Chapter 100- The Smartest One
My brother, Damian, is an intelligent man. Someone who listens and considers the various sides of an issue, educating himself in the process, before drawing his conclusions. He is an excellent debater. Articulate, without pretense, Damian is not about making an impression of eloquence. He's just real, and he really just wants to discuss the facts. Frankly, he makes me nervous, since I am so rarely informed. So frequently in error. Enough about me.
For some reason, Damian may have just recently come to the realization that I am not that bright shining intellectual star of a sister he he's imagined me to be all these years. I suspect that it was our brief conversation about the upcoming presidential election? After all, I hate politics. Hate 'em.
Out of guilt over not having adequate knowledge. maybe 'cause I don't care, I had purchased a copy of Obama's 'Audacity of Hope'. Months later, as I turn the first few pages, I find my mind wandering to more 'important' issues. Whether I can get some tomato plants and start a garden growing on my porch. Whether my Gardenia will do better in a larger pot. I am catapulted into the world of natural beauty and suddenly at the reservoir striving to keep up with the relaxed stride of ML, painfully hurling myself along, trying to stay ahead of the Hacitic couple pushing the stroller. They made the uphill look so easy. Then I am back here, trying to read the next sentence, trying to forgive myself for complete lack of interest. Feigning interest. Now I have one of those eyestrain headaches coming on. The day is getting away from me. I've got bills to pay and shutters to paint and a bike to retrieve from Dad's shed. I need to get out to the beach, start looking at foreclosures. See? Add it up. It's ADD!
I believe it was Mother's Day. My brother, his wife and the kids were over at my parent's house. We were all sitting around the table, having coffee and cake/cannolis. A nice afternoon with Mom, Dad, Aunt Amelia, light with conversation, a few laughs, reminiscing. My brother makes a comment, adding something about my being the 'smartest' one in the family. I heard that. That slightly sarcastic tone in the word, "smartest'. I am smiling, since you and I already know how my mind was just flipping through the channels while they are talking away, until he said that.
Ah- The smartest one. That's right! Ha! Forgot about that!
Back in the 60's Mom and Dad had five children, and somewhere along the line, early in the program I guess, maybe 5th grade, I happened to have gotten a higher score in one area of the California Achievement Test. She said it was in the area of my reading and language skills. No mention of where I was just average or bombed. Nothing about my lower comprehension scores, that I had to read things over and over to get it. It didn't matter. Of course, my Mother was thrilled with these higher marks. Any indication that her children were performing higher in any area was encouraging to hear. I never ever considered how it would effect the rest of us. But there it was. The natural response of a child hearing this kind of thing, might be to feel in some way.... 'thwarted', is the word I want to use. Prolly not the right word.
" Oh c'mon Dame, you know that's not right. You are WAY smarter than me!" He is.
He made that George Costanza smiling face, "but Mom always said that you were the smartest one."
" Oh c'mon, she didn't know for nothing what was going on in my brain. I just happened to like reading. Doesn't make me any smarter than anyone. Look at me now! I can hardly get past the first chapter of a book! ( nothing to be proud of). You are definitely the smarter one."
We both know it, now, but I remember Mom saying things like " Gina is the smartest in language/reading skills" never the 'smart-est one', as if to make comparisons. I am also sure that it must have come out that way from time to time; comments having to with my 'college level' language skills. College level. Back then 'college level' meant something, and hearing that all of the time made me a believer.
"You're going to college", my mother used to say. "You are going to get a career, like I did, and be able to support yourself and have the life you want."
"Of course, Mom, I'm on it."
Meanwhile the other side of my brain was picking flowers in a field of dreams.
There really wasn't any section in the CATs which measured the creative mind. Why bother with that? Starving artists will tell you they wished they had been more diligent in school. This CAT thing must have bee a personal reassurance for Mom, considering the teacher's comment on the back of my report cards always seemed to reference my daydreaming.
It made me happy to have pleased my mother in some way. And I would have loved to keep that whole 'smartest one' facade going except that you can't ride the California Test wave of 1973 forever. And Mother's Day was the day of reckoning. I was about to wipe out.
Families being what they are, children vying for the attention and approval of their parents, I suppose it would only be natural for siblings, especially those who are close in age to compare themselves on various levels.
Unfortunately, Mom's comment about my being the 'smartest one' had been burned into Damian's psyche for the rest of his life. I had no idea. Poor kid was way smarter. I knew it from the moment my mother brought him home. That serious, contemplative look in his eyes. Always thinking, considering the facts. He was the baby. Statistically, the favored one. Last in line, first in the heart of Mom and Dad.
I remember him hiding behind my mothers leg, a cookie in each hand and one in his mouth. He didn't HAVE to talk if he didn't want to. He could just watch and learn from the mistakes of his older brother and sisters, and never have to work at anything. Life was good. And then had heard those words, "Gina's the smartest one". The skies darkened. 5 years old, barely able to write his own last name, slighted at the starting gate. Never had a chance to prove his own aptitude. He knew he was at college material in the cradle, without those test scores to prove it, nothing could be verified. And now, with those words echoing in his head..."the smarter one...Gina's the smarter one", his work was cut out. Drat it all! This was going to be an uphill battle.
He must have been in kindy-garten when he got the news of my high score. Poor kid. By the time he took his 5th grade test, and aced it, no doubt, it was like,.. no big deal. We expected as much. Oh the pain. I have no idea if he got a party. All I know that I was always 5 years ahead and by the time he'd get to the table the excitement wore off. Standing in the shadows of his big sister's glorious college level reading and language skills, Damian's best effort to be recognized as gifted in reading/language would never quite measure up the the 'Smartest' one. Damian would have to blaze his own trail and that he did, and continues to do. I sat there, across from him at our Mother's Day table and listened to him get it off his chest, 35 years to bring it to the table. More embarrassing, I think, for me. Exposed after all these years. And here it is...I AM NOT THE SMARTEST ONE. NEVER HAVE BEEN.
The truth hurts but it's also cleansing. Fact is, my comprehension skills were low. I KNEW something was wrong in the third grade, when assigned to do a book report I handed in a sheet of tracing paper with the words from the story card, as best as I could copy them. How hard it was to see the words to trace them...this was a difficult assignment! She handed it back to me.
" No Gina, you've got to read the story and put it in your own words. Sum it up. Keep it brief."
WHAT? Why? It's already there on the SAR card. Short and shweet. The writer already used the best words. Ask me to write a poem about snow or and essay on fire prevention. Ask me carve some Ivory soap into a bust of Abraham Lincoln! Give me a part in the class play and I AM 'ANNIE ALLIGATOR'!
I daydreamed and wrote poetry, loved to run and build forts, and hang out alone down at the creek, and sang songs from musicals. Reading was an escape, so I read mystery fiction on my own time. Book reports. Who needs em? nothing of intellectual value. ADD was never addressed. So there you go. Not the smartest, but the books to disprove it.
Back to the California test. Parents often don't realize how much weight is placed on their words of praise and punishment, and how ironic it can be that the 'smartest one' would later become the laughing stock of the family in light of her comment. God knows my self esteem would need a boost of confidence later in life. Knowing that I was at least good in 5th grade language arts, somehow made the subsequent looks from my Dad every time I've screwed up, alittle easer.
I never heard about anyone else's test scores but I had my own impressions of my siblings, growing up. Elena was incredibly artistic, daring and intense, a bit tough, but cool as a teenager. Vincent was energetic, thoughtful/curious, and comical. He could make me laugh. Laura was just a hugest crack up. Streetwise. The funniest person I've ever known to this day. And Damian, the only one who probably remembers mom's comment, was the kid with the mind for understanding computers, electronics and mechanics. Truly the smartest one.
A child prodigy is amazing to watch. From a very young age, Damian could and would take things apart and put them back together. There were wires and components of all kinds of electronics devices, all over his bedroom floor. The kid needed to know how things worked and knew that he could fix broken things by retrieving the innards of other broken things. He later went to DeVry for electronics, however realized his interests went beyond the wire, and proceeded on to Ramapo College where he sought a well rounded education. Political Science. To this day he is an avid reader, great listener and interesting conversationalist.
Damian is also a pretty good drummer, and guitarist. Back in the day, he and his friends formed " Mr Know-It-All", a popular rock-n-roll cover band on the local bar scene in the late 80s and 90s. Damian has a voice like He continues to play for the rock of ages in his church, and strives to be a great husband and father and mentor to his 4 children. It goes without that the man is and smart. It might just insult him that I would have to enumerate his many giftings and how he has been a blessing in the lives of his family, friends and people he comes across in his field of expertise. Saying nothing of his home improvement skills. My cornball Christmas update letter here would no doubt arouse his nausea, but it needed to be said. Yep. He is a complex person, my brother. Not, 'the smartest one', but complex.
Back to the Mother's Day table talk.
"Yep, Mom, always said that you were the smartest one, and I never forgot it."
Mom was left to defend the well-meaning thing she had said many many years ago. To try to correct something that stuck in the kid's head, the very thing ignited his passion for learning, which fueled the fire to achieve a measure of greatness in his own right. To overtake my position as the 'smartest one' in my mother's mind. To read and comprehend fat books in a single day. Yes.
To wrap it up, I believe my 1973 California scores pushed my brother to the 'A Bit Smarter Than Me' level he is today. Little did I know that at the time of that test I was reaching my maximum capacity, while little brother was just warming up. Damian is an intellectual man, yes, but he's also got a warm heart. I hope he doesn't mind that I took liberties here with my memories. All those years, I truly enjoyed making believe I was the smartest. As for mom, I am sure she knew the truth all along and as time passed, just felt so sorry for my situation. She kept the lie going since it was all I had. Thanks Mom. Sorry Dame.
" All the same, everyone the same" - Loretta 'Nonna' Morrone