I have a confession to make. I like to read Dear Abby. I’m not sure why, but there it is. I read it on uexpress, which now has a comment forum on each letter. There are many ‘regulars’ who comment – sometimes supporting Abby’s advice, sometimes offering different advice, and sometimes ridiculing Abby herself.
A recent letter on September 17th resulted in people claiming the letter was fake. This is a frequent claim, especially when it results in a plug for one of her pamphlets. Here’s the letter:
DEAR ABBY: I’m a 15-year-old girl. When I’m with the high school group of kids at my church, I try to extend myself and talk, but they never reciprocate much. I always have to try to think of something to say and be careful I don’t embarrass myself. Especially around guys, I feel awkward and self-conscious.
I feel OK about myself, but I still get nervous. Other girls find things to talk about to each other but not me, and guys never talk to me first, either. I don’t know if I’m doing something wrong or being too careful.
I’m an only child. I get along pretty well with adults, but I have a hard time with kids. I heard you have a booklet about these issues. If you think it might help me, how can I order it? — UNPOPULAR IN SACRAMENTO
Now, some of the reasons given for it being fake were potentially sound. How would a 15-year old girl have heard about Abby’s pamphlets? And if she had heard about them, why wouldn’t she just Google for information about them? For that matter, why wouldn’t she have just Googled for an answer to her question anyway?
There was one reason, though, that really got under my skin. It’s a reason given often when an underage letter writer is deemed “fake.” Here was one instance of it:
Dear Abby, Is it ethical to pretend that I’m a 15 year old girl who writes to you using words like “reciprocate” and “extending myself” and who actually spells the word “embarrass” correctly, and who asks about a booklet I’ve “heard” that you sell? Sign me: Peddling Books Under a Pseudonym
One person responded to that comment with:
“:D That’s what I thought too! I figured it was either Abby or the girl’s mom pretending to be the girl. I have a 15 year old who is an only child and she’s very intelligent but she doesn’t talk that way at all. I would, but not her.”
Yes, because the fact that you think your child is highly intelligent yet doesn’t speak that way means that no intelligent child would speak that way.
Another person said:
“No way in a small, unfortunately named town in Michigan did a 15 year old write this.“
This example of poor writing caused a lot of confusion since the original letter was from Sacramento – the doubter was referring to the town of Hell, Michigan. “No way in Hell did a 15 year old write this.”
My children are readers, and Jane, in particular, is a writer. They have impressive vocabularies and use them. They are also exceptional spellers. (And I would hope the average 15 year old would know how to use a spell-checker if they didn’t know how to spell ’embarrass’ anyway.) Jane has some trouble fitting in with some of her peers because (according to one of her friends), she doesn’t dumb down her language for those around her. It makes the other kids think she’s a little strange.
Yesterday, one of her teachers asked the class if anyone could think of a synonym for ‘valor’. She claimed that no one had been able to come up with one yet. Jane suggested ‘chivalry’. Everyone turned around and looked at her. The boy sitting next to her said, “Do you even know what that word means?” Her response, not geared toward winning many friends, was “Of course I know what it means. Do you think I would have used it if I didn’t?” Jane is thirteen.
In sixth grade, she got crosswise with one of her teachers at the beginning of the school year. After we talked through it, she decided (unbeknownst to me) to write a letter of apology to the teacher. When she told me about it later, she said the teacher had said thank you but not really responded to the content. I happened to have a parent teacher conference with several of the teachers the next day so asked her about it.
She made it clear that she believed I had written the letter because “no sixth grader would use big words and long sentences like that.” I, in turn, made it clear that there was currently one sixth grader who would and that I had not written the letter. She had actually dismissed Jane’s letter entirely because she didn’t believe a child was capable of communicating like that!
When Daryl was in third grade, a girl on his Destination Imagination team was making a sign that was to say “Flower Shop.” Only, she had written ‘shop’ as ‘shope’. All the other kids told her there was no ‘E’ in ‘shop’. Daryl walked by and said, “If you want to spell it with an ‘E’ at the end, then it needs to have 2 P’s.” His team manager was blown away. She now turns to him for all spelling questions.
Surprisingly, the tendency to dismiss people with solid writing abilities is not limited to child writers. When my husband re-enrolled in college in his late twenties, his English Composition professor actually accused him of cheating on his papers.
Personally, I think this is a sad commentary on our society as a whole. Do we really expect so little of each other? My oldest two children had both maxed out the reading level grade equivalency by third grade (12.9 – equivalent to a graduating high school senior). When they would brag that they read at the level of a high school senior, their Daddy would say, “No it means the average high school senior only reads at the level you do.” He took it more as an indication of how poorly others read over how well our children did.
We have always spoken to our children the same way we speak to each other. I remember talking to Jane when she was 18 months old in such a way that my mother-in-law’s husband asked, “Do you actually expect her to understand you?” He was laughing. But my perspective was this. When do you know when to stop the baby talk? How do you gauge when the child is ready for more complex conversation? I always felt it was best to just talk, and explain if need be.
Do I think my kids are exceptional? Of course I do. Do I think they are the only ones out there? Of course not! That’s why responses like that above irk me. There are a lot of children out there like mine. Shoot, the thirteen or fourteen year old daughter of a friend of mine is learning to write in Japanese Kanji. So maybe instead of dismissing a well-spoken child as a fraud, people should consider that there are still people out there learning how to maximize our rich language.