Sunday, August 13, 2006

#293 - When Is Equality Not a Good Thing?

Depends more or less on how one defines "equality," I suppose.

Kim Swygert (or whatever her name is these days) is guest-blogging over at Joanne Jacobs whilst Joanne pursues wedded bliss. She returns to a subject that has been discussed many times before. We get so concerned that childrens' self esteem will suffer should they ever find themselves disappointed about something, that we educate the drive to succeed right out of them. Or so it seems to me.

The idea that we can "protect" children by never singling out anyone for extraordinary achievement (or, conversely, by singling out everyone) is probably one of the more damaging principles to creep into public education over the past several years.

Hey, don't get me wrong; I went through my fair share of disappointment as a youngster. I was a skinny, geeky little kid, and the butt of more than a few jokes throughout my scholastic career. Valentine's Day was especially bitter for me, because I can probably count on one hand the number of Valentines I received in elementary school. Ever. Now, that could be a blow to the ol' ego, but (so far as I can tell) it didn't turn me into a bitter young man with dreams of becoming a disgruntled postal worker.

I was never the most popular kid in the class. My academic achievements were limited to showing up to class, except for those days when I could convince Mom that I was stricken with Dengue Fever. Nor was I a natural athlete. Any team on which I played generally lost. In fact, the only way I could be on a winning team was to play with kids that were at least two years younger than I was.

I'd say that I spent time in grade school dreaming of being the best at something. But I don't think I spent so much time dwelling on it that it became a crippling problem for me later in life. Truth be told, it just took me awhile to figure out where I did excel, and then to become comfortable that these achievements were indeed of worth. This isn't to say that I didn't spend some days crying on Mom's shoulder, but that's what Moms are for, and she always knew the right things to say.

It just so happened that public schools, especially thirty five years ago, weren't terribly well equipped to help with my peculiar abilities. Once or twice a week, some gracious lady would come to the school and take a few of us out of class. This started in the fourth grade for me, and I would take along my quarter-sized violin, sit in the cafeteria, and try to learn about playing violin while this same lady also taught kids with clarinets, flutes, trumpets, drums, or whatever. Mom and Dad knew that if I was to succeed as a violinist, I would need much more help than that. So they arranged private lessons with the concert-mistress of the Conejo Symphony, who also happened to be a friend of theirs.

My talent had begun to sneak out.

Of course, even with that knowledge I was still years away from being recognized for anything except underachieving. During the first Open House after I entered junior high school Dad (who had been a stud athlete in high school himself) walked up to my gym teacher and asked how his son, Woody, was doing in class. "Woody who?" was the response. I mostly excelled at being invisible to my teachers.

It was because of the local high school, really, that I began to earn some modicum of respect for my talents. I was still highly overrated as a student by any and all measures. Any report card that did not feature at least one "D" was viewed by my parents as worthy of being framed. But, I had some talent and was finally being recognized - even sought after - for it.

I was a performer.

I had started acting at age 11, taking advantage of a local summer drama workshop. I think probably I got in mostly because they needed Mom to play piano for rehearsals, but the die was cast. I took to the stage like deer take to running, and was recognized fairly early on by cast and crew alike as a natural. Unfortunately, these opportunities were, at first, limited to summer workshops. The junior high just didn't have much of a drama department to speak of. And then it happened.

The high school was about to do a performance of "Amahl and the Night Visitors," by Gian Carlo Menotti. To do "Amahl" one must have a boy soprano. And that boy had better be able to sing his way through an entire show. The director and music director had both worked with Mom in the workshops, and, just as importantly, they remembered me. Would I be willing to audition, they asked Mom. Oh, I'm sure he would, she replied. And so at the age of 12 I performed my first starring role as a crippled boy in the Holy Land who finds his life changed by a King he has never met. I also received more recognition than I had ever received in my entire life. And it felt good.

By the time I hit high school, I was a stage veteran. I was also the youngest kid to audition for and be accepted in the Madrigal Singers. (Later I would learn that this is because tenors are always at a premium. This is still true today.) So I did my plays and sang my concerts, and basked in the warmth of recognition (and even a little envy) showered on me by my contemporaries. None of this helped me land a girlfriend until my senior year (I was still a geeky-looking kid), but I had finally learned what it was that I was good at.

Once that part of me was defined, it was easier to find recognition by employing those talents. I was the go-to kid in Church for music and acting duties. I could, it transpired, even conduct choruses. I acted in roadshows and Stake musicals. I was never truly a Boy Scout, because the Scouts quite frankly didn't know how to handle me. But that was okay, too. I was developing different survival skills; skills that would serve me well on my mission and in countless situations since.

There is nothing at all wrong with striving to excel at something in life, although I know some people who would rather not. For those who wish to, there are so many different areas in which to excel, and public school cannot possibly prepare us for each and every one. But there's nothing wrong with recognizing achievement. Even if others may not get recognized. Not this year, anyway. Their times will come later. Perhaps much later. But they will come.

The idea that we need to make everyone "special" only dilutes the power of that word. That idea is useful in the context of a Special Olympics, where even to participate is tantamount to scaling Mt. Everest. But to believe that everyone is equally special has little value anywhere else. Even in religion.

That may sound funny, but it's still true. The apostle Paul knew this principle when he taught that the Lord "gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." (Eph. 4:11-12) In other words, there are many different offices in the Church. Each calling is unique and carries with it different responsibilities. Those who serve in those offices use the talents given to them to help them serve. We can't all be prophets because we don't all have the prophetic gift, but we can still minister to others. The talents we possess carry with them the ability to uniquely bless the lives of others.

So recognizing someone for having a unique gift is nothing from which to shy away. No, unique abilities should be recognized, and even encouraged, so long as those abilities are used to bless, rather than curse.

Note to Chris Blomquist: Yeah. That was a lot of typing. Lose my message? ;-)

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