“Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Commonly (and probably incorrectly) attributed to Albert Einstein
Travel has a way of uncovering those things deep within you that need attention. As we sat by the water in Cozumel, Mexico, our 13 year old travel companion watched a few teenage boys skateboard and asked us quietly “what are you guys inherently good at?” I thought for a minute and responded confidently with a couple of things I feel I am naturally good at. Aaron did the same. Victoria nodded slowly and admitted, “I don’t think I am naturally good at anything.”
Let me first say, Victoria is naturally good at several very important things. But she is different from your average 13 year old and her natural gifts serve to set her apart even further from her peers. She is highly intuitive. She is intensely emotionally perceptive and sensitive. She is incredibly empathetic. She also has the determination of a bull. These natural gifts, we can only hope, will one day be a part of a collective shift in humanity’s energy and she will be a part of leading us to a more positive, more empathetic way of life. It sounds like a tall order but if you knew Victoria, you would know what I am saying is accurate and entirely possible.
For now she is 13. 13 and in middle school.
Victoria’s gifts do not feel like gifts to her right now. I have watched her push down her gifts over the years in favor of ones that are more desirable to her. She wants to be funny. She wants to be athletic. She wants to be sociable. Who didn’t in middle school? But therein lies the problem…..
We all wanted gifts that weren’t ours. We still walk around wishing we could be at least a little more like the next guy. We forget to recognize and hone our own gifts. And we are all, as a society, teaching our kids to do the same thing.
We don’t do it on purpose…. we tell them it’s ok to be themselves- to say “no” when the crowd is doing something “wrong”. We tell them it’s ok to be unique. But those things that are “ok” come with strings attached, don’t they? It’s ok for our kids to say “no” and go against the crowd but not if the crowd is full of adults. If we are really honest with ourselves, we also envision our kids saying “no” in righteous moments, not in those mundane moments when we secretly wish they had just said “yes” in order to fit in a little better. We tell them it’s ok to be different but we simultaneously tell them that if they choose to look different- dye their hair blue, pierce their noses, wear ripped t-shirts- they shouldn’t be surprised if they get treated differently – or in other words, poorly. What a confusing message! We tell our kids it’s ok to be different but, as a whole, we secretly hope that most of them will just fit in so everything is easier on all of us. They can be different…. but only within the perimeters we are comfortable with.
I am talking about our greater society here. Plenty of individuals genuinely have no problem with extreme individuality and Victoria has some pretty cool parents. They listen to her and let her voice her frustrations and her feelings of “otherness”. They do not judge her and do not hold her to unattainable expectations of what success “should” look like. So why does this highly gifted kid feel like she has no gifts? Why does she work beyond her limit to make sure she exceeds every bar set for her?
Because our society tells her subconsciously that she must. How? By pumping every kid through the exact same school system and measuring them all by the same exact measuring stick. By surrounding everyone in our society with messages, subconscious and overt, about what “success” looks like. By forcing a confused perception of “needs” and “wants” and then creating a culture based around the idea that things are what make a person happy. By drugging any kid that shows too much energy, exuberance, excitement, or uniqueness. By collectively and often publicly shunning anyone who chooses an unconventional path.
Take an honest look around you- at the media, the schools, the billboards, the radio commercials, the “role models”, the political rhetoric, the “news” stories- and try to tell me with a straight face that we don’t collectively do these things. For the majority of kids or a people who don’t “fit the mold” they have two choices… struggle to fit or give up and be considered a failure.
Victoria will not accept failure, she is a fighter. And so she struggles.
Maybe one day she will break free of society’s expectations of her and choose the third, less popular option- the road less taken. Maybe she will discover that her own strengths lay outside of the boundaries our culture places upon her. Maybe. But what about all the other 13 year olds who “don’t fit in”?
Kids in the US spend the majority of their time in school or working on work for school. Obviously then school has an immense impact on who they are and how they perceive the world. School is a place where everyone must sit, stand, work, eat, play, and think at the same time. Everyone must pass the same test. Everyone must meet the same bar of expectations. Everyone must come to the same overall conclusions. Gifts of empathy, emotional intelligence, and intuition are not valued in this school system we have created. In fact, these gifts are systematically pushed down because anyone who possesses them cannot possibly fit into the cookie cutter mold that everyone must pass through in order to be deemed “successful”. This is not the fault of teachers. Nor is it the fault of parents. It’s not even the fault of test creators and politicians. It cannot be fixed by paying for private school or getting out of the inner city. The weight of what we have created lies with all of us. It is the entire system.
What are we doing to our kids? How can we possibly believe that any system that does not allow every individual to fully explore and hone their own natural gifts can truly be called “education”. What is success if it is not knowing and valuing what is inside us as individuals so that we can better contribute to our universe?
We have this image of the angst ridden, sullen teenager and attribute it on a continual basis to hormones. What if the real source of the deepest teenage angst is our inability to allow these young people the freedom and the respect to figure out what their inherent gifts are and how they can best utilize them? What if those of us adults who “got over the moodiness” of the teenage years have in actuality just acclimated to fitting in rather than proudly standing out?
There is something wrong when a person as gifted as Victoria feels she has no inherent gifts or that they are simply unimportant in light of the other areas where she does not “measure up”. We are exhausting ourselves as a people trying to limit individuality and we are cutting ourselves off from what makes us human.
I believe, and will always believe, that every child is “enough”. Victoria could fail every math class she takes from here on out and I would shrug my shoulders and still tell you with a smile that she is gifted, because she is- everyone is in their own way. When we can see these gifts in our children, and in ourselves, without quantitatively measuring them or comparing them to the gifts of others, that is when I believe we will be headed in the right direction.
Travel is not a cure all. It does not “solve” anything in and of itself. But boy oh boy, does it have the ability to shine a spotlight right in on those big questions, those things deep inside each of us that need to see the light of day, that need to be grappled with. In that way, travel is a medicine. The best kind of medicine…. the kind that forces you to seek out the root of what ails you- of what ails us. It’s a medicine that makes a philosopher out of the most humble of men and creates a space for even the most self-conscious of kids to let their voices be heard.
What gifts do your kids possess that make them unique?