Thursday, July 24, 2008

Celebrating the "gifted" child

Who doesn't want their kid to be accepted in a "gifted" program? Whether it is an official invitation from school officials due to "objective" criteria, like grades, test scores, or nomination, or making an elite team or association (i.e., competitive soccer), parents experience an emotional jolt when their kid is thus affirmed. They are proud, happy, and fulfilled, at least at the moment.

This sense of identification with the winner is not limited to parents. The more public or noteworthy the "opportunity," the wider the circle of pride goes. The boy who is the star of his all-star team receives dozens of notes paper-clipped to the three line description of his four hit game from neighbors and people at church. The pretty girl who gets the commercial deal in third grade has an entire school of fans who clamor to be identified with their little star. The kids who win the league championship, or whose cheer team is invited to Disneyland to compete on ESPN, or whose SAT scores grab the attention of teachers, administrators and colleges all know that they are celebrated for one reason - their accomplishment brings joy and pride to those who either never were able to reach such heights themselves or who use the moment to dust off their own trophies on their fireplace mantel.

Is this a bad thing? Is it wrong to celebrate a kids' accomplishment, or to feel a sense of pride when someone we know, even from a distance, gets honored and appreciated? The answer is neither simple nor obvious. Instead of taking a stand, then, there are two aspects of this that concern me:

First, what about the non-achievers, those kids who not only never make the all-star team, but got cut as a ten year old, or who struggle to get a B, or who build the sets or carry the equipment? How do we celebrate those kids, the ones who are in the vast majority, yet know that all of the accolades and praise that floats all around them will never even begin to dust their own souls? One teacher called these kids "middle kids," and warned me as a researcher-substitute teacher that I wouldn't like them. I worry for these middle kids - who celebrates them? Who throws them a party, sends them a note, or brags about them from the pulpit? What school publishes their name, what newspaper makes note of their Saturdays, what neighbor brags about them at work?

Second, what about the fact that athletics is fickle and standardized tests measure one tiny slice of what might eventually make a successful adult? How are we setting up our "stars" when all too soon they come to the realization that the slaps on the back, the notes, and the stares will only come their way as long as they stay on top. They know that its not about them at all. Their fame, their popularity, their status and prestige is actually more for the benefit of those who cherish them than a way to celebrate them as a person. When the day comes where they have a bad game, get cut, or get in trouble, or their grades slip, or they struggle with eating or cutting or addiction or loneliness, the crowds are long gone.

"Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Anyone who will not receive the kingdom as a little child will never enter it."
- Jesus of Nazareth

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"Hot" - compliment, or flagrant objectification?

In some ways, who wouldn't want to be considered "hot"? After all, it is such a common way to describe someone today.

I asked a bunch of high school at a conference this week what "hot" meant. I tried to get them to offer some synonyms, like "cute" or "attractive." But none of them went there, they said "hot" was different, it was more than cute (one guy even said, "You can be ugly and hot."), it was, in short, a word that describes someone who is sexually attractive.

Did any of them feel like it was kind of an unfair and denigrating word? They were pretty taken aback by my question (even after I explained what "denigrating" meant!), but then just shrugged and said that being hot was a good thing, a compliment, and that any girl, or guy for that matter, would want to be called hot. It seems to be akin to a bit less common but similarly located term, sexy. But at least with that one we all knew what we were talking about.

Hm, I'm certain most people would see using hot is relatively harmless, and let's face it, probably almost everybody does want to be sexually attractive. This is what strikes me about this word: it seems that the familiar use of the word gives permission for leering, lust, and objectifying whomever we designate as hot. Perhaps we did the same thing with sexy, but this one seems to have pushed the envelop farther, and is far more blatant in its goal.

Here's where we seem to stand: to be called hot means that someone is, basically, attracted to that person in terms of sexual potential, and everybody wants to be seen that way. Great.