Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Let's hear it for the weird kids!

After innumerable teacher's conferences, field studies and unsolicited comments lo these past eight years, I’m not leaping to any conclusions here to deduce that my son is perceived as a little strange by society at large. An odd duck. Maybe even weird. Not alarmingly weird, like the kind of boy a mother instinctively shields her own child from weird. On the contrary, he's the sort of boy that mothers tend to want their children to play with, at least that’s what I hear. He's well-behaved, he's witty, he shares well, he's articulate. But he's just...weird.

My son creates elaborate stories involving him and his friends having adventures catching ghosts and aliens and he draws plans for cat hotels with deep, winding underground tunnels. He could name four-syllable dinosaurs from the Cretacious period when he was five but he couldn’t tell you any characters from SpongeBob SquarePants. (Still can’t.) At his preschool, an idyllic place run by a painter almost as an artist’s retreat for young children, my son decided that in the year-end production of The Adventures of Frog and Toad he wanted to depict a Vegan Velociraptor rather than any characters already created. He settled for this as his second choice because his teacher didn't know how to begin to spell the Triassic era’s coelophysis.

Even at this artsy preschool with the bold paintings everywhere and interesting projects always being undertaken, my son was considered odd, not in a negative way, more like he was a rare museum acquisition, a gem to behold. He was adored, he was encouraged, but he was a little…strange. The message that I’ve consistently gotten is that every child is unique, of course, but that my child is a little more unique. “He has a rich inner world,” is how educators typically characterize him.

When he was two, my son burst out crying that whole autumn with the leaves falling from the trees, the life-and-death of it all bringing him to tears. I would tell him that the leaves would come back in the spring and he would point to a pretty red maple one on the ground and sniff, “Not that one.” I had no answer for that. He was far too tender for the local Waldorf school: all their plaintive songs about the cycles of life sent him wailing and scrambling past the pastel scarves to the door. That sensitivity, combined with his singular way of interpreting the world, has worked together to create an unusual child.

When he was three, my son was so spellbound by the Pompeii exhibit at the Field Museum that he insisted that we go straight home and start painting volcanoes immediately. For a year, I drained our library system of every possible volcano-themed book and movie. Every story he told, every drawing he made, my son found a way to bring it back to volcanoes. They reigned supreme until he learned about tsunamis, underwater volcanoes, which led him to deep-sea creatures, dinosaurs and evolution. His first band, created at five with a few of his friends, was called Bronto-Scorpions Don’t Wear Socks, the name of their signature song, with the lyrics being that phrase repeated over and over again.

Now eight, left to his own devices, my son would still have every article of clothing on not only inside-out but backwards. He can describe the movement of the tectonic plates but he has trouble bouncing a ball. He could explain the phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis to you reasonably well but he can’t figure out the mechanics of tying a shoelace for the life of him. He doesn’t care, though, because who has time to tie a shoelace when there are alternate universes to create? Shoelaces are a waste of time. Thank goodness for Velcro.

There is a long literary and cinematic tradition of weird kids – also identified variously as nerds, underdogs, freaks, spazzes – being celebrated as under-appreciated, often long-suffering, ultimately victorious heroes. From Charlie Bucket to the Harry Potter trio, the theme of triumphing over bullies, bad circumstances and danger is something that resonates with the human spirit. We feel emboldened by their courage, buoyed by their independence and uncommon grace. The underdogs’ willingness to forge ahead despite their obvious liabilities is deeply uplifting and we are inspired by the courage with which they take a less-traveled path. We like to imagine that we would do the same in their Velcroed shoes. Well-liked, accomplished and athletic characters aren’t juicy, rich or compelling. Our hearts are with the scrappy, weird ones. We like their spirits, we identify with their struggles and we root for them because if a weird child triumphs, it means that there is some equity and goodness in the world.

Weird kids out in the field, though, face a different reality because their enjoyment of life is contingent on how they are perceived and treated by other children. While almost all children side with Harry Potter over his mean-spirited cousin Dudley, they aren’t always kind to actual flesh-and-blood classmates who don’t fit in. Weird kids often eat alone. They can struggle to make friends without active parental involvement. They are among the last picked as partners or for teams. While the other children are scheduling play dates and squeezing in birthday parties, odd kids often live in a much different social landscape. They don’t necessarily mind this – many are not joiners – but at a certain age, they become aware that their peers have very different social experiences.

The message from adults should be that what makes the so-called weird children of the world tick is also what makes them wonderfully unique individuals and gives them the qualities that will get them far in life. Instead the message is that while it’s great to be different, for their own good, they don’t want to be too different. It is a protective instinct, I think, but I don’t believe it’s what’s best for their evolving spirits. As long as the children are kind and respectful to others, I honestly think that they should be left alone to develop their weird selves.

I would bet that Albert Einstein, Marcel Proust and Gertrude Stein were total weirdoes growing up. So were Thomas Edison, Emily Dickenson and Galileo, I’m sure. That sort of obsessive, singular vision, the total immersion not in simply perfecting their craft but becoming pioneers does not happen for those who prioritize fitting in at all costs. Weird kids are often “weird” because they have a different calling altogether. Like the very high-pitched whistles that are imperceptible to most human ears, I think these children hear (and see and think and feel) stuff missed by many others but it is so plainly obvious to them, they can’t help but respond to it.

Many wonderfully strange children of today will grow up to be great innovators, inventors, artists, peacemakers, novelists and problem-solvers. They are often the ones who are driving the world toward progress and new, creative, compassionate ways of thinking and living.

To us, it is perfectly normal that our son has a school for his cat with a daily schedule (kitty nap time, cat math, kitty climbing) on the chalkboard. He plies Clover with catnip and she occasionally indulges him when she’s not hiding behind the radiator. Today my son has Kitty School but in fifteen years, he could be developing curricula for a whole new educational approach. Maybe it will be one that honors and encourages the exquisite weirdness of all pupils.

The future of the world depends on these odd children blazing their new, wonderful, weird paths. Thank goodness for them.

22 comments:

Allysia said...

Oh! I think my eight-year old self and your son would have gotten along fabulously. I didn't get past velcro until I was 9, and I was (or rather, am) definitely a weirdo! For real, though, just reading this I can tell how much love and pride you have for your son and it makes me smile. :) What an awesome kid!

dirtyduck said...

hes an "indigo child" if ive ever heard of one. have you seen that movie:) my husband was a little...dif growing up, so thats how i came across the indigos. i get how he feels about the leaves, i never understood how people could be so happy looking at "fall folliage". glad you nurture the sensitive and "different" :) side of him.

Andrea said...

"Thank goodness for them" and thank goodness for you — who can illuminate his exquisite world so perfectly that the rest of us can peek through the window and begin to understand the complexity and beauty of his life. Thank you.

Rhea Parsons said...

Your son sounds like a joy!

Jes said...

What a joy, what a blessing! I love your last line "The future of the world depends on these odd children blazing their new, wonderful, weird paths." I like that my girls are unique, themselves and proud to be that way.

Proud Womon said...

what a wonderfully perceptive - and extremely entertaining - post... what a grouse child you have!!! i will be forwarding a link to this on to the parents i know...

veganelder said...

I applaud and appreciate your embracing and supporting the uniqueness of your son. Good for you.

Sometimes (actually almost invariably) "society", in large ways and small (..."Weird kids often eat alone"...) extracts a price for uniqueness. I am certain you will monitor this as best you can and help equip your son to cope with these sometimes enormous compensations demanded as a toll for traveling ones own path.

Hooray for you...and for your son.

Roselie said...

I love this post SOOO MUCH! I am one of those odd people and I wouldn't change it for anything!
Your son sounds awesome you must be so proud of him!And he is also so lucky to have you as his mother, I wish I had that kind of support growing up!
I especially loved reading this
"That sort of obsessive, singular vision, the total immersion not in simply perfecting their craft but becoming pioneers does not happen for those who prioritize fitting in at all costs." So true!And this too
"I think these children hear (and see and think and feel) stuff missed by many others but it is so plainly obvious to them, they can’t help but respond to it." this is how I've always felt!
Thank you so much for writing this!

Vegan Burnout said...

I love your weird kid. :) I was an artsy child too, always embarrassed by the fact that my stories ended up so much longer and more elaborate than everyone else's. I took our skits in Language Arts WAY too seriously. I couldn't be without a book. I cried if an art project wasn't perfect. I wore a back brace too, so you KNOW I was the height of coolness. Eventually I found my crew, the people who "got" me, and he'll find his. Now I'm still weird and artsy and maladjusted, but way less apologetic about it. My little buddy has the best mom ever (and cat too, it sounds like)!

Marla said...

Thank you, Allysia. It takes one Velcro kid to know another. :) I do have a lot of love and pride for my son; I just wish that people shared the same values, you know? Thanks for sharing.

Marla said...

Thanks, dirtyduck (love your name)! I have had people refer to him as an Indigo child before and my husband read the description of one once and said that it sounds just like our son. I will have to look into that more. Thanks for your insights.

Marla said...

Thank you, Andrea! He's my angel. I tell him this every day. I do wish that our society valued more of his sort of attributes but in lieu of that, at least I can do it. :)

Marla said...

Thank you, sweet Rhea. He certainly is.

Marla said...

Thank you, Jes, and it warms my heart to know others who are raising weird, wonderful children. You sound like a great mother.

Marla said...

Thank you, Proud Womon. I always love to hear what you have to say.

Marla said...

Thank you, veganelder. I do spend a lot of time figuring out ways to make sure that my son doesn't feel isolated. One thing I do is make sure that I set up play time with others kids his age who "get" him. He is different, but he has a strong social drive, too, and just as strong a need for close friendships as anyone else. I have also talked to him from as early as I can remember about how important it is to do what makes your heart happy. As long as you're kind and thoughtful to others, then there is no shame in doing what makes you happy and what interests you. I am trying to lay the foundation so that when he's a teenager - and older of course - he'll be secure with his inner-compass.

Marla said...

Aw, thank you, Roselie! Of course, we grown-up weird kids recognize it in young ones. So many wonderful people have come out of the woodwork who've recognized and appreciated that spark of wonderful weirdness in my son. I'm so glad for the weirdoes of the world. :)

Marla said...

Well, Vegan Burnout, you know my little man sees you as a kindred spirit. After we met he kept asking if we could meet you again at the Chicago Diner. Did I ever tell you that? Except for the back brace - I had psoriasis, which was lovely - it sounds like we had a very similar time growing up. I love you!

Vegan Burnout said...

Love you back! He's so sweet *tear*. Next time I'm Chicago-bound, we will most definitely make a Diner date. That was the best day of my trip (even better than the Field Museum!).

Vanilla Rose said...

One of my family members has children with autism. Sadly, the world does not seem quite ready for "weird" children yet. One of my friends has three vegan children of whom the eldest is austistic (Asperger's), so that makes life ... interesting for her.

Jodi Picoult's novel "House Rules" features a teenager with autism, although when I review it for amazon I will criticise her for implying that non-dairy ice cream tastes inferior to dairy. (I have lactovore family members who tell me otherwise, so I am not biased!)

I didn't fit in at school, despite not then being vegan and not being autistic. I am glad to say that I picked up some good coping mechanisms as I got older.

wingraclaire said...

Thank goodness for a mother like YOU! Some days I think I have a whole classfull of your son... and his sisters :) I was one too.... maybe that's why I became a teacher. Loved the feminist post too. Yeah, I agree.

Sneaky Vegan said...

Weird is wonderful! You've done a great job Ms. Marla. Truly inspirational - BOTH of you :)