Pretty Smart by Liesl Shurtliff
I struggled to read up until about 3rd grade. This might sound strange coming from someone who’s written a book and now loves reading. I’ll admit, I feel a little self-conscious when I hear other writers talk about what voracious readers they’ve always been and how they always knew they wanted to be a writer. Sure, there were a few books I adored once I got the hang of reading, like The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner, and anything by Roald Dahl and Shel Silverstein, but in the beginning nothing was good because I couldn’t read well.
I remember when I got assigned a reading tutor in second grade, some high school student who would come get me in the middle of the class, and then everyone knew it was time for Liesl’s remedial reading lessons. The stupid labels flew at my forehead. Ping, ping. Stupid. As if that wasn’t bad enough, my mother gave me what was considered then a “boy” haircut. Here comes the ugly label. Ping, ping, ping. Stupid Ugly. (Note to parents: Do not do this to your daughter until she is old enough to drive herself to the hair salon, or at least hold a curling iron!)
Thank heavens I was good at some things, like music and dance. At least I had a tiny corner of my life where I could feel confident. I clung to those corners. I suffered through school and couldn’t wait to get home and turn on some music and just spin around in my living room until I was dizzy. Let all those labels fly off me for a while.
I remember in 9th grade, my Mom came home from a parent/teacher conference and said, “Your science teacher says you’re very intelligent, but you’ve convinced yourself that you’re not, so you don’t try.” I shrugged this off as adult mumbo jumbo manipulation stuff and kept going as usual. I never got bad grades, (Well, there was that D in Home Ec, but come on. The expectations were so low, even my remedial intelligence was insulted.) But I didn’t try as hard as I could have in school. I never studied hard for tests or worked extra hard on any assignments, because I didn’t think it would make any difference. I was who I was and I was fine with my lot in life. And shouldn’t that be okay? Shouldn’t it be okay to be not as smart or as pretty as the rest? Yes. It absolutely should. And I did fine, really. I got into college on talent scholarship for music and dance. I was good at those things. Who needs to be smart when you can sing and dance?
But looking back from where I stand now, my heart aches for that part of my childhood, for my own psychological mumbo jumbo. As an adult I recognize that my struggle to read was a combination of being one of the youngest in the class, moving and switching schools four times in two years, and my parents’ divorce. We were okay, though. I made it through just fine and I know there are so many kids worse off. Still, I regret that I didn’t try harder. I regret that I didn’t believe my 9th grade science teacher.
I’ve heard some say that our books are emotional mirrors of ourselves. Perhaps that is why I wrote a story about a small, awkward boy who is born into a world of powerful labeling, where your destiny is set right from the beginning with the pronouncement of your name. Poor Rump. He really got the short end of the stick in the destiny department, but then there’s more to him than meets the eye—or the ear. He just doesn’t know it. (Yet.)
It’s natural, I suppose, for us to label and categorize people. Black, white. Pretty, ugly. Smart, stupid. Rich, poor. And lots of in-betweens and variations. Maybe we can’t stop all the labeling that goes on in the world. We certainly can’t keep others from throwing labels at us, but we can realize that it’s the labeling of ourselves that holds the most power.
If I could go back to my child self, I’d tell little Liesl that it’s okay if you don’t feel smart now. It’s even okay if you don’t understand things that everyone else does. That’s not how it will always be, because you’re full of unique powers beyond your own imagination, and no one can see these things except yourself. I hope all children can find that power that only they can see. I hope they all figure out the truth:
You’re pretty smart.
Liesl Shurtliff was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, with the mountains for her playground. Just like Rump, Liesl was shy about her name, growing up. Not only did it rhyme with weasel, she could never find it on any of those personalized key chains in gift shops. But over the years she’s grown to love having an unusual name—and today she wouldn’t change it for the world!
Before she became a writer, Liesl graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in music, dance, and theater. She now lives in Chicago with her husband and three young children, where she still dreams of the mountains. Rump is her first novel.