My daughter Jessica was still crawling at 15 months. Because other toddlers I knew had already started taking their wobbly first steps, I called the pediatrician. He said, “If she doesn’t start walking by next month, bring her in. We’ll put braces on her legs.” Jessica started walking that week. And because I now know that she gets embarrassed over everything, I’m sure Jessica overheard the doctor and was afraid of looking like Forrest Gump.
In kindergarten, Jessica tested into a program called Enrichment–what some schools call “Gifted and Talented,” because she knew how to read. Jessica was not the type of student to push herself when she was bored, and I suspected this program would encourage that. I was feeling pretty good about myself and Jessica’s father–a meteorologist for the U.S. navy–that we had drawn the long straw. We had a smart kid.
When Jessica entered 4th grade, it was the first time I interacted with the parents of other “smart kids.” At the time, I was a 32-year-old grad student in English at the university in Bellingham, Washington. It was five p.m., and when I walked into the elementary school library for the parents’ meeting, Jessica holding one hand and my five-year-old daughter, Josie, the other, I felt like a kid. No other parents had brought their kids, and they all had gray hair and wrinkles. They were dressed in blazers and slacks. I was a grad student in a sweater and ripped jeans.
The atmosphere in the library bugged me–the sense of smugness in the air. Every couple sat with their noses held high, discussing the curriculum, talking about art programs their kids were involved in, or awards they’d received. They talked about math olympics, writing contests, music lessons, physics and future problem solvers of America. I kept quiet, thinking about how grateful I was simply to have Jessica in the program. These parents seemed to believe that their smart kids were a reflection of their own intelligence.
One of the reasons I was so pleased to see Jessica succeed academically was because I hadn’t. I wasn’t dumb, but education wasn’t valued in my childhood household. My father owned a shoe repair shop. He was funny, friendly and blessed with common sense. When I was in high school, my father told me: “Just get Cs, and I’ll be happy.” So I learned that I had to care about doing well for myself. I only put forth effort in the classes I liked: art, theatre and English. And I didn’t start college until I was 24.
Jessica quit the Gifted and Talented program in 7th grade–when it was no longer mandatory. I begged her to stay in. “I don’t want people to think I’m a geek,” she said. She wouldn’t believe me when I told her: “You can’t control what people think.” Within a year, her grades tanked. Boys and parties became much more important than solving America’s problems, writing poetry or competing in math. By this time, I had finished my graduate degree and was working as a writer. When Jessica failed freshman English, I figured she was rebelling against me.
My smart kid graduated from high school with a 1.67 GPA. Her father gave her his G.I. bill money so she could attend community college. She loved it, but failed out after a bad breakup during her third quarter. Jessica took a year off and is back in college, working part time as a waitress. Like a lot of us, she regrets not trying harder when she had the chance. She even says, “Mom, you should have pushed me harder. But when I was in those classes, I felt like the dumbest kid there.”
As a parent, you never know how well you are doing. At best, raising kids ebbs and flows as continuously as the tide. Jessica crawled for 15 months and I never worried until I noticed other kids “beating” her. Competition makes us crazy. A poetry teacher told me once: “Comparing yourself to others is deadly.” I say it’s also inevitable. Perhaps it keeps us ambitious. Aware. After all, competition made me call the doctor.