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My best friend is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met.
She got pregnant with my god-daughter, Aubrey, our junior year of high school and still graduated valedictorian. She gave birth to her son the summer after graduating from college (in four years) and started her first f teaching position about two weeks later. Then, she started and finished her Masters degree in two years–all while teaching ESL students full-time. This is normal for Ashley.
When we were seniors in high school, Ashley got in my face. That was not normal for Ashley. We were walking to class, she was telling me she was beginning to worry about another girl in our class who had been steadily creeping up our class rank and was clearly trying to graduate with that precious V. Ashley had held tight at number one all four years, but this girl had recently crept up to number 2. Before the pregnancy, since our freshman year, Ashley told me countless times she was going to graduate Valedictorian then go to Notre Dame, possibly with a softball scholarship. She knew what she wanted and she knew how to work for it. So, when her beautiful daughter came along and at least two of those three goals went out the window, she put all her energy toward the first one–and being a good mother, of course.
I was listening to her that day in the hallway. I heard everything she said about this girl. Ashley is in no way a mean-spirited person, but she is pretty competitive. This girl was coming for her and Ashley wasn’t angry–but she was dangerous. I did not share her love of competition. I mean, I got it. She was raised by a football coach. Our high school’s football coach. I was raised by…well, my mother. Who is also not competitive unless it’s in an argument. A character trait I, unfortunately, inherited.
I always thought a big part of the reason Ashley and I were such good friends was having nothing to compete over, which is why she surprised me so much that day on the walk to class. She played volleyball and softball; I was all about band and theater. She wanted to be valedictorian; I just wanted to get into college. We were both into leadership, but were involved in so many separate activities, we were never trying to be leaders of the same organization. There was never any reason to compete. We didn’t even like the same kinds of guys! The only man we’ve ever agreed on to this day is Optimus Prime.
In-between her hissing venom about the rank-crawler, she turned to me and said, “This is kind of your fault.”
“You’re probably the smartest person I know and you just refuse to work hard for anything. I shouldn’t even be thinking about her. I should be trying to beat you for valedictorian.”
I was pretty damn dumbstruck. Let’s be honest, my entire educational life, my teachers have been telling me that I was capable of more than I was giving them. Didn’t matter if I got an A or B there was still a note: Good job, but not your best. Specifically not MY best. Maybe your classmates best, Ashley Ford, but not YOUR best. And yeah, they were right. You see those little standardized tests aren’t just used to pinpoint and label the children who are a bit behind, they also stick a big fat gold star next to those students who might be baby-geniuses.
That’s right, Lucky Reader. You are now skimming the words of a bona fide baby-genius.
For all of elementary and middle school, I was given tougher books to read and more difficult spelling lists than my classmates. Then, I had to go to another classroom with a few other kids like me so we could learn at a level that was less boring for us. They eventually had to start busing us to other schools with better programs they couldn’t afford to offer us for part of our school day. I was usually the only black child in my “special” classes and definitely the poorest.
When the other kids brought in reports they’d typed on their computers at home, or had money for lunch and didn’t have to whisper, “free lunch” to the cafeteria workers who then had to look up your name in a big orange binder, I was embarrassed. I made up for my uncomfortable poorness by making the other kids laugh. I spent more time doing that than working hard, which meant I got in trouble for not doing assignments, but these classes were about potential not production so I never reached my goal of getting kicked out of the program. I missed my poor friends at my poor school a lot. I hated being a baby-genius when I was a baby.
Hear this, dear reader: I’m not a genius. I was a precocious child, I was funny, I knew much more about life than I should have or was expected to. I was a child who loved to read. I am an adult who loves to read. When you start reading your mother’s novels in the second and third grade, your ability to retain information is going to be better than your second and third grade peers. I was not great a problem-solving, seriously, fuck a context clue, I was just an exceptional remember-er. This definitely helped in school, but I wasn’t going all Good Will Hunting on the homies, or nothing. I was a smart kid, no doubt about it. Maybe even a little smarter than most, but by no means was I, or am I, a genius.
Still, my teachers, professors, mentors, and best friend were/are right. I haven’t done enough with my potential. I’ve settled in the most terrible way. I’ve settled for myself. I’ve rationalized my way into a life that’s nice, but not great. Instead of seeing stepping-stones, I see flat surfaces to rest on. Indefinitely. Not because I have no motivation, not because I don’t have desires. I do this out of a very real fear.
My greatest fear is actually having all that baby-genius potential firing through me, combining it with my secretly stubborn motivation, maybe even a little new-found competitive spirit, that elbow grease (which may actually just be cocoa butter) and missing every mark. What if I have to look into the faces of every person who pushed me up and up and up and see nothing there but disappointment in a fail investment. People are INVESTED in me. My life, my accomplishments, my failures matter to people.
I’m at this place in my life right now where I’m tired of giving people 75-90%. I’m not an adult genius, but I am kind of smart, and Haven Kimmel winked and told me I was “funnier than most”. I’m ready to try to blow somebody’s mind. Maybe not everybody’s mind, but somebody’s. Maybe even, a few somebody’s. I’m ready to start giving my life a whole lot more 100% investment. I’m pretty sure that’s what baby-genius Ashley Ford would have wanted, the ability to be smart on her own terms. I’m pretty sure that’s what people who love me want. It’s what I want.
I’ll make good on those investments.