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To My Younger Self Who Teachers Said Was ‘Too Sick to Be Smart’

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Old Friend,

You were the one people called smart. There was nothing you couldn’t do. Your eighth-grade science teacher told your parents he had “nothing left to teach you.” Your English teachers thought you wrote at a college level. You were accepted into a competitive private all-girls high school of your choice and showed up on the first day of ninth grade full of determination while wearing flower earrings and pink lip gloss with your uniform.

What changed?

The teachers, the school, the students, the work — it was all new — and you started to crumble. There were cracks in your foundation to begin with hidden in your veins in the form of an immune disease that slept like a dragon. Nerve damage stopped your stomach from working, a disease caused mucus to fill your lungs and your new teachers chipped away at the cracks over time out of malice and spite with something to prove.

Some people say they aren’t good with change, but you never understood that. How can you not be good with something that happens whether you want it to or not? Your best friend told you change is like a wave, and you have to fight it just a little if you want to stay above the surface — just like you had to fight the ocean in South Carolina when you were 14. Burned, peeling, sun-warmed and full of seawater and lemonade — those were the last good weeks.

You could taste your future even though you were so young — a world-renowned university then medical school. You told me last year that lemonade still tastes like “the maybes” to you and that you can remember the taste of blood in your mouth when your family was driving back from South Carolina. Blood and bile and spit, and as soon as the car pulled into your driveway back home, you were on your knees throwing up a fountain of red onto the neighbor’s fence.

Two weeks later, you could taste blood again. You felt stomach cramps that you thought were butterflies because of the French test you had that day, and then your brother found you cocooned on the floor of your room in a puddle of red vomit and sweat when you should have been downstairs eating toast with peanut butter and parroting French verbs to your best friend over the phone.

I didn’t see you for weeks after that. You came back to school sometimes, pale and ashen with arms covered in the scars from needles. I visited you once in the hospital that summer when you were thin and choking on reassuring words for me and on the feeding tube running down the back of your throat.

I barely saw you in 10th grade, but when I did, you had gained weight from the steroids treating your stomach but harming everything else. You were feverish, and angry, covered in rashes and barely smiling. The flower earrings were gone. So was the lip gloss. And you walked around lost and in hoodies three sizes too big in an attempt to hide yourself and your insecurities.

In 11th grade, I watched you morph back into your old self, a butterfly emerging from a cocoon of pounds gained from medicine and doubts thrust at you by teachers who didn’t think that you could be simultaneously smart and sick.

Who says you can’t be both? I would ask as we walked home together, but you would shake your head and say that you couldn’t be both. And I knew you would cry yourself to sleep that night. I watched your grades slip — the smartest girl with enviable wit and an easy smile was gone. She was replaced by a timid one with a disease-ravaged body who couldn’t find the balance between health and school because you had been told by those meant to nourish your intelligence that such a balance didn’t exist. You avoided your assignments out of fear: If your teachers said you were too sick and stupid to do them, then why would you think any differently?

In 12th grade, you started it with me in a coffee shop. We had friendship bracelets and were both bitter but determined, and you said with a glint in your eye I had not seen for so many years that you just wanted to graduate to prove that you could at least do that one thing right. Even graduating was a fight: “She’s too sick to be smart,” “She’ll never get into college,” “She should drop my class,” “We cannot keep accommodating her illnesses,” “She will fail,” “College would be a waste of money” and “Is she faking her illness?”

Each snide comment and insensitive remark from the staff broke you down a little bit more, but you had learned to build yourself back up now. I watched as all the good in you was replaced with something vindictive. We graduated high school with you glaring at everyone you met, wearing all black and spiked earrings and talking about wanting tattoos and more piercings and maybe blue hair.

But look at you now, friend. You shed the high school that said you couldn’t, and you are starting to learn that maybe you can do more. When I see you, this is something you refuse to acknowledge, but I can feel the hope radiating from you like you can taste the maybes in lemonade.

You ask, “What if some things are meant to stay broken?” And I tell you that you were never broken to begin with. You were made sloppily, perhaps, assembled with haste and missing a thing or two, but those missing pieces can be filled. Not with the medicine and blood plasma and antibodies they should be filled with, but maybe with self-confidence and a smile or two. You can fill them yourself — I’ll help you.

Your smile used to burn me and others like the South Carolina sun burned you. Now all we see are frowns and smirks and tears — still tears. You tell me and everyone else that you haven’t cried in years, but at night your walls still tremble with sobs as you try to get fitful hours of sleep despite the pain and discomfort that plagues you.

Even though you made it through high school, where you were told you couldn’t and shouldn’t by teachers who you went to for reassurance of intelligence and potential, you still wonder why you’re fighting every day for things that are so easy for others. That one success was not enough; it was you breaking away from discrimination and ignorance, but you still don’t see it as a triumph.

You wonder why you have arthritis even though you’re barely 20. You wonder why you cough up blood and mucus almost daily, you wonder why your nose bleeds for hours on end without stopping and you wonder why breathing is hard and your heartbeat is irregular and why you have daily migraines.

Your vomit up everything you eat. You can’t walk up a flight of stairs without coughing. You get infections that last for weeks on end, and you are horribly underweight from the diseases that destroy you from the inside out. Breakfast is pills, lunch is Gatorade and ginger ale and pills and dinner is pills and whatever food you can choke down so that your new friends at college don’t worry too much. Your grades are high, but the higher they get, the more stuck you are on how you were mistreated in high school.

You need to move on. It’s time to let go. The teachers who didn’t teach you anything except how to discriminate against yourself for your invisible illnesses taught you that out of ignorance and malice. They don’t know you or your potential. You are, and will always be, smart despite being sick. No matter what your teachers in high school wrote in aggressive emails and yelled over the phone, intelligence and health are not correlated. They couldn’t see you, cowering behind the hospital visits and brain fog, and they didn’t want to try.

But I do see you — behind the hospital visits and hours spent vomiting and tearful admissions of pain. You will grow up to be everything you ever thought you would be the last time you drank a tall glass of lemonade. Your tears will not drown you the way you always thought they might; they will help you afloat on the ocean that you compare to change and carry you to the shore safely.

You’re full of determination and fight — mucus and bile and medicine, too — but those pale in comparison to your resilience. You will grow and change and become something more. Your high school teachers who scoffed at the idea of an invisible disability will stay narrow-minded and ignorant. Their offensive comments were not personal; their obliviousness is their own doing. And it isn’t your job to try to educate them the way you wished they had.

You’re more than your illnesses, countless though they may seem. Their names don’t comprise your identity. You have a name, entirely your own, that does encompass your poor health but also so much more. Your health will never define you so long as you keep trying to stay afloat.


Your Future Self

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Lead photo by Thinkstock Images

Originally published: November 28, 2016
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