When I was six, I watched a galago take the top of a woman’s head off. Actually, it was just her wig, but the way she screamed, you couldn’t be sure. A galago—also known as a bush baby—is a primate the size of a small cat, with huge eyes, fluffy brown fur, and a hair-grooming instinct. They also have tiny, humanoid hands endowed with a death-grip. You can see the problem. Our galago was named Stinker, and the story of Stinker and the wig has served me well as an emblem of my quirky childhood. I grew up with a wealth of weird family stories; they defined me, and they nourished a flame of uniqueness that nothing could extinguish. Forty years after Stinker, I am a teacher, and I believe in the power of knowing what makes you distinctive.
This is not elitism, but its opposite: a democratic desire for everyone to be special, for no one to be lumped together. To lump people is to disrespect, to ignore, or to manipulate them—I don’t know which is more damaging.
Grown-ups conform; as Shakespeare wrote (almost), some achieve conformity, and some have it thrust upon ‘em. Most, both. But kids are raging individuals from the get-go. They make up words and games. They have relationships with their toys, food, furniture. They are, whether confined to a tiny apartment living room or free-roaming a huge backyard, extraordinary. They may grow up to make excuses for themselves, or buy into their own inferiority. They may grow up to make hierarchies for themselves, or buy into their own superiority. But if they can stay in touch with their own quirkiness, their own stories about what they used to call spinach, or how their grandmother tested noodles for doneness, or what almost killed them when they were three, if they can tap into memories of their pet chicken or their sister’s stuffed frog collection, then their lives are forever transformed: they are unique—not better, just unique—from all their peers, and as unique individuals no one can lump them as just an accountant or a flight attendant or a bouncer at a bar.
Ah, but do the elite members of our society really need encouragement in feeling special? Isn’t that what got them there in the first place? I answer “Yes” to the second question—in part!—and that is exactly my point. I want my students to feel distinctive, so that they can push themselves confidently in the direction of their choosing. If the high-enders meanwhile remind themselves that everyone is special, how can that hurt?
I must admit I’ve abused my galago story to impress people…I wish I could say I haven’t. But when I meet my students every September and help them tell their stories, I know the truth of my belief: my own sense of uniqueness has attuned me to the uniqueness of others. I want to polish their individuality because I know its power.
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