How My Father Taught Me I Was Smart

If there’s one thing I am always going to remember about my dad it’s the way he always said my name when he wanted my help. Not lingering over each individual syllable: Guh-bree-elle, but a rushed, quick whisper, each syllable scrunched into the next. It was a conspiratorial beckon, an inside joke—delivered in a stage whisper loud enough to carry three rooms away, usually accompanied with a quick flutter of his hand.

I would look up from my book or my basketball or my coloring or my Barbies. “Huh?”

“Need your help,” he’d say.

When I trotted up to him he’d always have a document on the table or an email open on the screen or a jumbled, handwritten scrawl of words on a stack of fax papers.

“What does this say?” he’d ask. I’d read it.

“Is this correct?” he’d ask. I’d add a comma.

“How do you spell ‘discipline’?” he’d ask. I’d recite the letters. D-I-S-C…

He’d show me the result. I’d give it the thumbs up. “Are you sure?” he’d ask. But he always asked it in a way that wasn’t actually questioning my abilities. He was verifying that I was confident. I almost always was.

“Because this is an important email.” “Because I’m about to send this to a client.” “Because I’m about to submit this form.”

I’d nod. He’d click the button, seal the envelope, cap the pen.

“Alright. Go on back then.”

I knew even then that my father’s questions weren’t any indication of intelligence. On the contrary, I understood that he is a deep thinker—someone who takes his time to puzzle over a problem and doesn’t jump to conclusions. But as the child of immigrants, and the first in his family to be born “an American” (whatever that means these days) spelling and grammar have never his thing. His ability to recognize that they were my thing, and empower me with his questions, if anything, showed his smarts.

I didn’t notice how impactful that little, consistent vote of confidence was. That a grown-up was trusting me—an 8, 12, 15-year old—to verify important information. That he relied on me to double-check. It gave me a tremendous sense of responsibility; I might be young, but my dad trusted my word. If I said it was correct, then it better be correct.

And this is how I learned—to read with a careful eye, to apply schoolwork grammar lessons to the real world, to love the way words are written and documents crafted. I learned to have an opinion (“I think it sounds better if you write it like this”) and to have conviction when I knew I was right (“No, the context of that word isn’t right, you definitely want to use this one”).

Those are the skills that have helped me from the dining room table in my parents’ starter home to conference tables at internationally-recognized client sites. To become a (female) (minority) creative who can present work in front of a room full of men and withstand mansplanations, patronizations, and general condescension—winning my case with well-articulated rationale and firmly-seated confidence.

Even though we’ve made huge steps in recent decades towards a more equalized world, the fact remains—it’s still hard to be a woman in this world. As I get older and gain more experience with other cultures and societies, I realize how grateful I am for a father who took the time to ask for my opinions. Who didn’t pat me on my “pretty little head” or tell me to “let the men take care of it”. Who challenged me and counted on me even when I was young and naive. He didn’t give me success, but he gave me the tools I needed to make myself successful, even with the deck stacked against me.

And in my book, that’s the best a father can give.

Happy Father’s Dad, daddy-o. I love you.