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What Ever Happened to Daphne?

In Washington Daphne found herself matched against the brightest math students in the country. “I saw these kids on the stage doing equations, solving problems, while I was still trying to figure out what the problem was. I remember thinking, ‘So this is the end of the whole genius thing. There are people out there so much smarter.’ ”

She had one friend, a boy named Christopher. They shared fantasy fiction books and played Dungeons & Dragons on the playground, inventing worlds only the two of them could inhabit. Then Christopher moved away. Daphne would imagine that she was walking around a world full of enemies and she would not let them see her pain. She wrote for hours in her journal, her one constant friend. She had academic medals and trophies and ribbons and report cards filled with only A’s, but the smartest girl in Maine may also have been the loneliest.

Everyone assumed Daphne would attend Harvard or Yale, both of which accepted her eagerly. But Daphne never filled out the final papers to attend. “I think I was afraid,” she says. “I knew I lacked discipline. It didn’t matter at Hodgdon. The teachers knew I was smart. I got the A’s. At Harvard I would have felt I had to do well. I didn’t know if I could. There was this mystique: Harvard — the hardest school in the country. My guidance counselor said to me, ‘Harvard called. They wanted to know why you turned them down. I told them you’re thinking of transferring later.’ ” The University of Maine seemed like a pool of warm, shallow water, and a boyfriend she had her senior year would also be attending.

I drive Daphne to her house on a quiet Portland street. I ask if she’d write me about herself. A short time later she sends a 5,000-word e-mail.

When winning is predictable, it’s boring. Winning is a psychodrama, it’s a metaphor, which is why it reaches us so strongly. It says: She wanted that and she got it, and I can get what I want. It’s a dream of effectiveness. Power, but in the sense “power to,” not “power over.” I guess I’m upset because I didn’t really want all those things I won, and I wonder how many times that’s true in the world, people struggling to get these honors they don’t care about. What did I care about winning the spelling bee? I just wanted to do it because I could, because I felt it was expected of me. The question here is why did I feel this need to win everything all the time? … Because I’m a Brinkerhoff, and Brinkerhoffs think they know everything.

We stayed in touch sporadically. She was fired from 7-Eleven four months later. The gas man came to her house to turn off the heat. She had 23 books overdue from the Portland Public Library and owed $32 in fines. She was still fighting the desire to stay in bed or play computer games all day.

When I see her again in May of 2000 she is working as a census taker. We eat at a floating restaurant docked in the harbor. I ask if she misses the 12-year-old Daphne, the prodigy. “What people saw in me is still there,” she says. “But I know people will be incredulous. I know I’ll have to explain all this.”

She says, “I know I’m not a genius. I can learn math and get degrees in it, but my creativity is not there. It would be much more clear if I was a genius: ‘Oh, that’s what I’m here on earth to do.’ I’d have no choice but to follow it.”

She says she wants to find a way to make a living that is socially responsible. She wants to be a writer, but suffers from writer’s block, what she calls “this emptiness, dry like a riverbed.” She knows she cripples herself by overanalyzing:

“What do I have to say that is useful to anyone” she writes, “that is ‘mine’ and not just a copy of someone else’s thoughts? If it’s faith, then I’ll stay up all night writing until my fingers fall off, if that would bring me inspiration. But most likely it won’t. I seem unable to act from a place where I can remember the simple solidity of my fingers resting on this keyboard, from a place where the moment is not on the way to something else but is just here. I can act. I can shape and form. I know what it is I can do. I can speak. But there is nothing to say.”

To my surprise, she seems happier. “I think my right path will come,” she says. “I haven’t lost all faith in myself. I hope I’m leaving my angst behind. I’m trying to trade the pursuit of intellectual achievement for wisdom. My intelligence has always been there — but not my wisdom, whatever that means.” She says if she could be anyone else she’d want to be the author Ursula K. LeGuin. “She’s wise,” she says. “If ever I had a conversation with her, I think she’d agree with me about the pointlessness of fame and money.” She’s been reading the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, “trying to think about how the world really works. The Western way of thinking is the status quo, climbing the ladder. This book is the opposite.”

I ask what she likes about herself now. “I’m less likely to think a stranger will be ready not to like me,” she says. “Even at Pat’s Pizza I knew people liked me, and I liked them.”

I found Ursula LeGuin’s translation of the Tao. I read:
“Knowing other people is intelligence, / knowing yourself is wisdom.
Overcoming others takes strength, /overcoming yourself takes greatness. / Contentment is wealth.”

Later I phone Dr. Julian Stanley. I ask if he has kept track of Daphne. He said he knew she had graduated from college in 1997, but that was all he knew. I tell him some of her story. “Some of the brightest students don’t have ambition,” he says. “I brought a boy to Johns Hopkins — he finished in three years. Now he delivers pizzas. I used to sort of worship I.Q. But you can’t major in I.Q. There’s a lot to be said for the work ethic. It can be so hard for some of these students if they don’t have role models. If they are just by themselves, their intelligence can be a dilemma.”
Dr. Jean Gibbons, associate director at the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut, listened patiently to Daphne’s story. “It’s really hard to be a minority of one,” she says. “It’s easy to think there’s something wrong with you, not something wonderful.”

I speak with two teachers who had taught Daphne when she lived in New Limerick. They both have lost touch with her, and both say the same thing: “Have you met the family?”
There is a personal history I crave to erase. — e-mail from Daphne

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Thursday, June 12th, 2008

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