Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Lighting Out for the Territories

This article from Slate made me think about a high school student I taught, many years ago, in an alternative school for kids who had "fallen through the cracks" in previous schools. This kid was immensely intelligent, but socially hopeless. He spent hours at home, reading history, but was more at home in ancient worlds than his own. And he wasn't just awkward--he had some real problems. He occasionally dressed in furs and called himself Hrothgar, and was once seen walking down a major city street wearing scuba gear. He probably needed medication, but he refused to consider it, claiming that the doctors were all Men Without Honor, intent on destroying his manhood, or robbing him of his soul.

And when you looked at the world through his eyes, it was hard not to see things the way he did. To him, the modern world was alien, small, weak, and strange. Compromised in every possible way. In an earlier time, he would have set off for the frontier and become...what? A fur trapper, perhaps? Pa Ingalls, maybe? The kind of homesteader who could quote Shakespeare and the King James Bible, but who could not sit still in either school or church? Huck Finn, running away from being "sivilized"?

One of our teachers took this kid out on camping trips from time to time, to try to help him become more self-sufficient and capable, thinking that maybe we could get him a job in a national park, up on a fire tower or something. Because in our world, there was simply no place for him.

Our headmaster, who had spent many years teaching dyslexic students, was convinced that the thing we called dyslexia was a problem of definition more than anything else. In our modern, hyper-literate world, we saw these kids as problems, because they had trouble reading. But we tended not to see what often came hand-in-hand with those reading problems, which was intense creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and dynamic leadership skills. In an earlier time, all you would have seen were the gifts. Would it really have mattered if Alexander had inverted his letters, or if Napoleon had been a slow reader? Not so much. But in our world, which doesn't particularly value Alexanders or Napoleons, the tail wags the dog.

What are we supposed to do with students who are simply not built for school desks, multiple-choice tests, and college? We live in a country that attracted pioneers and out-of-the-box thinkers from nations all around the world; we live in a country that was, to a large extent, built by those people. The West was settled by those people--people who were more comfortable cutting down trees, building a house with their own hands, and hacking a living out of the soil than they were living in town--people who tended to uproot themselves and move further west when the land they had settled became too settled. Say what you like about people like that--you like them or you hate them--but don't pretend they no longer exist. Do we really think, somehow, we have bred those qualities out of collective gene pool? Do we think that will no longer have any Pa Ingallses or Alexanders, simply because we have no need for them anymore?

No--they will come. They come every year. The dispositions are there, and they're not going away, even though we have no place for them. And we have no place for them. There are no frontiers, no unsettled places to which the unsettled minds can run away. There are no unruly places for the people who need to make their own rules. There are only round holes, anymore; if you happen to be a square peg, you're shit out of luck. If you're round-ish, we can accommodate you. If you're willing to squeeze yourself a little, or shave yourself down a little, we can find a place for you. But square? Genuinely, freakishly square? Good luck.

I have no idea what happened to Hrothgar, as I moved away from that city soon after teaching him, and lost touch with many of my fellow teachers. In my mind, he's still on the prowl, in furs, looking for a place to call home.

And Alexander wept, because there were no more worlds to conquer. But Ritalin took care of that.

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