Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Let's hear it for the weird kids!
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.