Honors and American Girl Dolls

I could have kicked myself.  Recently, I ran into a friend at the grocery store, and I abruptly asked her the most impertinent question,  “Did Laura get into high school with honors?” I asked–and immediately regretted it.  First of all, I don’t care whether or not her daughter got into Notre Dame Academy with or without honors.  Second, it’s none of my business.  Third, from the look of frustration and fatigue on my friend’s face, I could tell that her daughter had not been accepted with honors and that I’d just “rubbed it in.”

Still, I don’t know who was more disgusted by my question–my friend or myself.  This kind of thing, worshiping superior grades and the kids who get them is so wholly unlike me.  I can only surmise that I had been inundated, while perusing my Facebook page, with posts extolling the high school triumphs of many of my friends’ kids–all of whom, it seemed, had been accepted  to the high school of their choice “with honors.”  At any rate,  I apologized and confided that one of my daughters had not only not been accepted with honors, but had been required to take a remedial math class.

It’s disheartening, really.  For as this trend of equating people’s worth with their grades gains momentum, there will always be those among us who simply cannot excel in the classroom.  And then, what’s a kid, and her protective mother to do?

I have one such kid.  A delightful, funny, compassionate kid—who happens to struggle in school.  To compensate, I spend a lot of time trying to build her confidence outside of the classroom.   Sports, the arts, games, and toys have become important tools and outlets.   Recently, I discovered American Girl Dolls.  Aha, I thought, this is a wholesome way to nurture my daughter’s creativity.

Since receiving “Sophia”, my daughter has not stopped interacting with her.  Not only does she dress her in the clothes we purchased, but she also makes clothes and accessories for her.  To date, she has made Sophie a pair of flip-flops, a mirror, a purse, a tissue box, a lunch box (complete with food), a calendar, a checkerboard, and, so  she can communicate with other dolls, stationery.  The time Mary spends with her doll is doing exactly what I had hoped. Her play time is truly educational and benefits her in ways classroom achievement can’t, nor was never intended to be able to.

But, if what goes around comes around, I was sadly deserving of the two impertinent editorials I recently received.

First up, was Carol.  “I’m so disappointed,” she confided as we waited on the blacktop to pick-up our children.  Before I could ask why, she continued.  “Have you seen this year’s American Girl Doll?  Her name in McKenna.  She’s a gymnast . . .with a learning disability.”  I raised an eyebrow but said nothing.   “Really,” Carol scoffed, “they couldn’t have done better than that?”

Apparently, having a leaning disability is both un-American and un-feminine. I was so taken aback, and so wounded, that I offered no response.  My children ran out of the school building as the bell rang, and I gathered them up and headed for the car.

Still, I thought, Carol is just one person, and Carol is wrong.  Good for the American Girl Doll company.  Bravo!  And then we visited the store.  My daughter dressed herself and her doll in matching outfits.  The store was a visual delight.  Everywhere Mary turned the catalog she had pored over at home, came to life.  Here was the sleeping bag she so dearly wanted.  There was the backpack.  And everywhere was McKenna–the doll of the year.  Mary and I stopped to read McKenna’s biography.  It was a simple explanation of McKenna’s inability to read at grade level, her partnership with a tutor, and her triumph in finishing a chapter book in one week.

Mary was impressed.  But what she wanted more than anything was a book of craft ideas and materials for her doll.  She had seen the book at a friends house, and her little imagination had taken off, dreaming of the new things she could make for Sophie.   Finally, I stopped a saleswoman and asked where we could find the book.

What I got was a mini lecture and a knot in my stomach.  With a sort of pulsing quality to her voice, our sales lady turned toward Mary, leaned forward, pressed her palms together, and said:  “Ah, the books!”, as if we’d just asked to see the holy grail.  “The books are the most important part of American Girl Doll, aren’t they?”  she insisted, rather than asked.  “Reading is the most important thing we do here at American Girl!”  If her eyes had glowed red and her battery had fallen out, I wouldn’t have been surprised.  Message received.

Apparently, though it seems to pain them, American Girl will allow a doll to have a learning disability, as long as the doll is working to overcome it with the intensity of a gymnast.   Of course, working toward your academic potential is always a good idea, and I should really applaud American Girl for even taking this minor step of recognizing learning disabilities, but what if your academic potential simply isn’t that great?   What if tutors don’t help and reading a chapter book is never in your future?  Are dolls out too?

Frankly, I’d like to see American Girl take the next step.  I’d like to see them introduce a doll with Down’s Syndrome and have the biography read:  Jenny loves swimming at the YMCA and spending time with her cat, “kitty.”  This year Jenny will participate in The Special Olympics.   What an honor!  Go Jenny!

But that would suggest that simply being created in the image of God is enough.  That would suggest, of course, the best of our honorable American values.


Jennifer Kaczor lives in Los Angeles with her husband and seven children. She’s written for National Review, Catholic Exchange, Inside Catholic, and the Bellingham Review.

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