She was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen. And no, it wasn’t motherly bias. She really was beautiful. We had named her Rachael long before she was even a “gleam in her father’s eye.” Rachael means “gentle, like a lamb”. And she was aptly named.
Rachael: Gentle, Like a Lamb
Rachie was a quiet baby and a quiet toddler too. After her first 4 weeks on the planet, she started sleeping through the night, from 6 pm to 6 am. She started reading at age 2, surprising us all on a trip to Atlanta by saying “Hollywood” as we were driving along, having caught sight of a road sign. We were stunned. This kid wasn’t even speaking yet, but she was able to recognize words. She used to watch “Access Hollywood” with me every evening and had obviously recognized the word “Hollywood”. We would lie on the bed together and read, me reading my book, she with hers. A dream toddler!
A “Bright” Child
She went to Meadowbrook Preparatory right here in Kingston and was zero trouble from the get go. Teachers loved her. She did well in school. There was a little issue in Grade 2 I think it was, with mathematics. The teacher slapped her when she failed to grasp the concepts. She buckled under the anxiety that resulted. I intervened and sorted that issue out, and thank God for her Grade 4 teacher who completely demystified math for her. There was never ever another issue with math, and she even went on to represent her high school in a Math Olympiad.
The “Bright” Child Under Stress
She did very well in our rite of passage torture chamber here in Jamaica called at that time GSAT. Eleven year olds get one shot to get into a “good high school” based on their performance in a 2 day exam. Talk about stress. In fact, 2 or 3 months before her GSAT exam, our Rachie was not behaving normally. She was breaking down in tears constantly and having headaches. She was still doing well in school, but something was definitely off. I inquired of her if anything was wrong. She insisted that she was fine. But something was off.
One night in December, I was startled out of my sleep by screams coming from her bedroom. I rushed to her bedside. She was sobbing and saying that she knows she’s going to fail GSAT. She was only 11. She was hysterical about her SPANISH grade of A, because “it was just 90% and she needs to be at 98% or above!” Even when I pointed out that Spanish isn’t a GSAT subject, she was inconsolable. She sobbed that the PE teacher told them to settle down and study hard or they’d end up at (name redacted) High School, where the “dunce pickney dem end up” and she KNEW that she was headed there. HUH? I immediately pulled her from the extra classes she was attending. I spoke with her teacher and guidance counselor at school and we agreed to cut her homework. I tried my best reassure her and we proceeded normally from then on. She did well in GSAT and “passed” for her first choice high school, arguably the best all girls high school in Jamaica.
The Early High School Years
She did very well at Immaculate Conception High School. Term reports were consistently excellent and there were zero behavioural issues. She got 7 grade 1s and 1 grade 2 at CSEC, school leaving exams done in grade 11. Gentle Rachael was doing as expected. Then it was time for 6th form.
As is the norm in Jamaica, “bright” students are automatically steered to do science subjects. So that’s what Rachie did for CSEC. She also did Literature and Spanish, so she had a broad enough base to build on. But when the time came to narrow down her choices for CAPE, advanced exams which allow you to matriculate into university, the first hint of trouble arose. She claimed not to enjoy the sciences, but being unsure of what she wanted to do as a career, I advised her to stick with sciences. Why? First of all, she had the ability and second of all, she could select, once she was surer, any field of study with science subjects under her belt: law, medicine, anything. So yes, I steered her towards the sciences in 6th form, grades 12 and 13, in the absence of any clearer direction. She was not definite about what she felt she would like to do, I felt it was my job to guide her.
Sixth Form: The Beginning of Sorrows
She failed a physics test in term 1 of grade 12. She was gutted. It was the first time she had failed anything in her life. Her response to this failure was to drop hands. In retrospect, she interpreted the failure as “I am not good at the sciences. I have been told all my life that I am “bright” and now that I’ve failed, the fact that I am “bright” is all a lie. I really am not. It makes no sense to press on.”
Mother struggled too…
Hindsight is always 20/20. What started happening at the beginning of grade 12 is crystal clear to me now. But at the time it was happening, it was extremely frustrating to me, and I grew impatient. Damned impatient. This child had ability as far as I was concerned. Not “liking” something is never an excuse not to “handle your business”. And in the absence of her being able to articulate exactly what she’d rather be doing, I INSISTED that she handle her business. My name, Kelly, means “warrior”. And that’s what I did. She was “gentle, like a lamb”. I was “Kelly, Warrior Woman”. And so began a tough, tough time for both of us.
I warred with her. I pushed. I insisted. She fought back in her own way, and simply stopped performing. I was scared, angry, pissed, frustrated. I tried to talk to her, but she was still a kid with limited experience, still growing, still trying to find her own footing, still unsure with limited experience. It was difficult for her to articulate exactly what SHE was going through! I tried my best. Looking back, I am sure that my motives towards Rachael were perfect, but my actions towards her were far from perfect. I pushed, and even as I pushed, I was terrified about how far and how hard I was pushing, scared shitless that she’d break, but doing only what I knew how to do, doing what I thought was right (teaching her life skills about turning up and doing your duty!). I prayed, I shared with my Village. I continued to push.
Then I decided that we both needed to get professional help. I went to my therapist and shared what was going on. Rachael, to her credit, was willing to talk too. She agreed to see the therapist and I reassured her that I didn’t even need to know what was said in those sessions, that I just wanted her to get through and flourish. To this day, I don’t know what they discussed (of course I’ve asked Rachie! But she refuses to share :)) but things improved a bit. The therapist told me after a few sessions with her, that Rachael was behaving exactly the way I had raised her. She was fighting. She was fighting for her own sanity and fighting to find her way. Her refusal to bend or to break was evidence of that. That I was to let her find her way. That I was to still insist on my standards, but give her space. That 6th form is such a small part of life and certainly not a definer of things to come. Lord it was hard to stand back. I found it difficult to reconcile the fact that my kid was more like me than I realized, according to Rose. I prayed. My Village supported. I still insisted on minimum performance standards, and that battle with her hiding grades & not turning in assignments continued up until the very bitter end of Grade 13. We threatened her, we fought, we railed, we screamed, she felt like shit, she rebelled and it was just an ugly, stressful scene in the McIntosh household.
A Gap Year was the best thing ever
By this time, she decided that she wanted to go to University of the West Indies (after I had spent hundred of US dollars on SAT classes thinking that I was presenting her with options) and she applied. She decided that she wanted to go to CARIMAC and pursue something creative. I had no issue with that. She had recently discovered photography too. But I suggested to her that she take a year between high school and college. I didn’t think she was in the frame of mind to take on higher studies, and I knew that some healing and time-out was critical for her own well being. Plus I had no money to waste.
I strongly believe that had she gone on to UWI straight out of high school that she’d have failed out given her frame of mind at the time and spiraled down and down in the face of this failure. So when she was offered a place at CARIMAC, my girl promptly deferred acceptance! She did pass all her CAPE exams in spite of it all, and we celebrated that. Not with 1s or 2s, but she failed nothing.
I however laid down some conditions for this gap year: get your driver’s licence, find job or get certified in something. Anything. Laying up in my house, eating my food and burning my internet for a year was NOT an option. She agreed and did all of the above. She got her licence, she worked and she did a photography course at CPTC. How that course actually came to be is another story. I looked all over for a course for her, as I recognized her passion. Daddy was convinced that she “has an eye” and assured me of her talent, and so I called CPTC and badgered and followed up and they finally convened a course that they had been deferring and deferring. Yes, that’s what parents do too.
UWI, here she comes!
The gap year passed quickly and by the time August rolled around, she was in the right frame of mind to start tertiary studies. That she’d have to do her course at the Western campus was a good thing too. I suspect she chose that deliberately to get away from home. It worked. We both needed time away. She needed space to re-form, to expand, to nurture her own soul without Mother hovering and controlling.
And she did. Oh did she ever. My girl became part of student government (from apathetic, don’t give a damn 6th former, to active participant), put into practice those skills that she learned in therapy about dealing with anxiety, she learned to budget and OUR relationship improved. She’d call me when deadlines converged and projects threatened to overwhelm. I too had learned. I solved nothing for her, merely providing a sounding board and a reassuring presence and voice, encouraging her by telling her that she had every single thing that she needed to excel. I offered advice only if she asked. I affirmed her capabilities consistently. I prayed hard too.
Fixed vs Growth Mindset
You see, by this time, I had read a book that I wish I had read before I had children. It changed my life, and had I read it in advance, I would have handled the beginning of that downward slide in grade 12 very, very differently. “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck explains the difference between a “growth mindset” and a “fixed mindset”.
The fixed mindset says you are born this way and that’s that. The growth mindset insists that you can learn and develop into what you want to. Rachie had a fixed mindset. Not her fault. She had been told all her life that she was “bright” and at the first sign of failure, she immediately, and understandably, concluded that what she had been taught all along was not true. That it couldn’t be true. “Bright” kids don’t fail! This narrative that was playing in her mind, coupled with her natural inclination to deal with anxiety by dropping hands (other people respond to anxiety differently, by doing everything possible to prevent failure) resulted in that difficult, terrible 6th form period.
Had I known about the growth vs fixed mindset, I’d still have celebrated her brilliance as she grew, but I’d have emphasized the beauty and utility of the learning process as well, celebrating challenge as well as success, extolling the process of rising to the occasion and consistently reaffirming her as a person, much more than a grade on a piece of paper. Had I raised her like this, perhaps her response to her first real challenge in life would have been different. I’d also have responded to her challenge differently. I would have coached her rather than directed her. I’d have done my best to let her see that a challenge was simply an opportunity to master something new. That it was in no way a reflection of her worth and worthiness.
I invited her to read the book as I apologized to her for not being a better mother to her. I told her I was doing the best I could, all from the point of view that I simply wanted the best for her. Rachie read the book. We both learned that we can start where we are. We became “growth mindset” converts. I watched with pride and admiration as my daughter embraced her passions and made her own decisions and flourished. Sure there were challenges. But we both knew better how to cope.
My Daughter, The University Graduate
Today Rachael graduates with a first class honours BA in Digital Media Production. Additionally, she is being awarded the prize for the student with the highest academic performance in her program. I am happy. I am proud of my daughter. She fought back. She pursued her passion. She pushed through her own ambiguity and past a mother who at one time was more of a hindrance than help. She was willing to be coached by someone who could help her more than her parents could, and she was brave enough to step back when all her peers were pushing forward. She stepped out, asked for help when she felt as if she was floundering, and rose to the challenge when I saw her grades and gently suggested that she go for the first class. She embraced and lived the concept of a “growth mindset” and she has triumphed.
I thank God for second chances and Grace. I thank God that this chapter ended the way it did, for it could have gone a million other ways.
Rachael, in her own words:
She gave me permission to share this from her Instagram page:
I failed almost every Chemistry test in sixth form, and broke down in tears during labs for (seemingly) no reason, which made me decide to call it quits on going to medical school. That was four years ago. My accidental discovery of digital photography a few months after I left high school has afforded me the happy, but previously elusive match of desire and ability in choosing a major, and ultimately a career path.
I’d like to thank my parents for facilitating me and allowing this to happen, my lecturers and the photography professionals I’ve worked with for the past two years for consistently stretching and pushing me beyond what I thought I was capable of, and my classmates for comic relief and moral support (a WE alone know how software crashes feel hours before a deadline!) Most importantly, I’d like to thank EVERYONE who has validated my efforts and abilities, even when I neglected to do that myself.
Moral of all this? FIND your strengths and OWN them.
Now presenting for the first time anywhere: Rachael K. McIntosh, BA Digital Media Production (First Class Honours) ✨
Today I celebrate Rachael. Job well done, Daughter. Job well done!