What Ever Happened to Daphne?
I ask if she’s been in trouble before; she says yes, during her sophomore year at the University of Maine in Orono. A lingering depression had set in and she stopped going to class. “I flunked everything,” she says, “except chorus. I got an A in chorus.” The university suspended her for a year and took away her full scholarship. She returned to New Limerick, moved in with her parents, and washed dishes at the Elm Tree Diner in Houlton.
After a year she returned to college, wrote poetry, studied literature, and eventually graduated with honors. She wanted to be a poet. She stayed in Orono cooking burgers and making salads at Pat’s Pizza for nearly two years; she was not gifted as a short-order cook, and her writing discouraged her. What she describes as “the great lump in the center of my life” took over. “The great lump is the judgment,” she wrote, “the constant having to live up to, the feeling that I have to be good, or great, or special, or whatever. Instead of valuing where I am.” Thoughts of suicide danced around the edge of her life. A therapist helped her understand the negative self-doubts that plagued her. “I was addicted to this sense of myself. I knew I had to change. I definitely wanted to change.” To start a new life, she moved to Portland.
She speaks without self-pity in a clear, forthright voice. She is interested that I am interested in trying to understand the unexpected bumps in her life. She has been trying to understand them herself for many months. Her brown eyes behind her round glasses hold my gaze. Her brown hair, streaked with premature gray, touches her shoulders. She is pale, as if she has not seen sun for weeks.
“I know people will want an explanation,” she says. “Maybe my flunking out was a covert rebellion. I remember a conversation I had my senior year in high school. I had a boyfriend then and I didn’t care about school. I had a term paper months overdue. Mrs. Dunphy (JoAnn Dunphy, the Gifted and Talented Coordinator for the school district) came to talk to me. I said I was sick of having to get straight A’s. I said I couldn’t wait to go to college and get C’s.”
“No,” said Mrs. Dunphy. “What about graduate school?”
“Oh, all right. I’ll get A’s in college and C’s in grad school.”
“But what about a career?”
“Oh, I guess I have to get A’s forever.”
For the next few hours she tells me the story of a girl who, growing up, stayed in her tiny bedroom six feet by six feet with a curtain for a door, the ceiling three feet high in places. She’d pluck books like chocolates from the little green bookcase her mother built, sometimes reading 100 pages an hour, while her mother urged her to go outside, swim in the lake, ride a bicycle, or simply get fresh air. But she never learned to ride a bike or swim; she fell down and hit her head walking on the ice as a child and the outdoors seemed more menace than friend. The only place she felt safe was nestled in her bed with written words. Her home, she said, was often turbulent, subject to the moods of her father, David. “I hated fighting,” she says, “and all I knew was my father was pissed off a lot.” She pauses. “The older I get, the more I get along with my dad.”
David Brinkerhoff was known throughout The County for his eccentric brilliance, his disdain for convention and for anyone who couldn’t follow his thoughts. He’d argue his point until he won because he knew he was the brightest person arguing. He quit school in the tenth grade, certain his teachers had nothing to teach him. He became known as a man who could figure out and fix any machine.
“When I was really young we lived in a camp,” Daphne says. “No running water, no electricity. When I was four we moved into our house. We had no running water until my mother finally put in plumbing. In winter we slept beside the wood stove in sleeping bags, and we hung blankets to keep heat from escaping upstairs.”
They were poor, and behind her back kids made fun of Daphne’s lack of grooming. But from the day Daphne entered kindergarten she became a star. Teachers had heard of the child who inhaled books and arithmetic. While other kindergartners learned to read, Daphne went to the library to pore over books with Mrs. Tidd, the librarian. At six she learned to program her father’s homemade computer. “She was programming in machine language,” recalls her mother, “a series of hexadecimal symbols. It was beyond me.” Teachers said they had never seen such a student in their district. By fourth grade the school placed her with eighth-graders for prealgebra, and she stayed with the older kids for language arts. “When I went through puberty it was a problem,” she says. “I’d get crushes on these guys who’d never look at me.
“I wasn’t popular,” she says. “The other kids thought I was a snob, but I was totally shy and terrified that people wouldn’t like me. When I was in seventh grade kids called me ‘AIDS,’ like I was a disease. I’d play this game: Which would I pick, being beautiful and popular, or being smart? Popular kids always had someone to sit with at lunch. I’d choose smart. It was kind of like a pep talk.”
Her fourth-grade teacher wrote on Daphne’s report card: “Daphne is the dream of every classroom teacher.” She added this cautionary note: “We must be careful to remember that she is still a ten-year-old. We must include her in as many group activities as possible to ensure she does not become a loner.”
In academic competitions, she became the target. “Everyone wanted me to lose in spelling bees,” she says. One day in seventh grade she raced from an Odyssey of the Mind competition in the morning to the state spelling-bee championship at Colby College. “I got there late,” she says. She was furious when she missed “noisome.” That year she went to Washington, D.C., as the youngest and only female on the Maine Math Counts team. She remembers competing for a spot on the four-person state team and sitting in a hallway when “a boy came up to me. He said, ‘You’re Daphne Brinkerhoff? I’m going to beat you.’ ”