When he was in third grade, Oliver Mannion went through a period when he was a little down on himself.
Don’t tell me childhood is all lollipops and moonbeams.
He’d always been a smart and industrious little kid, praised by his teachers, bringing home good grades, quietly but studiously excelling in every subject. But that was no longer enough for him.
Meanwhile, outside school, he’d try his hand at anything that captured his interest. He played soccer. He tried to learn music. He set about teaching himself how to draw. He built and painted toy soldiers. To his proud mother and me these efforts were signs of curiosity, ambition, and diligence.
It turned out, though, that to him they were amounting to one failure after another.
I don’t know if it was a sudden or gradual realization, but he had become aware that some kids in his class were much better at some things than all the other kids. They had what Oliver called “special talents.” And as far as he could tell he wasn’t one of those kids. There were things he was good at, but nothing he felt he was one of the best at.
This was weighing on him, and every now and then, he’d try to talk about it, usually at bedtime---which meant he was ending his day on a gloomy and self-reproachful note.
“Dad,” he would say, “What’s my special talent?”
The first time he asked this, I, being slow on the uptake, cheerfully launched into listing all the many things he did well and how proud Mrs M and I were of him and his efforts.
Oliver would have none of it.
“No, Dad. What’s my special talent?”
So I picked out one of the things on the list to enthuse over. I can’t remember which, but it was probably what was impressing me most at the time, his ability to design functioning cities and neighborhoods and create characters in the world-building computer games he’d recently begun to play. I said he had the makings of an architect or an engineer or an interior designer or even a writer.
He said, “That’s not a special talent.”
I asked him to explain, which he did. He was always good at explaining.
There was more to his idea of a special talent than just being really good at something. A special talent would also be something he did well enough that he could devote his life to it and expect to be rewarded not with money and fame but with satisfaction and pride. What was something he could do very well that he would love doing?
Like I said. Third grade.
Anyway, whatever else I said to him that night didn’t satisfy him. He went to bed in a thoughtful mood and the next night he asked again.
“What’s my special talent?”
This time I was better prepared. When he rejected the idea that whatever I’d picked from the list as his special talent was in fact a special talent I followed up with “Arguing.”
He really didn’t like that.
“No, seriously,” I said, “You’ve always been very good at debating---that’s the better word. You’re good at making your mother and I, and your teachers, explain what we’re thinking when we tell you to do things or try to teach you lessons about life, the universe, and everything.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference didn’t amuse him.
“That’s not a special talent.”
“Sure it is,” I said.
“What good is it?”
“It’s good if you grow up to be a lawyer.”
He decided to think that one over.
But another night he came back with the now familiar question. “Dad, what’s my special talent?”
Ah, I thought, here’s the budding lawyer making a motion for an appeal.
But I was ready again. This time I told him that sometimes special talents take a while to blossom. “You can’t have a special talent for something you don’t have the physical or emotional maturity to do yet or the experience to even know what that something really is and what sort of talent it demands. Your mother and I think you’re going to be very good at one of the these things you’re already doing well but you have to do a little more growing up, that’s all.”
This sounded wise to me. Probably sounded like complete horse hockey to him.
Anyway, time did pass. The subject seemed to fade from his mind or, more likely, given the way he is, he decided to keep it to himself from now on because his old man was too much of blockhead and blowhard to talk to about it anymore.
A few years later, he and I were waiting in the gallery at his big brother’s karate dojo for Ken to finish his lesson. Oliver was in junior high by this point. I was noodling on the computer and Oliver was, I thought, off by himself, reading the rule book for his new Mutants & Masterminds tabletop RPG. Then I heard him talking and I glanced over to see that a little kid, a third grader it looked like, had sat down next to him, curious about what Oliver was reading. Oliver was explaining the game and the rules to him. And doing an excellent job of it.
Not only was the kid grasping the concept. I was getting it.
And it dawned on me.
Oliver’s special talent wasn’t arguing.
It was explaining.
When he seemed to be arguing, he was explaining what he didn’t understand and needed explained to him.
This should have been obvious. It was something his kindergarten and first grade teachers had noticed and joked about, affectionately and with admiration. They liked having him in their class, well, because he was a likeable kid, but also because often he could explain a lesson to the other kids in the class better than the teachers thought they could themselves.
“We call him the Little Professor,” his first grade teacher said to me once.
In trying his hand at everything, looking for his own special talent, he was learning how things work so that when the time came he could talk to anyone else trying to do those things and explain how to do them better. His special talent was helping others recognize and develop their special talents.
He was a born teacher.
When he and I were alone later, I started to tell him this, but he explained he was coming to this conclusion himself and had already begun in his methodical, industrious, intelligent way to direct his steps in the direction of becoming a teacher.
Saturday, Mrs M and I made our last visit to the high school as parents of a student. From here on out, whenever we go up there it’ll be as voters or concerned citizens. Same with Oliver, although he’ll be able to add “alumnus.”
Diploma in hand and special talent identified, he’ll start college in the fall as an elementary education major. He’s earned several scholarships and will be enrolling in the school’s honor program. His goal is to wind up back at his old grade school.
Every era has its own peculiar insanities. One of ours is a sudden vituperative disrespect for teachers bordering on out and out hatred. All over the country there are concerted efforts to put teachers back in their place as mere employees, and temp workers at that, grateful for whatever pittance the local school board deigns to pay them. Several cohorts of teacher-bashers are behind this, for different but overlapping reasons. One of them is the “reformers,” well-educated, successful, supposedly intelligent professionals who claim to be out to improve our schools but really seem to want only to monetize them. These self-proclaimed, self-flattering “meritocrats” love to boast of their own intelligence, skill, and talent and they insist that what they’re looking to promote and reward is intelligence, skill, and talent in others. But they really don’t value talent.
They don’t appear to even know what it is.
What they value is productivity.
That’s another way of saying they value making a maximum amount money at a minimal cost.
Teachers are anything but “productive” in that way.
And it’s clear that these reformers think teachers aren’t productive because they are without talent, whatever that is, unintelligent, and lazy, they need to be incentivized to work harder and become productive by money---by the fear of not having it, that is, not by the real prospect of earning more of it. Only the masters and mistresses of the universe are disincentivized by not earning more. The rest of us peons are only incentivized by fear of poverty and privation. Consequently, teachers must always be worried about losing their jobs. And so what if any one of them does? He or she can be easily replaced, by practically any jamoke off the street desperate enough to be grateful for whatever job and pay they can get and so terrified of losing both they will do whatever’s demanded of them by their bosses, which is to strive frantically to be more and more productive.
This is part and parcel with their general belief that people’s only reason for existing is to create wealth and in that endeavor everybody, except them, is interchangeable and disposable. But it fits with a more general contempt for teachers as not very smart or ambitious types who drift into the field for the summers off, the over-indulgent benefits, and the guarantee that no matter how incompetent they are they won’t be fired. Maybe the best of them go into it because they’re sentimentalists who “love kids” and believe “the children are our future” but that’s a sign they aren’t really serious grownups.
“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach,” right?
To which somebody has rejoined:
“Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, tell teachers how to do their jobs.”
The senior awards banquet at the high school two weeks before graduation day was a long night. A lot of scholarships and awards were given out. None of them of the Thanks for Participating kind so many Millennial-bashers seem to think is the norm. Oliver picked up three, including the one I mentioned, a scholarship awarded to seniors going on to college to major in education. There were a number of similar scholarships for future teachers from different sponsors. I counted at least ten students who earned one, including the captain of the football team. Nobody gives you a scholarship for wanting summers off and a guarantee you won’t be fired. Nobody gives you a scholarship for being lazy, unintelligent, motivated by mere sentimentality, and lacking in drive and ambition. All these scholarship winners were also honors students, including Oliver, which means they did very well in all their classes throughout high school. Also not the mark of people who are lazy, unintelligent, and under-motivated. And I will bet that all of them identified their “special talent” early and have been working hard towards the day when they will be at the head of their own classrooms helping their kids identify and develop their special talents.
Oliver can probably explain this better than I can. All I’m saying here is this.
No one better dare teacher-bash in front of me.
Oliver Mannion prepares to commence. Saturday, June 28, 2014.