Who Do You Say That I Am?
copyright 2011 by Susan Byrum Rountree
Years ago, I opened my mailbox to find an unsigned letter that can only be described as hate mail. A few days before, I had written an opinion piece in the local newspaper — my first — about the ‘academically gifted’ designation at my daughter’s school. She was not labeled as such, scoring abysmally on those end of grade tests I came to abhor by the time she hit high school. Not ‘gifted’, according to a set of questions with bubbled answers, she was among a handful of students left in her grade one day while the AG kids went on an overnight trip to a museum in a city across the state. Even the teachers went. And everybody spent the night in the museum. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Those left behind had a substitute teacher and watched Disney movies as I recall.
After the piece ran, a few people from our school I served with on the PTA board wrote letters to the editor challenging me, and I was glad for it. Some of us have to be bench sitters — sometimes not picked at all. We can’t all get the blue ribbon at the end of the swim meet. But my frustration was not at the gifted program per se, it was the treatment of the ‘non-gifted’…the expectation that a day watching movies was the best they deserved.
(In later years, I would teach writing to all levels of kids from first grade to high school, and among the best writers were those designated as ‘academic’.)
I don’t want to start this debate again. We’ve moved on.
Back to the letter. The writer — who felt she knew just enough about me to make it personal — suggested that if I read something besides Babysitter Club books to my child maybe she would be gifted. (Now how did this person know what my daughter brought home from the school library?) She went on to write that if I spent less time mopping my kitchen floor and more time engaging my children that they both would be gifted. Really? (For the record, my son was later designated as AG in language arts, so I guess I left crumbs on the floor for at least a day or two and paid him some attention. The dog was bound to lick them up anyway.)
As I read the letter I thought: this person has been in my house. She is someone who
hates me thinks she knows me, though apparently hadn’t snooped around not well enough to know what titles my children’s bookshelves contained. My daughter loved the babysitter club books, yes, but at home we read the classics, the Newberys and the Caldecots. (True: By the time my kids had reached the fifth grade they had passed me in the math department, but don’t attack my reading list.)
What makes me angry as I think about this now is not only did I feel attacked for my mother skills— and my daughter attacked for something she could not help — but I allowed that letter to stop me from writing for a very long time. From the thing that is my soul. I shrank from expressing my opinion for fear of the backlash.
Somehow, though, my child didn’t shrink. I knew her inner beauty, her humor, her brilliance — and her sheer tenacity — would take her places, even if her bubbled answers said she wouldn’t go far. And so we kept at it, encouraging her to be our own Little Miss Engine That Could.
Those test scores would never earn her the ‘gifted’ moniker of most of her friends. Yet she thrived. Excelled in student government, edited the school newspaper, even earned a couple of small scholarships. (I admit to wishing she would, just once, be tapped for the honor society, but it was not to be. Damn that geometry! Curse the chemistry!)
When the time came, she was wait-listed for the college of her choice — on her very first visit she knew in her soul it was the place for her. “I’m going to see them,” she told me when the letter came. And she did. Walked right into the office of the dean of admissions saying:”Just let me in. I won’t disappoint.”
“She’s borderline,” the dean said, but a few days later, they accepted her.
And she did as promised. Graduated in four years if not with honors, then honorably, proudly, beautifully — with a major and a minor.
“If only every one of my students could be like her,” her advisor told her dad and me.
Within three months, she had a job in her career field — pr— in NYC — a goal she had set for herself when she first saw the city at 13. Two years ago, she found a new job, where she recently won the office’s “unsung hero” award. She writes about her life there on her blog.
And this morning, she reported to the corporate communications office of one of the largest — and among the most respected — newspapers in the country. She’ll be working there one day a week. My child. My beautiful apparently ungifted child.
My friend Mel writes a terrific blog. She is not afraid to put her mind down on paper, but after just her second post, a riled up reader posted a comment that disturbed her. What do I do? she asked. “It’s part of the game,” I told her. “But don’t let it stop you from saying what you need to say.”
I burned that letter long ago. Got back to writing at last, choosing most often to write about my own life — knowing any wrath would most likely come from my husband. And I can handle him. But I always wondered who might have been so angry at me to write it, and to put it in the mail. I have learned enough in the years since to wonder what in her own life was so unsettled that she felt the need to attack me and my child. Did I know her well? Do I know her still?
Back then, I wanted the chance to answer her, to shake my fists in her face and say just watch what my daughter can do. But she didn’t do me the courtesy of signing her name. Now I want to say SEE? And this: that some of us don’t need a piece of paper to predict how we’ll do in the world. Some of us become our best selves because it never occurs to us that we can’t. Or shouldn’t. Or won’t. And sometimes we do it because of the silly paper, we know so strongly that it is wrong.
I do have to say that my daughter likes to keep her home clean. Comes to see us and can’t wait to do the laundry and clean out the dishwasher. I’m not nearly as manic in my mopping as I was when she was a child, but I love the fact that I taught her something when she was growing up in my very clean — if not particularly gifted — house.
Bio: I’m a writer and the author of Nags Headers (Blair, 2001), a regional history set on the Outer Banks, and In Mother Words, (Chapel Hill Press, 2003), a collection of essays.I’ve published numerous newspaper and magazine articles in many publications including The News & Observer, Elegant Bride Magazine and Southern Living. I write regularly on writemuch.blogspot.com. The mother of two grown children, I live in Raleigh with my husband, my dog and an assortment of bluebirds. And I don’t mop my floor nearly as often as I used to.