‘I am smart’ or how I feigned stupidity in order to read books all day

‘Literally my first memory of you is just of a silent curly haired human’

– my best friend


I was five-years-old when I first decided to speak in public. Up until then, I communicated by way of pulling at people’s clothing. This treatment was reserved for everyone outside of my immediate family, including my extended family. I had a lot of cousins to visit back then and they would take my ignoring them personally. They would try everything to coax me out of my hiding spot to go and play, but I refused.

‘Preeeeettty please, come and play! Pretty please with a cherry on top!’ even going so far as to literally drag me to my nightmare.  ‘Unhand me, Yankees!’ I would say in my head, run away and then proceed to stare at them from a safe distance, as though they were lepers.

I had nothing to say to actual humans because they disinterested me and I did not know how to be myself around them. So I made up friends of my own and they lived in my imagination. These friends were based on things I noticed around me, like a bartender named Moe, possibly born from watching too much of The Simpsons. A likely scenario might entail the following, while hanging out on the patio, leaning on the fence.

‘Another round Moe, it’s been a tough day. Yes beer, you fool. I was expected to speak out loud on two occasions! Make it two beers for every time I had to SPEAK pah’ *spits*.

My kindergarten teacher Miss Cordial (her name sounded like cordial) would say,

‘Sheree you can’t keep tugging at my skirt when you want something, you have to speak up and say, ‘Excuse me Miss Cordial’. Do you understand what I’m telling you?’

I stared blankly at this person, talking to me like I was an idiot and tugged at her skirt again. She made me sit in the corner to think about what I had done. Instead I thought about how ugly her brown skirt was and how badly I wanted to communicate using nothing but the power of my mind.

Due to my assumed ‘muteness’ or extreme shyness, I was relegated to special one-on-one ‘reading classes’. This was a compromise. During a parent-teacher interview, my teacher feigned surprise at hearing my mother speak fluent English.

‘Oh, you speak English?!’

‘Yes, I was born in Australia’

‘Oh it’s just…well we thought you didn’t, because Sheree refuses to speak’

‘She’s just very shy’

‘Yes well perhaps we should run some tests?’

(What happened next is a flurry of angry exchanges, before finally agreeing to the reading classes).

It was assumed that the reason for my non-speaking had something to do with having Lebanese ancestry. This puzzled me, as we spoke English at home and still to this day, 20 years later, my main method of communication with my grandmother is to speak in English with a slightly exaggerated Arabic accent, wild hand gestures and the occasional role-play. Good job, School, with your casual racism. The only reason they suspected a different ancestry was due to a high profiled football player’s nephew also going to that school and them being related to us (that cousin was also in the special classes but I suspect it was because of his physical disability rather than any mental one. GOOD JOB, SCHOOL!)

I remember once in kindergarten, we had to present something to the masses for Show and Tell. I had no possessions of any substance, so I opted to speak of my weekend.  I conquered my speaking fears for this one moment, to speak in the tiniest of whispers:

‘So tell us Sheree, what did you do on the weekend?’

‘I went to see my Sita’

‘Your sister?’

‘No, Sita’

‘Yes your sister’

‘I don’t have a sister’

‘Then what are you saying?’

‘My sita, she’s the mother of my mother’.

‘Oh. That would be a grandmother Sheree’

‘No. She’s not a grandmother, she’s a Sita’.

I assumed everyone knew that Sita meant grandmother, like how everyone knows that Nonna is Italian for Grandmother. But this was 1993 and Aladdin hadn’t come out yet and ‘kebab’ was yet to enter the lexicon, so I was the stupid one, yet again. The only other Lebanese girl in the class disassociated herself from me, the peasant village girl, by way of shrugging.  ‘We say Tayta’, she spat out indifferently.  I stared at her stupid snobby face and whispered, city slicker traitor.


To my surprise the special English classes were with a lovely older woman with white hair. Let’s call her the Fairy Book Godmother. She was the mother of a student who volunteered to come in once a week. At first I continued with the not speaking thing but she threw a spanner in the works when she started bringing books and asking me to do the same. She would read to me and I would read back. I was six at this stage and already reading more advanced books. This surprised her. She asked me to spell difficult words and I would do it effortlessly. She trained my memory by asking me to recall the most insignificant of details from books she had read to me weeks ago. She stopped with the lessons at some point and we would just read together. That one day was the highlight of my week and I couldn’t wait to leave normal class for it. My teacher suspected this and began plotting how to get me out of the classes to which she had recommended I do in the first place.

I continued to play dumb so I could stay.

One day the old woman whispered to me,  ‘Don’t tell anyone but I think you’re a tiny little genius!’

I smiled and hugged the doll she had asked me to bring in, which was apparently, as I’ve since discovered, a very creepy faceless rag doll named EC who made dreams come true (ABC kids shows were very creepy back in the day).

The Fairy Book Godmother encouraged me to make friends with the new girl in my class. She loved to read like me and we were both little recluses with no friends. We’d write notes to each other and plot ways to secretly read our books when the teacher wasn’t looking. We’d spend lunchtime in the library, exchanging books. Occasionally an English boy named Benjamin would try to tease us, probably because he knew we were secretly awesome and wanted to hang out with us but we shrugged him away. He often chased us through the library and eventually the librarian kicked him out, possibly physically as they were wont to do in that time.

Rachelle was my only friend apart from the made up ones. She even kept all the notes I used to write her back in the day.

Clearly a gifted writer from the beginning.

Clearly a gifted writer from the beginning.

Maybe the reason I chose to move through the world quietly was because I was surrounded by so much loudness. My uncle lived next door to us in a house with my grandparents. He had an uncontrollable rage and a variety of life threatening conditions, which affected him both physically and mentally, leading to frequent violent outbursts. He was a gargantuan man who couldn’t possibly fathom his own strength. They said it was a rare case of Elephant Man’s Disease, but to me he was always the Big Friendly Giant.

His heart was pure and real and big and he would do anything for us. My brother and I were his favourite niece and nephew; he loudly proclaimed this to his siblings whenever he could. We would play cards and watch football and he’d tell us all the little life secrets he had picked up and we would hang on his every word. He was kind and gentle for the most part, but around other adults he would get frustrated, often snapping and exploding into a frightening and dangerous rage. There was always a fear that someone might get seriously hurt, although it was never his intention and he never let himself lose control while we were there.

You’d find him alone, standing outside his sister’s room, guarding it while she was away in Japan, refusing to let anyone go through her things and yelling at anyone who tried. Sometimes you’d find him quietly weeping, self conscious and scared. He was 27 when he died. My estranged aunty returned for the funeral with my little cousin who didn’t know who her uncle was, and couldn’t understand why I was  now, more than ever, adamantly opposed to speaking.


Not long after all of this and two years after the reading classes began, I stopped going to the special lady and went back into an elected silent mourning.

Then came the big bang. I attended a ‘Book Fest’ which consisted of a few local authors signing their children’s books. I was awestruck by the whole affair and instantly began plotting my dream of becoming an author, so I too could sign books at a local fair. I knew I had to stop with the no speaking stuff. There was no time for that now. The Fairy Godmother of Books wasn’t coming back. It was all me now and I was determined to fulfill this dream.

(Another note Rachelle kept confirmed this dream, nay nerdom at the age of 8:  I wrote: ‘I got some stationary from book club! Oh and also I’ve started a special thing that will help me with my writing and will publish my books!’ – BOOKS, plural, good God, no wonder I had no friends.)

I started writing in a journal for my teacher, who would stare at me with suspicion, like she couldn’t quite understand how the girl who had trouble spelling ‘the’ (way ahead of my time with ‘da’), could suddenly start producing tiny works of fiction about toy bears who suffered from loneliness. She’d ask me how I learnt to write like that and I would shrug and point at the books on the shelf, stating that I had read them all and would it kill her to order in some new ones? She smiled and sent a brand new book of poetry to my house. The racist teachers had left the building. In came the literary ones, the ones who taught me words and who would spot me reading in class and say nothing.

One day a thought flew into my head, so I wrote it down in my journal.

Three words: ‘I am smart’.

The Fairy Book Godmother had left the building but her impact did not go unnoticed. She helped me discover the one thing I would go on to love more than anything else in the world. Perhaps the saddest thing is that I cannot for the life of me, remember her name. I can only remember that glorious golden feeling of opening the books and reading the words out loud.