It wasn’t the first time someone called me dumb.
But it was the first time I believed I was dumb.
Friday afternoon my kindergarten teacher, Miss Wagner (pronounced Vag-nur), reiterated to our class how vital it was that come Monday, each student must bring acorns for a class art project.
It made sense to me. It was October and mighty oak trees were littering the ground with acorns. Just not anywhere in the concrete city where I lived.
My mother, a single mom and a nurse that worked weekends, not to mention a very active alcoholic/addict, was my only hope of getting to the nearest canyon (an hour away).
That night I begged, “Please, Mom.”
“It’s too far.”
“Please, Mom,” I begged Saturday morning. “I have to have acorns.”
“I have to go to work.”
“Please, Mom,” I begged that night when she arrived home.
“Ask me later.”
Sunday morning I peered into her room to beg again. She was gone. I called the hospital. She wasn’t working which meant that she was out drinking. This wasn’t unusual and I did what I could to manipulate the situation for my benefit. I cleaned my room. I scrubbed the bathroom and vacuumed the living room. I refolded all the towels in the house the way Mom liked them folded. Then I waited. And waited. And watched the sun start to sink along with my heart.
That’s when I heard her Mustang lurch into our driveway.
I didn’t have to beg. Mom opened the door and hollered, “Come on, let’s go get some #%&!! acorns!”
“Do you want to go or not?”
My anxiety level accelerated with the Mustang’s speed. I puked twice on the windy drive up to where Mom was sure the mighty oaks grew. By the time we got there it was dark and she used the car’s headlights to shine into a shadowy grove of trees, their bare branches were goblin fingers reaching for the night sky.
“Stop your sniveling and get down here with me on your hands and knees,” she ordered. “Rake through the wet, rotting leaves with your fingers. Just be careful not to grab a deer turd or a snake.”
After an hour or so, we came away with a total of five acorns, plus two more we assumed were mutant cousins. Still, they counted and because Miss Wagner had not specified a number, I was thrilled with seven, though secretly afraid that my classmates would out-acorn me.
Seven was the top number of acorns anyone in the class brought.
Because when I walked in, exhausted but exhilarated, I was the only student with any acorns at all. Every other classmate had brought just what Miss Wagner had instructed—egg cartons.
That afternoon when I explained to Mom why I brought all seven acorns back home, her face went all puffer-fishy.
“How could you be so##*&@ dumb?”
“I misunderstood,” I sniveled. “Miss Wagner said it’s okay.”
“It’s not okay! Acorns and egg cartons don’t’ even sound alike!”
“Miss Wagner’s from Germany. She talks funny.”
The slap to my head made my eyes sting.
“What was that for?”
“I was seeing if you’ve even got a brain to rattle—you don’t.”
At this point in the story we come to a screeching halt to make one thing clarion—I’m not sharing anything to elicit sympathy. Not even close. I’m trying to rattle your brain back to your own defining moment when somebody called you dumb. Back to your own acorn experience when you believed that you weren’t smart enough or good enough or whatever enough.
As excruciating as it is, I want you to own the tears and snot, the fury and humiliation of that moment. Remember how you felt and say a forever goodbye to that feeling because you’re not dumb. You’ve never been dumb. And by all that’s true and holy, we’re going to prove just how not-dumb you are.