By Rebecca Potter
Mom sat down at the kitchen table and looked at the awards banquet invitation as though she had received bad news from far away. Her lips turned down at the edges and her eyebrows scrunched together as she read the paper—again.
“Baby, it might be a mistake. Sometimes they accidentally send these things out to the wrong people.” She spoke slowly and with apology in her voice. I was only in first grade; I didn’t understand the big deal and didn’t really care about a mistake.
The year before I’d started kindergarten, my mom bought several pre-school workbooks. We sat in the middle of the family room floor, the workbooks spread all around us. I am the oldest, so my mom began my education with an eagerness that was visible in her smile and sing-song voice. “Okay, Rebecca, use the pencil to find your way to the center.”
Easy enough. It was a circle maze. Mom got up for a minute to tend to my toddler sister. I slowly traced my pencil through the lane on the outside edge of the circle and met the first blockade. I stopped my pencil and called out, “Eerk! Stop! Red light!” I then continued my pencil-turned-into-an-imaginary-car through the outer lane of the circle road, heading for my destination, somewhere far from that page in the depths of my imagination.
Mom returned only a moment later. “No! That’s not it at all, sweetie.” Her voice and face made me think I had done something very wrong. It seemed that I couldn’t get anything right in my new pre-school book. I started crying. My usual reaction, Mom later told me. Whenever she tried to teach me anything, from writing my ABCs to tying my shoes, I wept.
I couldn’t articulate it then, but I was embarrassed by the process of learning. I didn’t want my mother, or anyone else, to watch me fail. My brain twisted things and made me think that if I did fail, people, especially my mother, would maybe stop loving me. This reaction, it turned out, was part of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that wouldn’t be diagnosed for another thirty years. Eventually my mom grew weary of my crying and stopped helping me with my pre-school books. Instead, she bought me the Letter People audio cassettes and let me attempt learning on my own. I listened to them while she cooked dinner.
Before kindergarten started, my mom bought me a brand new satchel and all kinds of wonderful crayons and pencils and paper. I got brand new shoes and socks with lace on the edges. Mom talked to me about what to expect on the first day and about how much she loved me and that I should obey my teacher.
On the first day of school my mom talked to my teacher a long time while I sat at one of the little tables and met people who would be my friends for years, including Katie. I was so preoccupied with my friend-making, I did not care what my mom was talking about to my new teacher, and I certainly could not have known that she was expressing her concern about me possibly having a learning disability.
I made it through kindergarten just fine. Then first grade. My academic progress was never a topic of conversation. My parents were so silent on the matter that I had no idea what “smart” really meant. I did not know anything about grades or scholarly competition or preparing for college. I had no idea where I fit in—if I was below average or smart or that those categories even existed. I didn’t care. I just liked my beautiful teachers. I loved my friends. I enjoyed doing all the worksheets and activities. My intellect, or lack thereof, was never brought up and did not mean anything to me.
I think the same was true for my parents. They knew I was doing okay in school, but that’s all they knew. I wasn’t struggling. I wasn’t crying. I wasn’t frustrated. But I wasn’t bringing home gold starred papers to post on the fridge, either. After school in the kitchen while my mom made fried fish or gumbo, I would tell her about all the friends I was making. I talked about Katie and Kang Pen and Christy and Nathan. She listened while she chopped the onions or battered the fish. We never talked about worksheets or lessons. It just didn’t come up.
At the awards banquet, my mother maybe still wondered why I was there as we ate our baked chicken and mashed potatoes and drank our weak sweet tea. She didn’t know what was responsible for so many of my odd behaviors. She didn’t know why it would take me more than half an hour to put on my tennis shoes, re-tying and re-tying until they felt just right. And that I’d often start my homework all over because I messed up on even one word. So I was naturally slower with my school work.
At the dinner, we sat by my best friend Katie and her family. She and I giggled all through the meal. I loved being with Katie and having my parents all to myself, without my two little sisters. But Mom looked like she was still expecting bad news, like she was trying to protect me from something. The further we got into dinner, the quieter she became. She and Daddy sat across from me. She kept whispering to him. She reached across the table and patted my hand right before the principal started handing out awards. “Remember, sweetie, we’re just here to enjoy the dinner. You might not get an award, and that’s okay.”
The awards were given out by subject. Within each subject, the grade winners were announced and received a framed certificate. Math. No Rebecca. Science. No Rebecca. Reading. Katie got that one. She smiled broadly. I caught my mom’s face. She was near tears. Her nose was red and her face was blotchy. She looked at me as if I were hurt. But I was fine. She was the one who was hurt, watching all the other children get awards while her own was passed over again and again.
All the subject awards were given out, and my name was not called.
“Oh, Rebecca, I’m so sorry. But remember, it’s okay. We had fun anyway, right?” My mother was smiling now, but I could tell she was not having fun and afraid I was sad about not getting an award. I could tell by the way she poked her fork into the mashed potatoes she hadn’t eaten. I could tell by the way she kept breathing in big breaths and letting them out so loudly I could hear. I could tell by the way my dad had his hand on her back, patting her softly, like he was trying to keep her from crying.
The over-all achievement plaques were given out last. Mom’s head rested in her hand, propped up by her elbow on the table. She was tight-lipped now. She whispered over to me while they were calling out names from 5th and 4th grades. “I tell you what. Let’s go get some ice cream and forget this whole thing, sweetheart.”
A few seconds later: “Overall achievement for first grade—Rebecca Youngblood.” I barely heard my name because I was thinking about ice cream. When I returned with my plaque, not just a framed certificate, still not understanding its significance, that I had outperformed every first-grader at my school that year, that I was smart, I asked, “Can I still have ice cream?”
“Of course, baby, of course!” My mom was crying and laughing at the same time.
Rebecca Potter lives with her husband, three sons, and two bulldogs in central Kentucky, where she teaches high school English and writes. Her mother, Darlene Youngblood, has been there for every one of her daughter’s accomplishments since first grade, cheering her daughter on.
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