I see a lot of you in my daughter. It terrifies me. You have an exceptional bullshit-detector. So does she.
Of course, any observer could guess this from the way you reclined in your desk, like Jimi Hendrix on a sofa at an intimate house party (your lidded gaze and smirk suggested the same kind of indulgences). There was no effort to your natural beauty — wild hair, untamed brows, a bit of extra hip weight. No effort to your daily uniform of baggy t-shirts and thick soled boots. You had style, but like your Hendrix lean, you didn’t try too hard there, either.
You wrestled with compliance, that’s for sure. I saw it in your first practice response about windmills. You wrote so strikingly beautiful in the answer, and then retreated. Stamped it with *out of time. It was more than time constraint. You attempted to harness a gift. You released it for a moment, but then capped it. Because if we’re honest, tests about the validity of turbines means nothing to someone who can scratch wisdom in a margin.
I think about harvesting energy when it comes to my daughter. She doesn’t connect with other girls in the neighborhood. Half of me is happy when I watch them adjusting sequin hats and popping hip flips at the corner. The other half wants to shake her and scream, “Why can’t you just play with them?” Ok, I did scream that once, but I didn’t shake her. She squinted from under the play set, smeared mud into a design on her knee. “Nah. I just don’t want to,” and presented a frog, tortured between dirty feet.
After the windmill practice test, I asked students to record thoughts about their performance. You wrote something along the lines of I didn’t care enough to finish. I wanted to shake you, do you know that? I wanted to shake you and scream, “You have talent! Why don’t you put in more effort?” I wanted to shake you another time. I asked if you were planning to redo the unit test. You peered at me and shrugged, “Nah. Probably not.”
At parent teacher conferences, after apologies, your mother perked up and asked if I knew about your audition. I remembered a mention, but it registered as insignificant. Mom rummaged through her purse while listing accolades of the music school you recently applied to. “Listen!” she beamed, extending the phone. I expected to see a church-robed Christmas-caroler, so the image of you dripping in beads was alarming.
Mom beamed, “She has a solo in the concert next week.”
You didn’t put on any make-up for the audition. You didn’t have to. Your hair floated like smoke curls before eyes unfocused. Your voice, like stained cathedral windows. Now, the audition wasn’t flawless. You clearly lacked experience in heels. But I didn’t know a high-schooler could garner such depth in music. I returned the phone to your mother with an affirmation of your equal talent with written-word and clipped, “Let’s just hope she can put some of that energy back into this class! That music college wants to see good science grades, as well.”
I tend to project things as ending in two extremes, and cannot be argued out of accepting any other possible outcome. For example, I recently moved out of state. Only two things will happen. I will either become mayor, or I will die lonely. Buried in an unmarked grave in the state’s wasteland. No other possible conclusions. This is why I have never moved before. I tend to apply this thinking to my children the most. Case in point, my daughter. I stepped in, once, to check her online learning and discovered an underwater mural up her leg. Complete with marker blowfish and an antique diving helmet.
I looked at her computer screen. “Ms. Hill is asking you to fill out a worksheet. Where is it? You’re not doing what she asked.”
“Ms. Hill is doing boring stuff. I know the alphabet.”
“She’s teaching more than the alphabet. Pay attention. Turn up the volume. Do what your teacher says.”
“The Alphabet” Easy Piano Tutorials by Thomas
My daughter set her gaze and maneuvered the volume without breaking stare. Ms. Hill’s voice rose, “We draw a b-i-i-i-i-i-g alligator mouth. Can everyone make a big alligator mouth?” My daughter arched her eyebrow and mouthed, “I’m seven.” Then turned — in compliance — to draw an A on a worksheet.
That night I told my husband, “She’s going to end up in prison or be the next president.” He tends to respond to these statements with silent disregard, but this time he placed his watch on the night stand and turned, “Many of the world’s innovators didn’t do well in school.”
“That’s impossible. You have to at least do well in school. Our daughter’s already throwing a middle finger to first grade. What will senior year look like?!” He shrugged, gave a half smile.
Your senior year didn’t look so great; you barely graduated. I could tell you found little relevance or interest in my class. Mostly, you slouched and doodled on post-its. I noticed an abandoned note after class one day. On it, a scrawled message.
“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”
“You dropped this yesterday,” I handed the post-it back. “I read The Catcher in the Rye in high school. This is the only sentence I ever underlined in a book. Well, and also the one with the bad word.”
“Oh…yeah…?” you brushed away a dipped strand of hair and grinned. “It’s my favorite story. Well, that and The Great Gatsby. I like how Jay Gatsby is obsessed with recapturing history.” You reached into your bag and presented a poem scribbled in a margin.
I still think about it.
Once, I discovered my daughter making shoes instead of participating in online learning. In the background, a PE teacher bellowed, “Toss them! Catch them!” and a grid of first graders reached for plastic bags floating in the air.
“Look!” she beamed, hovering a smothered paint brush too near the carpet.
With paper towels and tape, my daughter moulded shoes on both feet, and stood poised to paint them red. I opened my mouth to scold her back to virtual class, but praised her creativity, praised her shoes, and threatened her life if paint got on the carpet, instead. In my head I thought, Catch a garbage bag for PE? That’s bullshit.
I’ve always believed success comes with obedience to law and predetermined order. I apply this to all facets of life (except license plate renewal, there I cry anarchy). When I hear, “What is the path to success?” I straighten my back and stomp: study in school, get good grades, attend university, have a career, don’t be late, never take unnecessary sick days. Yet, you are different. You arch a brow and turn an eye toward anything that smells puerile, inauthentic, or dogmatic. Doesn’t matter if it came from a trusted friend, feared superior, or (as in my daughter’s case) your own mother.
I would be thrilled if my daughter grew to be as creative, soulful, and sharp as you. But can I handle a string of D’s? Do I high five her for recognizing Ms. Hill’s nursery rhymes are bullshit, or do I tell her to go back to class and do what is said? Do I let go of the control wheel and allow her to veer one of two ways — drugs/sex/alcohol behind a convenient store, or becoming the next great big thing?
I don’t think you are going to do drugs/sex/alcohol in a parking lot. Honestly, I believe you’ll flourish beyond imagination. Even if the “music thing” doesn’t pan out (remember, I switch around a few details) something will.