And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.
Getting up in the morning, turning on your computer, and seeing your child’s photo on your Facebook news feed is no longer unusual. It was unusual, back when I first joined up, however many years ago, thrilled to be able to join this soon-to-be social media giant which would allow me to see my kids, two in college, one on his own, the fourth still living with me and too young to be on Facebook, but I could see her every day. Now, waking up to these pictures isn’t typically heart-stopping, show-stopping, drop-your-coffee-mug stunning.
But it was, for me, this week.
My third child, my oldest daughter, Katie, posted photos of herself. Photos she’d even taken herself, because, she said in her post, “Gorgeous day out and I’m feeling cute too – so on my brief walk around campus for a break, I took a mini photo shoot at my favorite spot. Cypress Lake. Am I a model or a mathematician?”
I looked at the photos and my heart stopped, the show that is my life stopped, and I clutched my favorite coffee mug, a gift from this particular child, so I wouldn’t break it. I can never ever break it.
Katie, like all of my kids, was unusual. I could never find my children in all of the popular parenting books. Katie was born pre-STEM education, when, if a girl was good at math or science, she tended to hide it. Katie blew the top off of math, and most other subjects too, and with my encouragement, she didn’t tend to hide it. She didn’t show off either. But this light wasn’t being hid under a bushel, if there was anything I could do about it.
Her favorite toys were things she could count and put into groups and add and subtract. She had an abacus, something I bought at a rummage sale simply because I liked the sound it made when I shook it, but I think she actually used it. As time went on and her love of math grew, I haunted schools holding book sales and bought all their old math textbooks, which Katie then worked on…for fun.
At the end of Katie’s second grade year, the school called me and Katie’s dad in for a conference. They told us they felt she should be skipped ahead at least two grades. They suggested going from second grade to fourth grade, and fourth grade to sixth grade, and then we’d see where she should go from there. In general, they told us, the human brain needs 17 repetitions before a new skill is learned. Katie took one repetition.
ONE. Is it even a repetition if it’s singular?
But we said no. We also reminded the school that they had the responsibility of teaching everyone at their level, and they were just going to have to find a way to educate Katie while keeping her with her friends and other kids her age. It’s not a decision I regret.
There were moments over the years, of course, mostly boy-related. The boys knew she was smart and asked for her help in math, but not out on dates. She often despaired of having a boyfriend, and I kept trying to put hope out there. Wait til high school…wait til college…wait til grad school…Oh, man, the goobers and the goofs. Grad school even produced a boy I called the garden gnome. I don’t have to say anything else – he was a garden gnome. I worried sometimes that my daughter, who had the best smarts ever, wouldn’t be able to find her happiness.
One of my favorite memories is on her first day as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She texted me after her first class (I think – I can’t remember when cell phones came into the picture! It might be that she called me or sent me an email or messaged me on that new-fangled Facebook) and said, “Mom, it’s sunny and warm and I just had my first class and I’m sitting right by Lake Mendota and I’m drinking a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte. I’m soooooo happy.”
That’s what I wanted to hear.
As college went on, Katie was encouraged to go into academia, something she hadn’t considered at first. Eventually, she went that route, and one day, on that fateful Facebook and its messenger, she told me about a math professor, one of the few female math professors she’d had. “Mom,” she said, “she’s beautiful. She wears these amazing clothes. She’s got gorgeous long hair. And she has kick-ass boots. I want to do that. I want to be her.”
The August before COVID hit, right after graduating with her PhD in math from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, Katie left to teach math at the University of Louisiana – Lafayette. She was married to a man she met right after graduating with her Master’s degree – not the garden gnome. But someone who loves her for who she is, and respects her for who she is. I haven’t seen her since that August. It’s been very, very hard.
On this morning this week, I opened up Facebook and the first thing I saw was my daughter. And those photos. And there she was. Someone who taught math at a university. She has gorgeous long wavy blonde hair. She wore an amazing outfit and kick-ass boots. Kick-ass boots! And…she looked happy.
My daughter did it. She followed her passion. She’s using her smarts, not hiding them. She’s beautiful. And she’s happy.
(Do I wish she could be happy closer to home, and not on a campus with alligators? Well, sure.)
That smile. She’s happy.
And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.