When I was nine I spent approximately three weeks laying on my hands in bed, sick to near-death from the chicken pox. My mom may dispute the three weeks claim. It could've been one, or it could've been five for all I knew in my state of delirium, but it seemed like an eternity's worth of Monkees and Brady Bunch reruns, interspersed with Ducktails and chicken noodle soup.
I was somewhat new to school at the time, in our first year back in Kansas after a year's exile in Missouri following my parents' divorce. It was a nice school in a nice neighbourhood, but I didn't like my teacher because she wore an unrealistic curly brown wig. She was different like I was different and I hated being different, therefore I hated my teacher.
I also didn't like the fact that I was put in a reading class for "special" readers. You know, the one where they put the children who struggle with dyslexia (most of whom didn't know it yet) or near-sightedness or speech-related issues. I suffered from none of the above, but I was new and anxiety-stricken and drew a lot of slightly disturbing sad faces, so I think they put me in this class to encourage me. This experiment - the "encouraging me experiment" - failed when, in week three of reading class, I walked in to find scrawled on the desk in freshly learnt script:
karen is stupid.
At the time there were two Karens in the class, though other Karen was actually spelled Karin, so I knew it was meant for me: Karen with an e. I was mortified. I was smart and I knew I was smart, but I felt stupid. All the time. The stupidness and the smartness had no relation in my mind, for my heart almost always ran ahead of my brains, the stupid feelings preempting the smart ones.
And here, of course, was proof. Someone had outted me, had seen it, too. Someone turned out to be other Karin: Karin with an i, a 5th grader with gorgeous blond hair.
So you can see how the chicken pox came as a relief.
This week has been the week of sick children. Asher went down first with the flu and today I've got a girl with a temperature in the living room. She's currently using a roll of craft paper as a telescope, and even though her cheeks are flushed and her throat is sore, she is exploring and experimenting and drawing, all from the edge of our sofa.
My kids are smart kids. Jack is light years ahead in reading and Ella is kicking math butt. They love school and the subjects they're studying, about Galileo and Florence Nightingale and the Irish word for pink (bándearg). We discuss all this - and how they're actually thankful for it! - on the way to kids club. In the mornings we pray over such things, asking to show a bit of the heart of Jesus by how we act and treat each other and learn from our teachers. They hop out of the car and run away from me smiling, laughing. School and science and Irish and maths... these are all stops on the adventure train; puppy show-and-tell, sometimes included.
I don't know how they ended up (or are starting up) this way.
As Jack walked through his school gate this morning, I stared after him in slack-jawed awe. We grew a person!, I thought. An intelligent, loving, happy person. Though at times he feels fearful or frustrated or sad, he never feels stupid. He feels burdened for the people and the things around him, for his mum when she's overwhelmed or his dad when he's away from home or the rubbish along the side of the road. The heart-burdens are positives in his book and ours, and the confidence that's somehow embedded in his psyche had to come from somewhere. It sure didn't come from me.
The girl, too, even on the sick days: she knows she's awesome. Smart and creative, too. She never cleans her room, she spends hours with a nutella mustache like a garland round her lips, and she gets angry like you wouldn't believe if you stared into those big brown eyes for any length of time. But she embraces these things as proof of her brilliance. I want her to stay this way forever, to always feel this strength within her.
It's too soon to tell with Asher. He's still our surprise baby, a hazel-eyed mystery.
Twenty-six years later I write these things knowing this: the power of feeling stupid can be broken. It can be washed away by something more powerful and elusive than generational patterns.
Inside their tender bodies my genes flow, but somehow smart and independent and free shine through. Stupid dims in the background, overcome by a sturdier ground they walk on. There may be a kid or two who write the words of shame on their desks, but the words on their hearts are in fine print, a permanent warranty against the lies of this world.
I have them, too, written by One who always knew I was more than a label on a desk. They lay dormant for awhile, blurred by circumstance or covered with the scribbled drawings of a chicken-pox infested nine-year-old girl. But they remain, long after crayon fades away.
How do you see your childhood self? More importantly, how did you cope with chicken pox?