I can feel the woman’s eyes locked on us and I am immediately embarrassed. She is standing with her own toddler, several months younger than mine, but more inactive and timid on the play equipment than Lyra was at that age. Children are different. I know that. But this woman’s look is one I’ve seen before. It starts as curiosity, but then the lips tighten, the brow furrows. Judgement sets in.
Lyra has shouted out, “Ring finger!” and she is pointing to the correct digit on her father’s hand.
“And what is this one?” he asks, because we always engage her when she’s so proudly telling us what she knows about this world.
Her reply is, “Index finger!” and she is correct. She does this for all of the fingers, unsure about the middle finger, unable to pronounce thumb. It’s quirky that she can name the parts of the body in this detail. Before that moment, I didn’t know she knew anything other than pinky and thumb. But this is who she is, has been for a long time, a child who knows and understand more than I expect her to.
And it frightens me.
This woman at the park, on this day, is staring at us like many have stared before. She is staring like the one at Michael’s, when Lyra sang a full verse of Jingle Bells (loudly) as I shopped for patterned paper. She is staring like that woman at the swings, when my child counted to forty with me as I pushed her back and forth. She is staring at me like a classroom full of my 3rd grade peers, annoyed that I’ve scored 100% on a spelling test, again….
When stranger after stranger stops to tell me how stunning, how beautiful, how cute my daughter is, I purse my lips, I bow my head, I respond matter-of-factly, “So nice of you to say that.” Though the truth is that I am humiliated that they’ve noticed, that they’ve brought attention to it by saying it out loud. They are trying to compliment me, to suggest I’ve done some sort of good work by bringing an aesthetically pleasing creature into the world.
But her beauty is not something I’ve accomplishment. I am so very aware of it. Sometimes awed by it. But I don’t take pride in it. If it had been up to me she’d be the most ordinary-looking creature you’d ever seen. I have never had fantasies about raising a beautiful girl.
I have had nightmares.
But unlike her face, her brain has mostly been my carefully-guarded secret. Even as I type these words, I am anxious, terrified of how shallow it must come across. Ours is an achievement-oriented culture. And I have never been comfortable with the appearance of winning. What parent doesn’t want their child to be the smartest in class? The most likely to succeed? The best-dressed or most-desired?
When I was in 7th grade I failed a social studies test that required us to fill in a blank map of Africa with all of the country and capital names. I had easily conquered similar tests on North America, South America, and Europe, along with every other quiz and assignment we had in that class. But something happened the week we were preparing for the Africa test and I didn’t manage to memorize the entire map. So, I turned in a paper with only my name filled in, and nothing else.
For the first time ever I was sent to the retest group (students who failed to get a C or better) and succeeded in scoring 100% the second time. When I picked up my graded test, Ms. Zweiback said something unexpected to me, “I think you are one of those people who sometimes has to fail on purpose, just to keep other people from knowing exactly how smart you are.” Her insight chilled me to the bone. I was naked. I bit my lip to keep from crying.
I have never had a 4.0. I’ve never been ranked first in my class. There is certainly some part of me that has wanted to be. But there is a bigger part of me that has always been happier more comfortable being unseen and unnoticed. Compliments unnerve me.
I have distinct memories of the IQ test I took before I was identified gifted in second grade. I was in the unfortunate early stages of puberty and a failed eye exam had revealed I didn’t see well. I remember stacking blocks and completing puzzles and reading a short story to a stranger and talking about it. And I remember how seriously my mom took it when the letter from the school district arrived and told her I was exceptional. She went to several meetings for GATE parents and would eventually have me transferred to an elementary school with a GATE program.
Shortly after my diagnosis I remember watching Gary Coleman in some made-for-television movie called, The Kid with the 200 IQ. I don’t remember exactly how much of this movie I saw, other than the fact that like all nerds in popular fiction, he was bullied and made fun of. And the prospect of my life turning into one long tauntfest terrified me. I was smart. The test said so! The district sent a letter! And that intelligence was one-way ticket to freakhood. My mom found me in the living room sobbing. I was in grief. She turned off the TV, but the image was already burned in.
But my daughter is only two. I seek solace in the possibility (probability?) that she will slow down and her peers will eventually catch up. She has a good memory, is all. That is why she can count to 40 and recite a dozen nursery rhymes and seven books from memory. So what if she knows left and right? It doesn’t mean anything.
Not to me.
But when other’s notice, I feel panic. I feel judged. I don’t want them to think I’m winning at a game I’m not even playing. So I hide. I shush her when she recognizes her own name on preschool artwork and shouts out, “That says Leeeeaaaaarrrr-UH!” I don’t acknowledge her reading the word PLAY on playground equipment signs if there are onlookers. When she points out the number of cash register (and all of the surrounding ones) at Target, I nod and give an “Uh-huh.”
And none of it has anything to do with her, her abilities, and her own pride of knowledge. It has to do with my insecurities, my feelings of inadequacy. My terror of being seen. My deep-seated fear of jealousy—not my own, but others’ toward me. And more than anything, I’m frightened that my fear, all my feelings of less-than, are keeping her from being all that she could be, despite how amazing she may be right now. And that some day, I may be looking a shrunken, self-loathing twelve-year-old who fails math tests even though she knows the material. When that happens, I will not have to wonder what happened to that happy two-year-old who loved her own brain more than anything in this world.
Because I will know.