She wrote dumb on her knuckles, only it wasn’t spelled correctly. D U M N was emblazoned on her brown outstretched fingers in black ink. I sat with her as she quietly did her math homework because I knew that the next page would include word problems—we hate word problems.
My initial limited view of her hand only allowed access to the letters D and U. She hid her left hand under the table as she carefully angled her right hand so that I couldn’t see it. When it became awkward for her to write on the bottom right-hand corner of her assignment, I got the first glimpse of the letters M and N.
My breath stopped. I felt as though my heart left my chest for a brief moment. It ached for my little 10-year-old girl who found challenge in every word on the page. The tears formed at the corner of my eyes for the desperation that she must have felt when writing out that word on her knuckles. I couldn’t let the tears escape, not because I didn’t want her to see me crying, but because they would serve to validate the pain that the words invoke.
I had one minute to decide which course of action I would take; trying to convince her that she is not dumb would open up a world of hurt in both of us—for her in having to voice the many reasons why she might feel that the label is a fitting one, and for me in having to listen to what no mother wants to hear…that her child feels inferior and lacking in some academic regard. On the other hand, taking the approach that the word was not spelled correctly would take attention away from the reason why it was written across her perfect knuckles to begin with.
Choosing the latter was the easiest route, or so I thought.
“Azcal, you do know that you spelled the word incorrectly on your hands, right?” I asked her in a matter-of-fact voice I would use if, for example, she had left the front door open or her shoes in the middle of the living room. I didn’t want to give the words emblazoned on her hands any power.
“No,” she answered, “It is spelled like damn but with a ‘u’ instead of an ‘a.’” Her smile beamed across her entire face, her eyebrows raising in the way one does when they are sending a “gotcha” message.
“Well, let’s see. Give me a piece of paper and a pencil and we can look at which way it looks better,” I countered to her.
She handed me a piece of paper, waited a minute, and after giving me a curious smile, handed me a pencil that looked as if it had been run over by a motorcade of Humvees. “Azcal, don’t you have better pencils than this? Do you really use these in class?” I asked.
“If you’re going to show me, show me, because it’s almost time for me to go to bed and I need to finish my homework,” she spit out. I could tell by the angry tone of her voice that she was not expecting her evening to end this way. I knew that her intention was to get a reaction from me that would give her the opportunity to give me a myriad of reasons why she feels she’s dumb, but I wouldn’t give her that satisfaction.
I slowly wrote out the word D U M B, paying close attention to purse and release my lips at the end of the word. “Repeat after me, Azcal, DUMB.” I had her watch my mouth as I went between pronouncing DAMN and DUMB. I watched her face change as she unwillingly grasped the subtle difference that indicated she was indeed incorrect in the spelling of her badge of inadequacy.
“Mom, is there a book that you have read more than once in the last twenty years that really means a lot to you?” she asked as she diverts the attention away from the fact that she is starting to rub the N off of her ring finger.
“There are a lot of books that I have read more than once, and most of them mean a lot to me, but I have one book that may speak to you in ways that you would like,” I responded to her. I got up from the kitchen table and walked over to the bookshelf. I took my time walking over and nonchalantly wiped the tears that stubbornly escaped their resting place. Hidden between textbooks of schooling Latin@ children and the killing of women in the border town in Chihuahua, I found my light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel, go-to, safe haven, coming-of-age book that I have read over and over and over and over and have worn the pages thin from reading, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.
I explained to Azcal that the book had saved me from anger, from sadness, from loneliness, from desperation, from ___________, and that I believed it would do the same for her. I also let her know that it was something that she should let me read to her so that she could absorb the words and listen to the story told in the way it was supposed to be told.
What I didn’t want to tell her, and what she undoubtedly knows every time she picks up a book, is that we both knew that her reading ability would prevent her from having the patience to fully absorb the imagery, symbolism, and messages that these pages would require. And so we walked into her bedroom and began the process of discussing expectations. Azcal, as many of you do not know, is in fourth grade and reads at a first grade level. Those of you who have met her and have interacted with her will more than likely find this extremely difficult to believe; as her mother and as her fierce advocate, difficult doesn’t even begin to describe what I feel.
I told her that I would allow her to keep the words on her knuckles for as long as she felt that she needed to see them. I told her that if she feels dumb and wants the whole world to know how she feels, that she has agency over both her feelings and her choice of expressing those feelings, but at no time…at no time was she allowed to feel sorry for herself. I do not allow that in my house—ever!
I opened up the book and showed her that almost every single page had notes on it. She asked me why I wrote in my books and I explained to her that every time I pick up a book I am in a different state of mind. All the words on the pages could change meaning depending on what was happening in my life. I wouldn’t allow her to stall me any longer, after all, reading this book aloud was as much for me as it was for her.
Chapter one; done. Chapter two; done. (these are extremely short two-to-three page chapters) Chapter three was the shortest of them all, titled Boys & Girls. It briefly describes how the main character, whose name is not revealed in the first three chapters, feels tied to her familial responsibilities of being an older sister. She talks about her dream of being able to float about the world freely without being responsible, but in the end says, “Someday I will have a best friend all my own. One I can tell my secrets to. One who will understand my jokes without my having to explain them. Until then I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor.”
When I finished reading this line I looked at Azcal in a way to check her level of engagement with my voice, and to visibly measure whether or not I had lost her somewhere along the way.
“I get it, mom. Her anchor is her family. Her anchor is her little sister and she just wants to be free like a bright red balloon floating wherever it wants to float. I understand how she feels and I hope to never feel anchored.” she eloquently described her interpretation of the chapter. I quickly looked down at the notes in my book and realized that the last time I read it, my notes were almost identical to what she had described. I had to stop. I didn’t quite understand what kept me from continuing to discuss it, but I knew that I couldn’t go on reading until I fully processed that my daughter understood what is said to her 100% of the time and only understands what she reads 10% of the time.
Azcal asked me if we could read a little bit of the book every night. She also asked if she could use a picture of my daddy, her papi, as a bookmark because he would be proud of the way she was able to understand the book. I walked back into the kitchen to grab a picture of my daddy and took a few extra seconds to breathe deeply and again wipe the tears from my eyes. My heart was both broken and healed in that moment.
My daughter isn’t dumb. If it takes Sandra Cisneros to convince her of this because I feel powerless in combatting her self-doubting behaviors, then Sandra Cisneros it will be.
This morning when I walked into her room after she left for school I noticed that she had moved the book from where I had left it last night. My little girl is curious to what lies ahead in the next chapter, titled My Name; if only she knew that this chapter is one that could have been written by her, about her.
Until next time…do you have a book that you have read more than once in the last twenty years?
Move over, Dr. Seuss.