Life Lessons

It was Saturday and I was in a groove. It was the one day of the week when my parents let me sleep in and for the most part do whatever I wanted. For me that mean spending the morning in my room and reading a book or singing along with my favorite records but it was completely up to me. As long as my room was reasonably clean then it was my Independence Day and my time was at my discretion. My mother heard me bopping around one Saturday and yelled up the stairway to ask what I was doing. I told her that I was getting dressed and she replied with: “well come see your father when you get finished.” I expected to find my father sitting on the couch with his newspaper but instead he was posted up at the dining room table. If the kitchen table was the heart of our house, then the dining room table was the brain. It was formal and austere with its large mahogany table carefully covered with a lace tablecloth. As a family we used the dining room at Thanksgiving or for birthday dinners and whenever my aunt and uncle came to visit from out of town, but my father considered it his office. He would sit at the head of the table and read through the mail, pay bills, and take care of any serious business for the home so when I saw him at the dining room table, I knew he meant business.

In his hand was a letter and I could clearly see the logo for the Cleveland Public Schools on the envelope. It was the notification that I would be attending a new school for the upcoming school year and that I had been accepted into the honors program as well. Consequently, I would be starting the sixth grade at Benjamin Franklin elementary on the west side of town. So not only was I starting at a new school as an honors student, but I was going to be bussed as part of Cleveland’s school desegregation plan. This was serious business indeed. My parents saw this as a tremendous opportunity and wanted to make sure that I understood what my responsibilities were. I looked carefully at my father as he said: Everyone in this house has a job and your job is school. You are a smart girl and you have been chosen for this program and it is your job to do the very best that you can and take advantage of every opportunity you can. You are a smart girl, and no one can ever take that away from you so make the most of this opportunity. His words were important because my fifth-grade experience had been fraught with turmoil and drama. My teacher considered me an underperformer and had told my parents that he thought something was wrong with me because I did not respond to him the way the other girls in the class did. In hindsight, this assessment was problematic for several reasons that had nothing to do with me but at the time, I was convinced that maybe his assessment of me was correct. I was not like the other girls in my class, and I was not interested in the things that my other classmates were interested in and I struggled every day to stay focused in class. Consequently, my parents had me tested at the recommendation of my teacher. I saw a physician, a psychologist and a social worker who all came to the same conclusion: I was smart and needed a more challenging academic and social environment.

While I was nervous about my new academic career, I took my father’s advice seriously and I really thrived at Ben Franklin. I didn’t mind the long bus ride and the school was bright and well equipped and I made friends quickly. I sat in a cluster of four desks with three other students: Kris, Richard and Shawn. Kris and I became fast friends and we remain connected to this day but I was utterly obsessed with Shawn. He was short and chocolate brown and wore the nicest clothes. He was always telling jokes and I thought he was perfect in every way. We’d been given a group project about something, and Shawn and I agreed to work together since we both lived on the same side of town and could get together to work on the project after school. We exchanged phone numbers and agreed to talk that night to figure out our work plan.

I dialed the seven digits on the black rotary phone to call Shawn and when he answered I was nervous and giggly the whole time as eleven-year-old girls are prone to be but I managed to get through it. As I hung up the phone, I looked up to see my mother standing at my bedroom door. I didn’t know if she had been listening on the phone downstairs and decided to come up or if she had just been coming upstairs and overheard my side of the conversation, but the look of concern on her face was intense. She stared at me and with a deep sigh said these words that I have never forgotten: “Jo, boys don’t like smart girls.” I felt like she hit me. I was unable to breathe or respond or react. I finally managed to mumble yes ma’am and she walked away without further explanation. My mind was spinning, and I did not know what to do with that information. The only thing I really knew about myself was that I was smart. The school board and the social worker and my father all agreed: I was a smart girl. It was the only sure thing about me so at the age of eleven I resigned myself to the fact that boys would never like me and that played itself out in some very interesting ways over the next three decades of my life. I eventually got to a point in my life where I could unpack that loaded statement delivered at the top of the stairs and understand in part what my mother was trying to tell me. She was not angry and It was not meant to discourage me. Rather I believe it was to caution me to be careful with my heart. It was her way of saying what Lorraine Hansberry said and I paraphrase that the things that make you exceptional in life will often make you lonely. The lesson she wanted to convey was hold on to who you are, no matter what.


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