On the wall of my daughter’s third grade classroom are students’ pictures and descriptions of activities they’re good at, each assigned a role by the teacher: soccer player, pianist, gymnast, ballerina. My husband and I, there for our parent-teacher conference, search anxiously for our daughter’s picture, wondering which of the usual third grade activities she’s decided to depict. We find it — a giant foot with a sock between its toes, a caption, “I’m good at carrying things with my feet,” and the teacher’s label, “Foot carrier.” The teacher says apologetically, “I didn’t know what else to call it”; my husband shakes his head, “she’s off in her own little world”; and I quip, “now, there’s a skill that will get her into a good college.” The teacher goes on to explain that Cecilia apparently does no outside reading because she hasn’t turned in a book report the entire term, nor is she so good at organization, following instructions, or paying attention. In fact my daughter reads at home for hours every day, and though I have stood over her while she filled out her book report forms, they never seem to have made it into the teacher’s hands. As the teacher shows us Cecilia’s less-than-stellar grades, she notes that art is the subject Cecilia excels at, and she always wonders what Cecilia will draw next: the nocturnal adventures of her two pet hamsters, a family of angels clothed in rainbows, or a Super Baby cartoon series based on her new baby cousin. “She does have a wild imagination,” I say, thinking of her room crowded with odd groupings of stuffed animals having camp-outs and building houses, its walls covered with her artwork, flags from the countries she’s visited, colorful bits of crepe paper – impossible to imagine making it look tidy, or even walking across the floor without tripping. At least she decided to part with her barbies, because, she explained, she found out that while she was at school, they teased the other dolls for being chubby. I think of Thoreau’s advice, “If a man
does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears the beat of a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.” My daughter’s knack for maintaining a mind all her own, for refusing other people’s labels, has also allowed her to empathize with other people’s private pain in a way that evades her more conformist classmates. When we returned last summer to America after a year in Ireland, we got the sad news that a neighbor boy her age had been diagnosed with Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy and was already having trouble walking. “We’re so glad Cecilia’s back, the family said. “The other kids run off to play and leave him behind, but Cecilia always waits for him.” I believe that by respecting and nurturing quirky individualism, we ultimately make everyone’s walk in life a little easier, and certainly more entertaining.
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