in the past few weeks, which will explain why I have been M.I.A. on my blog.  Luckily, it has been a lot more ups than downs (which is rare in a writer’s life)!  I finished a new novel, and I am actually receiving some pretty good feedback on it.  I don’t want to tell you how good, because I would hate to jinx anything, but if everyone could just send up a prayer and/or beg the universe to deliver some positive vibes, that would be great.  Because I have my fingers crossed.  Big time.

But, unfortunately, like most writers, I get a lot of rejection letters.  They’re great, man.  I mean, I really love having something extra to blow my nose on when I’m out of tissues.  Very useful.  No, but, really, getting rejected really can sting.  That moment where your heart drops, when you can actually feel it descend a few inches in your chest and then-THUD!-collapse right around the top of your stomach, is pretty much the worst.  I’ve been there, and if you write, I know you have too.

I wrote an essay for a magazine recently that I actually thought had a shot of making the cut.  Like, I really worked on it.  Like, did several drafts and rounds of editing.  So, since I worked so hard, receiving the “polite step aside” today was no fun whatsoever.

I took a few moments to myself to sit alone in my room and be sad.  And then when I was done grieving, I googled famous authors who made it big after countless rejections and listened to Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” on repeat, which always makes me feel better.  That was when I realized that, hey, I have a blog!  And I can put whatever I want on my blog!  And that includes this essay!  No, it’s not as glamorous as prize money and being printed in a magazine, but at least it’s getting out there in the world.  And maybe someone will read it, and relate to it, and like it.  Which is the whole point anyway.

So, I’m giving you my essay that I wrote, and I hope you enjoy it.  Here it is:

 

The Smart Girl
By Sarah Galyean Jones

I got my first C in the second grade. The second grade. I want to repeat that one more time, just to let it resonate that the first time in my life that I got a C was when I was seven years old and the most complicated thing we were learning was multiplication tables. I got a C in second grade. My first, and definitely not my last.

I would also like to clarify that this C was not just on some dinky homework assignment or a quiz or a test even. No. That C was my final grade. And just like Hester Prynne, that letter served as a scarlet mark to shame my second-grade self. But, unlike Hester Prynne, the letter was a C, not an A. I would have traded my Oreos at lunch every day for the rest of the school year if it meant I could have an A.

Mrs. Albert stood at the front of our class and passed out the academic prizes, blue ribbons to represent the achievements of the smartest kids who made the prestigious Principal’s Honor Roll and red ribbons for the less respectable, but still acceptable, Honor Roll. I received a yellow ribbon, a “thanks for playing” participation prize, which I promptly ripped off and stuffed in my pocket.

“Where is your ribbon?” asked on of the girls in my class, whose shiny blue ribbon was tacked to her sequined t-shirt from Limited Too.

“Oh, I just didn’t want to lose it, so I put it away,” I remember saying, trying to act casual.

 

Report cards came out every six weeks, and during those anticipatory few days when I knew its arrival was forthcoming, I kept a hawk eye on our mailbox like I did on the fireplace at Christmas Eve, hoping Santa Clause might come early by mistake. I checked it before and after school and at least once before bed, darting outside with my breath held and heart beating. My parents must have thought I was some kind of mail-obsessed child, thoroughly thrilled by the idea that bills and coupon books would magically appear at our house daily.

After a few days of fervent stalking, the wilted envelope with the Memphis City Schools emblem on the top left corner finally showed up. “To the parents of Sarah Jones” was printed on the front. I was so proud of myself for having gotten to it before my parents. I took in the mail like every other day, put the Funny Times in the wicker basket on the front hall table, and slipped the humiliation-laden envelope in my backpack where I intended to hide it. I was set! They would never know! The evidence was safe! And I would be saved from having to confront my parents with the realization that their kid was not as good as the other kids that brought home gleaming report cards covered in A’s.

 

As I’m sure you can guess, this did not work. They found out in the worst possible way: my teacher called, and my mom was hit with a one-two punch. One: your daughter is having trouble math. Two: you haven’t received the report card yet?

Now, I was not only a dumb kid; I was a slimy, weasel-y, dishonest kid who hid mail from her parents. Oops.

 

I went to a pretty typical elementary school. We had those wavy cardboard borders along the edge of every paper-covered bulletin board. Every student was required to bring a box of tissues and a bottle of hand sanitizer on the first day of school to supply the classroom for the upcoming year. You belonged to Miss Leroy’s Leapfrogs or Mrs. Davis’s Dolphins or Mrs. Wade’s Warthogs, or whatever last-name animal alliteration you happened to be placed in. It was a big deal to have your artwork tacked up in the hallway and an even bigger deal to beat all the other kids at four-square on the playground. We had a Christmas program and science fair every year.

And really, I was a pretty typical elementary school kid. I carried my super cool blue leopard print backpack to my second grade class and hung it up in my very own locker every day. I had a take-home folder with homework inside it. I always brought my lunch from home, packed by my mom, instead of stooping to the unspeakable fate of having to buy Memphis City Schools’ food from the cafeteria. Which was gross. I was a fairly cute, mild-mannered, slightly short, blonde girl missing a few teeth, with a striking resemblance to both the illustrations and actress who portrayed Eloise in “Eloise at the Plaza”.

Our classroom was an array of some twenty multi-cultural, middle-class children, diverse with personality. We had shy Rory and Lucas who was good at science and Leigh who was as happy-go-lucky as a golden retriever. And then, me. Me, who even at a young age, refused to be ignored, already overpowered by the only-child’s deep seated need for constant attention and praise, and the desire to stand out. I longed to be the best at something. The day I received my C, I realized I could cross “smartest” right off the list.

 

Up until that moment, I had been pretty good in school. I never even fathomed that I could possibly make a C. Now, not only was I panicked with what my parents would say, I would have to find my new niche. I was good in art class, but not the best one. My piano lessons never amounted to much. I was a lost cause in gym, thoroughly hating the experience and already annoyed with those kids who claimed P.E. was their favorite part of the day (What’s fun about running? I still don’t know). I wasn’t the prettiest girl in my grade. I wasn’t the funniest either. I wasn’t the sweetest, or the best dressed, or the most athletic. I was seven years old and desperately seeking what superlative I could assume. I needed to find just where my talents were hidden and somehow prove to everyone I wasn’t un-special. My search seemed to always come up short. And now, with my C in math, I wasn’t just thoroughly average, I was sub-par.

And here’s what made everything worse: we had evidence that I wasn’t just an unfortunate dumb kid. No, I was actually a smart girl. How frustrating for my poor parents to watch their only daughter, who scored in the 99th percentile on standardized tests, sit through a flashcard session flustered and red-faced, getting every one wrong. When I kept struggling, even after my traumatic C, and my grades began to fall in every other subject in grades 3, 4, and 5, they began to wonder if there was an underlying culprit for my academic troubles. With a daughter so clearly gifted, there had to be a reason why it wasn’t translating in the classroom. And so began the tests.

I went to a number of specialists and psychologists and psychiatrists and other “ists”, all of them charmed with the spunky adolescent in their office but not clear on a solution to her problem. Results came back, and to my parents’ relief and also continued exasperation, I was perfectly fine. ADD? No. ADHD? Nope. Motor Skills? No problem. Dyslexia? Not even a little bit. Nothing was wrong. Nothing needed medication. They even had my hearing checked (turns out, I am, what the doctor called, a selective listener). We didn’t even have a faulty glasses prescription to blame it on. It was just me; my C was all my fault, no disorder to use as a scape goat.

So, we pressed on, and I kept struggling, and the only thing my parents could think to do was put me in a new school.

Act Two began, aka middle school, and I found myself in one of the most academically rigorous schools in Memphis, who had told my desperate parents that they could harness my potential and turn me into the student I was meant to be. I wish I could tell you that one C in math made me so determined never to sink to that level again that I began to “do my best on the test” at my new school, soaring through British Literature and doing cartwheels around the history of Mesopotamia and dissecting every frog like a promising young surgeon. This was not the case.

Here’s an even bigger confession, and one I would rather not admit in this personal essay, but I’m going to do it because it’ll make for good writing. I have even failed an English class. Me, the writer, the senior English major, the published author, had an F on her report card in seventh grade English. Granted, it was English grammar, and I knew even then that I would never, ever, actually need to diagram a sentence in real life, but still.

 

That was really shameful. That brought tears.

After that F, my mom and dad hired a tutor. A sweet lady from our church, and luckily a former teacher at the school, came to our house a few nights a week and sat with me in my room to go over the different types of pronouns. The stakes had been raised, because an F was really, actually bad news and meant academic probation for me at my advanced, all-girls college preparatory, elitist school. So, I kicked it into gear, because, all of the sudden it became too clear that skirting around sentence diagrams could actually mean having to switch schools again, a consequence I didn’t want to endure. After a few weeks of having objects of prepositions and indirect objects and reflexive verbs drilled into me, we finally had another test in English Grammar, and by the grace of God, I got a low A.

I was thrilled! I had done it! I realized then that the studying and the flashcards and the highlighters and the repetition actually worked! It wasn’t all just an elaborate torture device! After class, I sauntered up to my teacher’s desk to receive my congratulations, all to proud of the 93% printed in red ink at the top of my paper.

What came next was one of those occurrences in childhood that you will forever remember, because even at a young age, you knew you were being wronged. My teacher was not as thrilled as I had hoped she would be. In fact, she was livid.

“You should have been doing this all along. You should have been getting A’s all semester. I don’t want any more excuses.”

She stared at me with a look so unforgiving that I still have it burned in my memory some ten years later. I don’t know if she intended to crush me like that, but looking back on this episode in my childhood, I know now that I didn’t really care if I got an A or not in English Grammar. I just wanted everyone to be proud of me. I wanted the gold stars and the high fives and the celebratory dinners out where my proud dad tells the waiter to bring a dessert menu because his daughter got straight A’s and she deserved it. Where I should have been praised, I was shamed for not always delivering the work of a “smart girl.”

 

I would switch schools twice more before I eventually found my way at a high school that did an excellent job of openly embracing all types of students. There, at my little boarding school on top of a mountain in middle Tennessee, where we called the teachers by their first names and often had class outside and could design independent studies that counted for credit, was where I finally, finally, finally, started to make decent grades. Not straight A’s, never straight A’s, but a solid-enough average so that I could actually get into college. And thank God.

So often, we adults feel that we can predict the rest of a child’s life by judging their performance in the first few years of school by their grades, their standardized test scores, their first place ribbons, their performance…but that’s all that it really is, just performance. And if we only judge kids on their performance, we forget about a whole group of dreamers that may not rise up until they’ve gained the maturity to realize that talent and success come in all different styles. No math test or vocabulary quiz could measure what was going on in my mind, what was tinkering away. When I was doodling on my tests, I was creating worlds in my head. When I was daydreaming and looking out the window, I was writing up scenarios. When I was repeatedly forgetting my homework, it’s because I was off in my daydream. When I was a child, this translated to laziness and a lack of motivation. When I became an adult, I had to hold on to these traits as hard as I could, and learn how to harness them, because they would end up becoming my greatest accomplishments and my biggest identifier.

Parents, if you are reading this and finding some similarities between my childhood self and a child of your own, if you take anything at all from this essay, please read the next sentence carefully and try to embrace it. If all you’ve been hearing in parent-teacher conferences is the phrase “lacks focus”, and your child seems to read dozens of books but refuses to touch the ones assigned from school, and lives each day of summer like a freed prisoner after a ten-year sentence, and has no trouble compiling a daily household newspaper, containing all the goings-on inside your home, but won’t sit down and just knock out a simple worksheet, there is a very good chance that your child is a writer. Please, let their minds wander.

I wish I could separate the memories of my younger years from the frustration I had in school, but unfortunately, they were riddled with it. And I think about how much my younger self felt like less of a person, just because my grades weren’t good.

Sometimes I imagine what it would be like if I could travel back in time as older me, and talk to younger me, to offer her some advice about what to do in these trying times of struggling grades and disappointed parents and aggravated teachers.

I would knock on the door of my old room with the dry-erase board hanging on the outside covered in colorful slogans like, “I love dogs!” and “XOXO,” and wait until a blonde head emerged and demanded a password for entry.  I would follow her into her room and let her show me her doll collection (all of whom had suffered a haircut or two) and her boom box, and the sheets of printer paper stapled together to make homemade books, written and illustrated all by yours truly. And then I’d ask her about school, and I would let her talk as much as she wanted.

There are a lot of things I could say to my childhood self: I could adopt the role of older, wiser, big sister, and tell little Sarah to just do her damn homework (the damn being more than shocking enough, as young Sarah was very much conditioned not to say “bad words”) for the sake and sanity of herself and everyone in her family. I could tell her to actually believe them when the tutors and the principals and Mom and Dad say to her that she is a smart girl. I could tell her she’ll open up all kinds of opportunities for herself if she would just study for the test and not pray to magically know the answers somehow by the next day. I could tell her that instead of watching another episode of Lizzie McGuire, spending that half-hour on reviewing material might mean the difference between having to change schools again or not. I could tell her these things, but I think I would refrain.

Instead, I think I would tell childhood Sarah that she should keep on doing everything exactly the way that she is. Because even though my lack of effort made for a bumpy path through my school years, it got me to where I am now. I spent all of elementary school comparing my triumphs and failures to the other kids at school, watching them go to the front of the multi-purpose room to receive academic medals on honors day and while I stayed firmly in my seat. What I didn’t understand yet was that my journey was not like theirs, and there was and is a reason for that. For seven-year-old Sarah, there was no perspective yet, but I know now that failing over and over again didn’t rob me of a childhood: it set me up to look at the world in a way that I feel is inspired.

 

After I would spend my imaginary afternoon with my younger self, I would hug her, take a good last look around my untidy childhood room, try and memorize it, and restrain myself from telling little Sarah that everything would eventually be okay. She didn’t need to know that yet. And then I would leave, knowing she would grow up and finally be proud.

SGJ

 

 

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