I discovered I was dumb in 4th Grade while attending Hawthorne Elementary School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Prior to that revelation, I was sailing along happy as a little duck, floating on the pond of life. The youngest of three, I was an easygoing kid who didn’t get into too much trouble. I had friends, took gymnastics, and life was sunny. I believe I was a ‘Brownie’ though I didn’t like it and had no idea why we were turning coffee cans into griddles so we could ‘cook’ cold slices of cheap Oscar Mayer baloney into hot, greasy, curled-up slices of cheap Oscar Mayer baloney. But even that didn’t bother me too much. I understood that me being a Brownie seemed to be very important to the parents in my town.
One afternoon in 4th Grade Mrs. Keller passed out our math tests. She placed them on each of our desks faced down. I was sorta curious to see how I did, but not really. I flipped over my paper and it was filled with red check marks, circles and notes. Huh? I got 13 out of 50 correct. Today, using my online percentage calculator, I now know I got 26% right. I looked over at Patty Irvine’s test, 100%. I looked at Tim Bixler’s test, 99%. What? I looked over at Robbie Matthew’s test, 100%. I turned my paper over and blushed. I wanted to die.
My hate affair with math continued through my entire K-12, elementary, junior high and high school ‘experiences’. In 5th grade I developed a nervous tick, I endlessly brushed my hair off of my forehead with my right hand while sitting at my desk. I knew I was doing it over and over in class, but was helpless to stop it. Fortunately, no one else tracked it.
I got the lead in plays, I ran track and cross-country, I was a cheerleader…and I was dumb. My parents tried to help. My freshman year in high school my father, home for a considerable amount time due to his job as a pilot, made helping me pass algebra his official hobby. Despite endless hours and endless wars, it was no use; multiplication tables were elusive, let alone figuring out the value of ‘x’ or ‘y’. One day I’d have my multiplication tables memorized, and literally two days later they’d tumble out of my head. Mrs. Highstone, my straight-A sister’s math tutor, was brought in to save the day. I loved Mrs. Highstone. She was jolly and smart and had gone to school at Wellesley. She was 53, and in the end she and I did nothing but discuss books, as I loved reading. But really, reading was just reading, math was the true test of intelligence.
When my daughter was in 4th Grade she started asking me, “Mom, am I smart?” I didn’t think much of it, I’d distractedly say “Mmm, hmmm. Very.” Claire’s report cards weren’t great, lots of ‘meets standards’ or ‘does not meet standards’ or ‘almost meeting standards but not really’. But I didn’t let it worry me as she could pick up songs and foreign languages very easily. Plus emotionally, my daughter could read a person, an entire room actually, with the clarity of a Harvard -educated psychotherapist.
“Mom, why don't you like her?” Claire would ask after she witnessed me interacting with an acquaintance.
“What? Of course I like her.”
“No you don’t. I can see it. Why don’t you like her?”
And I would stop and think about it and realize Claire was right, there was something about that woman that I didn’t like even though I hadn't consciously recognized it.
Claire’s asking me “Mom, am I smart?” developed into a nervous tick, very much like my nervous tick of brushing my hair back.
In February of that year, I volunteered to help set up Claire’s Valentine’s Day Party at school. I got there early and was unloading cupcakes and plates. Claire waved to me from her little ‘pod’ where she sat with four other kids, only she was sitting there with only one other kid, ‘Jonathan’.
I started to assess the room. There was Anne, the smart girl, sitting with Charlie, the smart boy and also with Angelina, the Mensa-smart girl. There were some other kids who I also knew to be academically accomplished sitting at another pod. Jonathan, a handsome boy, was known to be wildly disruptive in class. He had serious emotional and executive function issues. He had ADHT. Claire said his parents were trying to get him ‘help’. (A tranquilizer gun?)
That night I asked Claire, “How long have you been sitting with Jonathan?”
“About 3 years. We both have trouble reading.”
The next day I scheduled a meeting with Claire’s teacher, principal and the ‘intervention team’, a team of professionals who helped the kids who were struggling in reading.
“Does Claire have focus issues?” I asked. “Do you think she has ADHT?” I was genuinely curious. God knows I’m not afraid of having ‘issues’, but I like to know what the issues are so I can get to work on them.
They all said that she did not. That she was very focused and participated as well as anyone else. I asked if they thought that Claire might have dyslexia, like so many other creative people? They declined to comment.
I sat there with my dyslexia book saying, “Kids with dyslexia have trouble reading words like ‘the’ and ‘when’ because there is no mental picture to accompany the word. I’ve noticed this in Claire too. She can read the word ‘elephant’ but not ‘the’…do you think there is something there?”
I didn’t understand, I was sitting there with all these educators asking if there might be another issue that was contributing to Claire’s difficulties. Everything that I was bringing up was easily found online, I was not suggesting anything wild or outlandish. Every time I brought up anything that suggested dyslexia, this group just clammed up and blinked like I was out of my mind.
As I left, one of the teachers from the meeting came running after me across the playground. Hand to God, this ‘afterschool special’-worthy scene actually happened.
“Kathryn, you’re right!” She said this breathlessly having run to catch up with me.
“Claire does display symptoms of dyslexia, you are absolutely correct in everything you laid out.”
I was stunned and confused.
“Then why did five people with their Masters in Education just look at me like I was speaking Swahili?!”
“Because, you didn’t explicitly ask the question that would have required them to have her tested. You didn’t demand help…which is expensive.”
“You have to clearly and explicitly ask them to have her tested for dyslexia. You discussed it, but you didn’t ask to have her tested.”
You might think I railed against the school and demanded the test. You might think that I threw Jonathan under the bus, that I asked she be placed with the kids who were performing better, but I did not. My own Spidey Sense was telling me that these patronizing people had already categorized my daughter as stupid and slow. The situation was causing real damage. I instinctively knew that I would just be another hysterical Marin California parent, so I said nothing.
I found a private school that I liked. They have a great rock music program and emphasize public speaking. I figured to support herself, Claire doesn’t have to be good at all things, just one or two. I scheduled a shadow day for Claire at the school. The students and teachers were warm and welcoming and observant of Claire’s strengths, and she fell in love with them that day. Her innate ability to read a room, her poise and extensive vocabulary indicated an intelligence that was not being picked up in the endless tests at her Common Core obsessed school.
I asked Claire’s current school for a few recommendations. I asked Mrs. C, Claire’s favorite teacher, for a reference about her character and kindness.
Mrs. C made that ‘How do I say this gently?’ face.
“Kathryn, do you think Claire has…um, has what it takes to…well…be at a school of that…you know…caliber?”
And there it was…right there. My daughter had been pegged as dumb at 9 years old.
The first year at her new school, Claire was taught that ‘smart’ is not something bequeathed to special people. Smart was the result of grit, asking for help and giving it your all. Her first year wasn’t exactly a disaster, but it was hard. Hebrew, ukulele, guitar, along with cross-country, math, science, social science and English. Claire was told to advocate for herself and that she alone had to contact her teachers directly if she needed help. She needed to help herself. The school provided an hour a day in which students could go to teachers and ask for help. The teachers were informal and accessible and always available. It turned out she did not have dyslexia but was just a late reader.
When I looked at what she was studying I had to clearly outline for her that not only was I not supposed to help her, but that I actually could not help her. The math they were learning in 5th grade was already completely beyond me. I simply could not help her.
I did tell her that I did happen to be fantastic at languages so I could help with Hebrew. In 5 minutes of opening the book backward, attempting to read backward and trying to decipher a completely foreign alphabet I had to tell her, “Sorry, I was wrong. I can’t help you with Hebrew either.” Ah well.
In 5th Grade I barely read Claire’s report cards. I skimmed the comments to see if she was trying hard, I knew she was. But the actual grades were not great nor did I even worry about them. She was safely tucked into a place that valued all sorts of skills, and that was enough. I figured the momentum of the academically rigorous and kind teachers and student body would sweep her along.
Claire’s first 6th grade report card arrived in December. I figured, what the heck, I’m working three jobs to pay for this; I might as well read how she’s doing.
First grade, Art…A. Okay, so that's something.
Second grade…A in PE. You’d have to be seriously disruptive and violent to not get an A in Coach's PE class.
Next grade A…in Spanish? Wow, that’s cool.
Next grade A...Jewish Studies. Very cool. So Old Testament!
Next grade A-…Science?! Not that easy.
Next grade, A…Social Science?
Next grade, A…English?! Reading and writing?!
Next grade…A…Math and Pre-Algebra.
WTF? I kept reading the comments, ‘great student’, ‘cheerful’. ‘works hard’, ‘advocates for herself’, ‘diligent’, ‘communicative’.
I called another parent at the school.
“Hey, this is a weird question, but do your kids get straight As?”
I’m embarrassed to admit, I had started to peg my own daughter as maybe not that smart. Maybe this was one of those private schools where ‘everyone’s a winner!’
“Uh, no…not even close.” The parent was laughing. “But my son can sure play the drums.”
I called Claire and her father on Facetime.
“Hey guys, Claire’s report card came in, can you please open it?”
They both looked concerned and pulled up Claire’s report card on their computer.
We read the grades together, one A after another. A straight A report card in an extremely rigorous academic school.
I said to my daughter “You’re the first straight A student out of the three of us!”
And then I saw my daughter’s face crumple up and she started to cry. She cried very very hard. I realized that she too secretly believed she was not very bright. Kids are intuitive, they are very aware of where they sit, how the teachers speak to them, and how they are being categorized. My daughter’s paradigm changed in that moment; quite literally she became a different person that day.
“Yes honey, you are very, very smart but just as important, you worked hard.”
I’ll never forget when one of my college professors said to me “I don’t know Kathryn, you figure it out, you’re smart.” Though I had a less dramatic response than my daughter, it did blow my mind. No one had ever said that to me before. This professor must not have known that I had not done well in math, the only real and true indicator of intelligence. I still battle the feeling of being dumb to this day.
I do not know where to place the blame, or if there is any blame to be placed. I know teachers are strapped to deliver certain test scores or they lose funding. I know parents are freaked out about their kids getting into college, then paying the equivalent of the cost of a house when they do get into college. Everyone is panicking.
But I also know the paths of wildly successful people are often littered with crappy report cards. (Einstein, Steven Spielberg and Richard Branson).
So maybe we should all just slow down and look for brilliance anywhere, somewhere in all of our kids. Maybe we should start to question the way we measure learning, especially when merely not understanding the value of X + Y may result in lifelong wounds of shame, degradation and self-doubt.