My goddaughter scares me more than anyone in the world. Her name is Adelina, and she’ll tell you she’s “five-and-one-sixth-years-old.” That isn’t what scares me, though. I call her mei-mei (Mandarin for “little sister”), and she calls me “Uncle Alex.” She loves Frozen and Neil Gaiman books and has an unhealthy obsession with SpongeBob. These also do not scare me; actually, they’re how we bond a lot of the time (especially the SpongeBob).
When I say that she scares me, I mean that every time I watch her count or confidently scrawl her name with a fistful of crayon on some new surface, my heart pounds, and I break into a sweat. I’ve been in car accidents and fistfights with men I had no business fighting, but I’ve never shaken with such terror as when I’ve watched her reprogram an iPad. She’s so very smart, and I’m old enough now to know how dangerous and miserable it can be to be smart these days.
Some time ago, Mattel released a Barbie playbook in which Barbie works as a video game programmer. The plot, however, is that she sketches the images and backgrounds and has two (male) counterparts do the actual programming. Adelina loves Barbie so terribly much. Her Barbie books are all inscribed with her sharp, unpracticed signature, one of the only places she’s allowed to leave it.
My goddaughter scares me because she starts public school in Florida next year, and I’m still not entirely sure how I survived that experience. Her father made it with a blue-collar pedigree, and her mother only managed to go back after the childbirth scars had sealed. With all respect to the wonderful educators who are still my friends and doing their best within that system, it’s one I’ve seen take girls like Adelina and break them like a square of chocolate.
When she was two, I started a college fund for her because that’s how we brighten futures for young people these days. And then I read about how one in four women on college campuses will be sexually assaulted, how the problem continues to go unaddressed by administrations, and how organizations like the Princeton Review (a former employer of mine) refuse to publish the statistics. And I’m scared that it’ll be the privilege of my money that brings her in contact with her attacker – that my hope to give her an easier time than I had will in some roundabout way lead her to be a tally mark on a report sheet (or worse still, an estimate on all-too-common non-reported assaults).
She’s part Latina, part German, part Norwegian, all dark-skin, brass, and swagger. Or at least she is until her grandparents order her to ease down, until her daycare officials tell her parents that she’s too argumentative. Then she stares at her toes, at shoes she already knows how to tie, and I’m scared that she’ll actually learn her lesson. I was never fed that garbage about how children should be seen and not heard, but I always wonder if she’s been so lucky.
Every time her dad, my best friend of fifteen years, says for her to give me a hug and a kiss, I stop her. I ask if that’s what she would like to do. Only once has she ever said “No” and only once have I ever refused her affection. I looked at her that day, dead in the eye, and said, “I love you, mei-mei. No one but you has the right to tell you who to hug or kiss.” And yet, I’m still scared that every time she shows me an ounce of affection, it’s more out of some sense of obligation than any real desire. She doesn’t yet know what terms like “bodily autonomy” and “consent” mean, and I’m scared that I might be the one who’ll need to tell her one day, possibly one day too late.
Remembering that a gray-haired friend of mine with maybe a few too many old-fashioned notions said to me recently that puberty can make boys stupid and make girls act stupid, I begin to cower at the sight of the doorframe by her bedroom, the one with the notches to mark her growth. It’s so easy right now. A new picture book, a SpongeBob plushie, and she smiles until the moment I tell her that I sadly have to leave, catch a plane back up north, where I’ll be too far away to see her every day.
I’m scared that those little comforts won’t work for her first heartbreak and that I’ll be stupid enough to try them.
She already tells me that monsters aren’t real. She’s sassy about it, too, hand on a cocked little hip, shaking her head like I should really know better by now. So I’m scared to tell her puffed, sobbing face that she is wrong, that they are real. They’re just usually better-looking and nicer at first than she remembers.
I love her parents almost as much as I do her, and I’m (arrogantly) scared every day that they’ll screw it all up. They can remember food and books and a sense of moral reasoning: that’s the easy stuff. I’m scared they’ll forget to slip a reminder in after the second bedtime story of the night that it’s never good to hide how smart you are, and that there is no circumstance in which she should pretend to be anything less than the somewhat scary young genius that I’m fairly certain she’s been from the earliest moments of her sentience.
When she’s wrong and gets corrected, she smiles and says, “Okay, thanks!” and scurries off, appreciative and just a little closer to actually knowing everything. Her teenage years may or may not be more terrifying than most movies’ depictions of war.
Her future is literally made of chances for her rambunctiousness to sour, her curiosity to wane. She’s a smart girl in a world where that’s too often treated like a contradiction. The smartest girls are the ones who thrive, but they’re also the ones that others fight hardest against. I’m scared to tell her it’s lonely being smart and courageous and her, but that it’d be a damn shame for her to try being anything else.
In the days after she was born, they put her in a big plastic box until they were comfortable she could manage outside of it. I wasn’t scared then. I was patient and just waited. A few days later, I held her and promised her with all the sincerity I could muster that the world outside wasn’t so bad, that it all was going to be worth the trouble. I told her closed little eyes that there was nothing to be afraid of.
She listened, it seems. She dives into the deep ends of pools and loves to show off in front of people and tell them everything: how her day’s been going, what she thinks of your outfit, why her outfit is so much better, her exact opinion of whatever she ate earlier in the week. She’ll climb anything with a foothold. She’ll make friends with kids that look nothing like her and remember their names when she doesn’t see them again until weeks or months later. She even giggles at the horror movies her dad and I show her like they’re cartoons made just to amuse her.
She isn’t afraid of anything in the world, and that’s exactly what scares me. I only hope that in the end, she’s the one who’s right.[Headline image: The photograph shows an Asian-presenting child of about ten years old. She has long dark hair with a leopard-patterned headband. She is wearing glasses and a lime green top. She is holding up her hands, looking away from the camera, and shouting.]