Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Kindergarten me

"Gonna use my arms
Gonna use my legs
Gonna use my style
Gonna use my sidestep
Gonna use my fingers
Gonna use my, my, my imagination

'Cause I'm gonna make you see
there's nobody else here
No one like me

I'm special
so special
I gotta have some of your attention
give it to me."

~ The Pretenders "Brass in Pocket"

Last night I was talking to my sister, Deanna. Because she is an awesome sister, she picked up the kids for me yesterday evening since I had to teach late at the medical school. Deanna is an educator and, like my parents, is hard-wired with that patience for teaching kids and, especially like my parents, has that special ingredient for making them feel good about themselves.
She was also a rock star student growing up.

I'd say that I was definitely a more-than-decent student growing up. I won't go so far as to say that I achieved rock star academic status, though. But my sister Deanna? Man. When we were in school, she was valedictorian-salutatorian smart. She was straight-A-no-not-never-a-B smart. And me? Eh. . .not so much.

I still think this rock star student thing involved some kind of genetic coding that I didn't quite get. Like Deanna and our baby sister JoLai were those kinds of students for as long as I could remember. I spent half of high school in shared classes with JoLai because she was just too damn gifted to be in the ones for her grade. My brother got the luxury of experiencing the same with Deanna, which for him was slightly worse since she was two grades below him instead of just one like JoLai was to me.

At some point, my parents would barely even look at their report cards. Especially JoLai's. Even though Deanna was brainy, she has always been a social butterfly. The only times she ever got in trouble for anything on her progress reports related solely to conduct. But by the time my parents reached JoLai, it had been perfected. She was smart and knew how to close her mouth and do her work. Imagine that.

Me and my rock star sisters
And so. Last night Deanna and I sat at my kitchen table talking. She'd stuck around after I got home to hang out with the boys as she often does and was gracious enough to finish up homework and such with Isaiah. I smiled as I watched her teaching him about people like Rosa Parks and Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who she may have had to remind me was the first person to do successful open heart surgery.

Just maybe.

Anyways. After all that knowledge she dropped on the boys, we started talking about what it was like for us growing up.

Deanna squinted her eyes and said, "I think I always believed that I was smart, you know? I really did."

That made perfect sense to me. I can't say that during those years I felt that way. I did always know that my parents had high expectations. But I'm pretty certain that I didn't feel quite as strongly as she about my ability to deliver on those expectations.

"I'm not sure I felt that way," I replied. "In fact, I'm sure I didn't. I didn't think I was dumb or that I wasn't able. But I'm pretty sure there wasn't a dialogue going on in my head telling me how smart I was--at least not one that was coming from me."

Deanna stacked up some papers and slid them into Isaiah's folder. He gave her a quick hug and ran off to the playroom with Zachary.  She looked over at me and started chuckling to herself. "Girl, one time when I was in the third grade, this boy said to me, 'I'm the smartest boy in this whole school!' I looked him dead in his face and said, 'So what. I'm the smartest person in this whole school!'" We both cracked up laughing.

"I don't remember you being such a jerk about being smart."

"Naaaah, I wasn't. But I did know I was bright. I'm not sure how it happened but I really did."

"Hmmm. . . . I wish I had felt that way. Ugghh! Especially in middle school. Now that? That was rough."

Deanna teaches middle school so we both nodded knowingly.

"You know. . funny you should mention middle school," she spoke with a nostalgic smile. "Daddy had warned me about middle school and how tough it could be. He told me that kids from other schools would be there and I may be challenged by the fact that a lot of other smart kids were there, too."

I nodded and listened as she went on.

"And you know? I distinctly remember it. Three weeks into being there it dawned on me. 'I'm smarter than all these kids up in here. I get stuff that they don't get. Damn.'"  We both laughed out loud.

But even though we were laughing, it was true. She was smart like that. She did always seem to "get" hard things and master hard concepts surprisingly better than her peers.

I thought about her words and what they meant. I thought about the fact that we had grown up in the same house and that despite all of those things, I never really felt that. Not about being smart, per se. "You know, Dee? That's a powerful thing for a student to have, don't you think? An internal belief that they are smart and capable. I want my kids to feel that way." 

She smiled at me from across the table. "They will."

We sat in silence for a few moments. I reflected some more on our upbringing and how different we all were as kids and even as adults. My mind began to wander and a scene from many years ago popped into my head crystal clear.

Middle school me.
I was in 8th grade and I was preparing to audition for this drama club. Essentially, I'd gotten interested in acting and drama mostly because my best childhood friend had been involved in lots of theater. She was the one with the acting chops, and I had just sort of come along for the ride. Eventually, I started having fun and since it allowed us to spend more time together, I stuck with it for quite some time.


This particular situation was different. This drama company, though for children, was based out of Loyola Marymount University--so the children auditioning were from all over Los Angeles. These kids had headshots and composites and video demo reels and experience. They had training and resumes and all kinds of swagger that me and my just-got-dropped-off-by-my-Inglewood-mama-and-that's-it butt didn't have AT ALL.

And so I sat. And I watched. Kid after kid. Projecting their voices from their well-trained little diaphragms and waving their jazz hands. Some even having the ability to bring themselves to tears.


For a few moments I felt nervous. Me with my skinny, underdeveloped body and awkward, oversized glasses. Up against them with their shiny curls and high-end clothes and gleaming braces and glossy photographs. But then. . .  something happened. I remember it like it happened four seconds ago. A voice. In my head. But instead of this voice in my head telling me that I was smart or the smartest or bright or the brightest, it told me something else.

"Kimberly, you're special. You have something that is uniquely you. And not one of these kids has what you have. Not one. Even if they are awesome and talented. You have something else that can't be duplicated. You're the only you there is. And you? You're special."

Now. I know that sounds crazy, but I swear to you it's true. I stepped up onto that stage knowing that every single one of those children and their stage mamas was watching. I ignored that bright light beaming in my face and felt all of those anxious nerves connected to knowing that nearly a hundred plus eyes were focusing on me in that dark theater trickling down into a puddle at my feet.

And so. There I stood. Ninety pounds soaking wet with a body that rivaled Olive Oyl hearing that word over and over in my head. Special. Special. Special. I pulled my narrow shoulders back as that giant spotlight blinded me from anything and everyone in the room. And in that moment. . . .I believed it. I believed that I was special.

Damn, I did.

So without the jazz hands or the forced tears, I lifted up my voice and my ah hah moment over that entire auditorium.  Langston Hughes. Yep. I recited a poem by him that I had learned a few years before. Nope. No special scene from some well known play. Nope. No Romeo and Juliet or MacBeth or any such thing. Just a short, simple and meaningful poem by the poet Langston Hughes.

Special. Special. Special.

My heart was pounding and I could hear it because that room had fallen unusually silent. I paid close attention to the intonation of my voice and the meaning of those words as I spoke. Not overdoing it or trying to be someone I wasn't. Just. . . .doing me. Special me. In that moment I convinced myself that my uniquely me way of doing this would work and that even though I didn't have a headshot or a composite or a demo reel. . .that I wasn't competing with them at all. I told myself that . . I know it sounds silly but. . .I told myself that I was special. I really did. And . . . .I believed that what I had to say was worth every single person in that room hearing. I sure did.

Then something funny happened. Everyone in that room believed it, too.

Reciting that poem that day was a pivotal moment in my life. It's bizarre because although the people in that room stood their feet and gave me thunderous applause. . . . .what I remember the most is that. . .for the first time, I had already given it to myself. That felt better than anything else. Even better than their standing ovation. It really did.

Yeah. . . .

I snapped out of that daydream and looked up at Deanna. She listened intently as I told her that story. Then I finally said quietly, "You know? I don't think I really thought I was smart. Maybe later on I did. . . .but not back then I didn't. But what I did believe was. . .  was that I was special. I. . .I really did." I patted my chest but then immediately felt a little embarrassed for saying it.

Deanna was so gracious. "I know you did."

I was so glad that she understood. But then she always has gotten things fast.

I let out a big sigh. "Man. . . . I hope my kids feel that way, too."

"They will," she replied softly, "They will."

 As spoken by an eighty-eight pound eighth-grader:

"Democracy will not come
this year
nor ever
through compromise 
and fear

I have as much right
as the other fellow has
to stand on my own two feet
and own the land

I tire so of hearing people say,
'Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.'
I do not need my freedom when I'm dead
I cannot live on tomorrow's bread

is a strong seed
in a great need

I live here, too.
I want freedom
just as you."

~ Langston Hughes
Happy Wednesday. And be special, okay? I tell my children--and myself--that often.

Now playing on my mental iPod. . . .


  1. Give a sista some warning next time... :) **shuffles off to get some Kleenex**

  2. I am wordless. I am in awe. It is clear you all were confident children growing up. Believing in yourself is an important mantra...I was one of those shy kids who struggled in school. I would so often try to feel that "I could do it" but as soon as I opened my mouth I would freeze.

    This was so beautiful and that poem. I can just imagine a little girl standing straight and tall. Reciting and the hush over the room. Oh the image.

  3. Oh, my. This brought back memories for me of my seventh grade year, new at a fancy prep school in Atlanta. I was one of the smartest, but back then it wasn't cool to be smart -- I was, rather, mocked. It took me a long time to feel and know I was special.

    Oh, my. This brought me to tears -- your story, that Hughes poem. Oh, my.

  4. Okay, I started crying at "And I believed that what I had to say was worth every single person in that room hearing..." Three beautiful, awesome sisters there.


  5. Your posts make me happy. I'm always touched in some way when reading them. I know that feeling you write of, and I want my boys to experience and feel it as well. My sons are both intelligent and special in different ways, with the oldest being the classic smart and focused kid, and the youngest just as smart, but a little less focused. But what he lacks in focus he makes up for in personality. I just want them both to have the special feeling you and your sisters had, despite your differences.

  6. It has taken me literally all day long (Owen's been here) to read this to the end and I'm so glad I did.
    This says so much about you, about your family, about how parents raise children, about knowing in your heart when you are doing something that you were meant to do, about self-belief.
    SisterDoctor- You are amazing.
    This makes me love you more.
    Yes. You ARE special. I feel honored to know you and thank-you for writing and for sharing yourself and today, for giving us that poem.
    Hell yes.

  7. That picture of you in your great big glasses is just wonderful, speaks volumes...

  8. Please, oh, please can your parents give a class! All 4 of your are the best!

  9. Where can I submit an application to be adopted by your family? Please... :)

  10. That poem you recited as a young girl is just beautiful. I can just imagine you speaking it so proudly. I second the last person who wants to be adopted by your parents. You seem to have an awesome immediate and extended family. All this goes to show how a little special smartness ingrained in children can have a profound impact on them as adults. You are still very very special Dr Manning. Joanne

  11. This is beautiful and reads as a testament to the power of parental love. Yes, when you were up on that stage it was all you, but from an early age I know your parents instilled in you the belief that you could do anything. Your feelings about not being gifted relative to your sisters surely was of your own doing and never something your parents made you feel.

    The 8th grade was also a pivotal moment in my life. Barely passing classes, the class clown and well known in the principal's office from all the fist fights, my dad sat me down with a simple talk. No threats, vowing to accept whatever I would be as long as I tried my best (which we both knew wasn't occurring). I was able to rise to his challenge because of what had been instilled within me--just like you.

    Don't worry about Isaiah & Zach. They'll have all the self confidence they need. And if there should be a pivotal moment come the 8th grade they're in the best of hands

  12. You know what? I came back over here to reread this wonderful post and post another comment. This time I savored the photos. You look exactly the same as that little tiny girl one that is first, and I have to tell you that I believe we have the same glasses in middle school. They were astonishing, no?

  13. Sometimes kids have that "I am someone special" feeling despite a non-stable upbringing. I envy your sister-love. I love Hughes' poem and am thrilled that here in the GA curriculum in Language Arts he is studied. I did too--what is wild about your readers is that I was at a prep school starting out in 7th grade in Los Angeles and I went to Loyola Marymount my first year of college and now I am in GA.


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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