Written by Judy Epstein Thursday, 08 December 2011 00:00
I used to feel so smart! When my children were young, doing their homework at the dining room table, they would turn to me with questions about everything.
“How many “s”es are there in the word Mississippi?”
“Does the Latin word ‘versus’ have an English meaning?
“How many syllables does the word “syllable” have?
And when they asked, I knew the answers. It was win/win — I felt smart, and my kids were impressed. Even their friends were impressed.
“Wow, your mom is so smart! My mother doesn’t know anything.”
I felt the need to jump in. “I doubt that’s true. Why do you say that?”
“Well, like last week’s geography question. I asked my mom what was the capital of Russia, and she said, ‘So many things have changed since I was a kid, I don’t know any more. Let’s look it up.’ I had to get out an Atlas, whatever that is!”
A few days later, I found myself next to this child’s mother at a PTA meeting, so I mentioned the incident.
“I know. He thinks I’m so ignorant. But it’s working, because at least now he knows how to use a reference book, instead of just asking me.”
Maybe I wasn’t as clever as I thought. I decided to give this new strategy a try. The following night, my budding geographer asked me, “Mom, what’s that river you told us about, the only big one that flows North? It’s in Asia somewhere.” You mean the Nile, and it’s in Africa, I ALMOST said. But I didn’t. Instead, I said, “Hmmm. Is there a river like that? How unusual!”
“You know it! I KNOW you know it. You were talking about it, just last week.”
“Was I? I can’t remember. But if you can remember that, then what was the name of the river?”
“I don’t know! You’re the one who knows stuff like that.”
“Well, not any more. You know my brain keeps getting older… Let’s look it up.”
There followed several minutes with my child heaving the big book onto our wobbly table; turning the large pages so energetically I expected to hear ripping sounds any second; narrow avoidance of paper cuts; and eventually the triumphant proclamation: “It’s the Nile! How could you not remember that, Mom, it’s only four letters long!”
I was proud of this clever new strategy. Whenever my children had questions, it turned out I had “forgotten.” I forgot about fractions, and what the number under the line was called; I forgot all about square roots; I knew nothing about the Civil War, or which were the original 13 American colonies; which was bigger, atoms or molecules; or even the names of the major food groups. (Well, they really have changed the food groups, no shame there.)
It hurt, but I even pretended I couldn’t remember the meanings of words.
“Mom, what does ‘egregious’ mean?”
“Oh gosh, I forget.”
“You can’t have forgotten that, you called my brother that just last week.”
“Not your brother, just his behavior – I mean, did I? I wonder what I meant.”
“Something bad, of course. But I have to use it in a sentence to show I know what it means.”
“Then I guess you’d better look it up.”
It got so that my children even believed I could have forgotten the names of the Beatles. (“What’s that drummer’s name, again? I think it starts with a G.”) I overheard one boy saying to the other, “Don’t bother asking Mom. She’s so old, she’s forgotten everything.”
And so, eventually, my children discovered the atlas; the history book; the dictionary.
I felt clever, once more.
Until this year. My high schooler was planning to stay up late watching a movie marathon at a friend’s house …the night before he was scheduled to re-take the SAT. Overhearing this plan, I ventured the opinion that staying up till three in the morning before a big test might not be the best idea.
“Because the brain cannot do its best work when it is tired.”
“What do you know?” retorted my child. “You can’t even remember that the Nile is a river in Africa. I had to teach you how to do long division! You don’t know anything! Why should I listen to you?”
What could I tell him? That I’m really quite clever, I’ve just been faking being stupid, all these years? I had dug this trap all by myself.
Maybe I’m not so clever, after all.