Create a story that explores the younger version of you, digging deep into your family history and dynamics, that reveals a key component of your personality, preferences, and development. Don't worry about where to start. Then, let it take you to the next recollection. Here is one of mine.
Someone once said “if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will always believe it is stupid.” Aside from the peculiarity of this metaphor, it’s a good reminder that we humans, thankfully, can use our wits to overcome many obstacles, despite our nature.
Heck, Einstein said everybody is a genius!
Growing up in a family of intellectual giants, though, I often felt like a fish trying to climb a tree.
My hardheaded father once said to me, “Karen, your ignorance is abysmal.” Because I was a sensitive child, I received this news—and the words—as confirmation that I was simply dumb. A younger me got the message that my three siblings and parents were all smarter than me.
My father’s imperturbable confidence about his own mental powers set the standard for all of us.
It’s a good thing, too, because later in life I came to realize that his choice of the word “abysmal” could not only mean “appalling”—my first understanding of the word—but could also mean “very deep.” Seen that way, his statement to me was not so much a judgment, but a no-nonsense challenge. Classic Carl.
Many of my earliest memories are quests for knowledge and adventure. The book kind. The story goes that I learned to read when I was four. Of course, I don’t remember this. My mother read to us often, so it is not surprising that I picked up the skill so readily. I loved my Dr. Seuss books, and bought my favorite ones years later to read to my own children when they were small. Maybe it's no coincidence that the fish in the tree metaphor came to me, with One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish embedded deeply in my psyche!
Growing up in Little Rock, I was ahead of my fellow students in elementary school and Mrs. Owens, my first grade teacher, sent me to second grade classes to read to the older children. My mother was especially proud of this. She has retold that feat of mine on numerous occasions. In the family of intellectual giants, little “KK” was trying to keep up.
Cloverdale Elementary was a block and a half from our house on Juniper Road.
We could walk to the school, which I did every day accompanied by neighborhood friends or my older brother, who walked with me until our eventual promotion to attend 7th grade at the junior high—another half block’s walk across the grassy football field.
Back in those days, unless it was raining, a parent never drove you to school.
In those days, too, we carried books in our arms—backpacks weren’t a thing yet. For the life of me, I can’t imagine how I lugged the books I loved back and forth. Maybe that’s why today, even my purse is a backpack. I much prefer a hands-free stroll, arms swinging and a minimally-burdened, brisk stride no matter where I’m headed.
In elementary school days, a trip to the library was the highlight of my week. We’re talking about the public library, not the school library, now. This was a 20-minute drive from our home in southwest Little Rock to the heart of downtown. The Little Rock Public Library building that mom drove us to was at 7th and Louisiana, a modern concrete hulk of a building which was built on the land that had once housed its turn-of-the-century predecessor, a stately Charles Thompson design known as the Carnegie building. I developed my penchant for beautiful old brick, stone or wooden buildings later, and in a way I am glad I never had to say goodbye to the earlier version, as I’m sure I would have preferred its splendid hallowed halls, arches, nooks, and pillars.
I remember the public institution of my youth as all hard edges, glass and concrete, and smelly. Musty, and stale. The by-then county library system moved its new Main Library to the Fones building in 1997, in the gentrified River Market part of the city, almost a decade after I left my beloved hometown for California.
I recall regular trips to downtown Little Rock’s Main Library, because the deal was that you could check out six books at a time on your library card. As soon as I burned through my six books, I was begging to return to check out six more. You could borrow books for two weeks at a time. So, I would consume as many as I could, as often as I could get my mom to take me. Under the age of 12, a child could only obtain a library card with their parent. My mom accompanied each of us—my older sister and brother. My younger brother (eight years my junior) also became an avid reader although I don’t recall him going to the Public Library with us—that tradition of the older siblings had disappeared by then.
I also don’t recall getting recommendations for books to read from my mom or my teachers. But, what I do remember was roaming the rows and rows of children’s books, pulling out the interesting looking editions, examining the type face, the binding, the pictures inside, the number of pages, and scanning paragraphs in multiple chapters to see if the dialog, the subject and setting were something I would find captivating.
I was a fan of Beverly Cleary’s pesty little sister, “Ramona,” and survival adventures like Jean Craighead George’s “My Side of the Mountain.”
S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” was published in 1967 but would not have been age-appropriate for me since I would have been 8 years old then. But I’m sure I read it not long after it came out. It was my inclination to wander from the children’s section to the young adult section of the library, not because I was trying to “be big,” but because I just wasn’t interested in the “little kid books” anymore.
I have trace recollections of thinking that the big print and few pages in the children’s books were just not telling enough of a story for me. It was in the longer paragraphs, the more fully developed characters, the dramatic story arcs and compelling struggles and exploits found in the “bigger” books that lured me. This trend must have continued because by 4th grade, when I would have been nine years old, I read “Gone With the Wind,” the first time. I read it several times.
I remember doing this, because as like-attracts-like theories bore out, I was drawn to the kids in my class who were also voracious readers. In second grade, that was my good friend, Marion Byrd. In 4th grade, it was Patty Thomas. Patty and I used to read Scarlett O’Hara’s lines out loud to one another during recess, and spent hours that year reading back and forth and sharing our finds in Margaret Mitchell’s classic. Even I am impressed by the fact that we found the book in 4th grade, and I wonder now how it got on our radar. The only thing I can imagine is that it must have been trending with the 30th anniversary of its first publishing or the Hollywood movie premiere, 1936 and 1939, respectively, and bookshelves and librarians were lit up with attracting new readers to the resurgent GWTW phenomenon.
I was kind of a nerd back then, reading during recess, but that was not the kind word we used for such odd ducks. We were weirdos. The “smart kids.” The outcasts.
I guess it fit with my personality. I was a very one-on-one kind of friend, and I still am. I can spend hours talking and just being with someone with whom I share strong interests and a certain intellectual compatibility.
As a child, I was a very one-on-one kind of friend, and I still am. I can spend hours talking and just being with someone with whom I share strong interests and a certain intellectual compatibility.
It also helps me bond with a person if they are good with grammar. Perhaps because of that early reinforcement and praise, it became important to me to learn to string sentences together, to know what words meant, and to use them correctly. To this day, I am drawn to smart people who have extensive vocabularies and facile minds. No matter how much I enjoy a good conversationalist, however, because of my early training and interests, I still have to restrain myself from correcting those who insist on saying "her and I," "I should have went," and so on. At the same time, I am learning to not be so hard on myself: fish in a tree, how can that be? There is no need to be a mental giant. Just be "me."