“You know what’s frustrating, Mom?”
“Whenever I know the right answer, the teacher doesn’t call on me. But whenever I don’t, that’s when she calls on me.”
“I know, that totally stinks. It happened to me too.”
“What’s even worse is that she always gives those easy ones to the smart kids.”
The smart kids.
The words hung like a cartoon bubble, floating above my 6-year-old’s head, before landing with the thud of an iron anvil on the white carpeted floor of her room between us. I froze, staring at the size extra small, long-sleeve shirt I was in the middle of folding, rapidly flipping through the Rolodex of responses I might whip out to address the situation.
My instinct was to rally with the party line that there are no “smart kids” and recite the growth mindset mantra, newly implemented at her own elementary school, which says you’re only as smart as the effort you put in. But her words ping-ponged around inside my head at an Olympian’s pace and my own words sprung feet, digging in and lodging themselves firmly in my throat.
When my husband and I debriefed that evening over a second load of laundry dumped onto our bed, I lamented that she had the wherewithal to string together the words to form the phrase “smart kids.” Where on God’s green earth had she even heard of the idea? And how, in the first month of first grade, had she had enough experiences to be able to identify the kids who fell into that category? And why, God why, was she already old enough to identify herself right out of it?
But the real struggle wasn’t just how she landed on or even implemented the term—it was the fact that it’s a phrase I’d heard and used throughout my entire childhood. Hell, I probably used it in college and law school too. Even though I don’t turn the exact phrase over in my mouth anymore, I’d be lying if I didn’t see adults everywhere around me assessing their relative intelligence in everyday life.
Where do I sit relative to my colleagues at work on the “she gets it” scale? Am I going to come off like a bozo if I go to this dinner with all of these people who are significantly senior to me? I’m a terrible writer compared to him—how does he come up with all of the right words? Oh shit, my boss just saw me at the gym wearing my NKOTB tank top, and there’s no way I’ll ever be seen as intelligent again, full stop.
And how had I used the phrase, exactly? At 16, I said that I liked to hang out with the smart kids because they made me laugh. At 23, I said that I wanted the smart kids in my study group because it’d force me to do better. At every age, I said that I was always most attracted to the “smart ones.” All solid truths—none of which made me feel any less intelligent because I was identifying others as smart.
So why the bristling? Was it simply that it’s complicated? That this falls into that illusive, murky category of which realities we cop to versus those we try to shield from (what we perceive to be) their naive innocence? Because I know for certain that after I write this, some will whisper the question to me, “C’mon, tell me, who did she identify? Was it so-and-so? I bet it was so-and-so.” Because it’s a fiction to deny the assessment happens at any age.
While it feels uncomfortable, somehow, to let the words hang out there in the world between us, it would be far worse to undercut her reality by telling her that her observation was inappropriate. It would be far worse to make her question her own social acuity by undermining her assessment. And it would be far worse to make her feel like she can’t share those observations with me because I simply don’t get it.
So I choose to let it be. I’ll continue to reinforce that her best results will always come from her best efforts. I’ll continue to remind her that “smart” is only one in a long list of good qualities that might be attributed to those around her. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to tell her that what she sees isn’t reality or, worse yet, is her reality to which she can’t give voice.
Maybe that isn’t the right answer, but it’s my best effort, so it’s good enough.