THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
The Extraordinary Ordinary Life
A few weeks ago on CBS News, Scott Pelley asked one of those questions that makes one weep for the dire state of American journalism. In an interview with Ryan Speedo Green, a successful opera singer who overcame a very rough childhood, including some time in juvenile detention, the conversation came around to a very dedicated teacher who helped Green turn his life around.
"Why would Mrs. Hughes figure you for someone who had a future?" Pelley asked, evincing a cringe from educators across the civilized world (or at least among those of us unable to break the inexplicable habit of watching the broadcast relic that calls itself 60 Minutes).
Fortunately, Green had a perfectly reasoned response to this inane question: "I don't think it was specific to me. I believe she thought this way about every student that she worked with. "
Imagine that: a teacher who cared about ALL of her students. One can only hope that the majority of the viewing public already knew that education is not a talent search, and a classroom is not a casting call. Good teachers don't spend their days seeking out the next international singing sensation, nor any other kind of standout. They are human, of course, and cannot help but take satisfaction from the student who pays close attention, makes an exceptional effort, and excels in one way or another. But the student who struggles is no less an object of a teacher's focus. Teaching well is very difficult (notwithstanding the widely held canard that anyone can do it) and would be well nigh impossible to endure without an abiding regard for the well-being of children. Indifference to all but the most gifted would render the job an unbearable burden, and make the teacher a bitter failure.
Pelley's shallow attempt to bestow retroactive celebrity on an undisciplined teenager who, by his own admission, was undeserving of any such recognition, is a symptom of a much wider decline in standards in journalism in particular and society in general. Understandably, Green was chosen to be the subject of a 60 Minutes segment only because his personal story is out of the ordinary. The definition of what is newsworthy inclines towards the unusual ("man bites dog", in the old newsroom adage), and the unusual inclines towards the individual of extraordinary talent and/or achievement. Green's story of redemption and renewal is truly remarkable and he has earned the plaudits he is now receiving. He comes across as a charming man who has genuinely made something great out of a very inauspicious beginning to his life. But when an interesting story of human perseverance is turned into mere entertainment buzz about somebody who "made it", it descends into mawkishness.
Moreover, stories like these are often justified on the grounds that they are "inspiring". But inspiring to whom, exactly? The prime examples are the cloying profiles of Olympic athletes that we are subjected to during the games every few years. There goes the little skater off to the ice rink at 4:00 every morning, practicing for hours every day before and after school, forgoing a lifetime of holidays, birthday parties and friends in a single-minded quest for a gold medal. And there are the devoted, sleep-deprived parents, sacrificing everything for their future hero, giving up any semblance of a normal life, even moving across the country so their budding star can work under a famous coach, and pinning all their own hopes and dreams on their talented offspring's inevitable moment in the limelight.
One obvious problem with that storyline is that for every kid who gets the gold, there are a hundred or a thousand others, and their parents, who make the same sacrifice and end up with nothing. Even the most extraordinary effort does not automatically translate into a championship. There are only so many medals to go around. Few little league superstars will make it to the majors. Of the thousands who audition for parts in plays, movies and TV shows, the vast majority will never get a big part, let alone win a Tony, an Emmy or an Oscar. Not every singer with a fabulous set of pipes, like Mr. Green, will end up on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Not every college drop-out with a business idea will end up at the head of a billion-dollar corporation. The limelight just isn't big enough for every would-be celebrity. If the dream is attainable for only a precious few, are we not inspiring children to pursue the wrong dream? If the ultimate goal of every human being is to become a star, are we not sending a message that anything less than stardom is second best, and that a life of obscurity, however pleasant and prosperous, is not as worthy as one of glamor and fortune? Fawning over the famous is not an inspiring argument for a quiet life of love and private fulfillment.
And then there's the problem of role models. A sports commentator once made the trenchant observation that the one indispensable quality that enables an athlete to make it to the medal podium — namely, a fanatical, unrelenting, selfish pursuit of a single goal — makes them terrible role models for children. What parent really wants a child to spend every waking moment doing just one thing? Does anyone think it is healthy for a child to never play with other children because he's too busy practicing, whether it's a musical instrument or jumping hurdles? Is it really okay that a basketball game is simply out of the question because it might hurt an aspiring violinist's fingers, or that an afternoon in the sun might damage a would-be actor's perfect complexion? Is there a recommendation from any professional body on the planet that suggests that a daily regimen of obsessive self-denial is healthy for anyone? What kind of parent eyes his or her newborn in the cradle and thinks, "You're going to become the world's best chess player even if means spending most of your life alone in a dark room"?
There are indeed some parents who, when confronted with the first stirrings of talent in their offspring, have dreams of glory erupt before their eyes. There have been more than a few over the centuries, like Mozart's father, who leveraged a child's remarkable gift into a family livelihood. Let's be clear: there is nothing untoward about a truly gifted person finding an outlet for his or her talent, and to receive some deserved acclaim for a well-earned success. What we're talking about, though, is the deification of celebrities to such an extent that they are quite literally treated as superhuman, thereby convincing millions out there in the audience to believe that just becoming famous is a laudable life goal in and of itself. Needless to say, the Internet has only intensified this already uncontrolled phenomenon, as it offers countless new opportunities for large swaths of humanity to attain their 15 minutes of fame. The belated reckoning now being visited upon a pantheon of show business gods for their sexual crimes is a very potent sign of just how far we have strayed morally. None of these predators had any reasonable expectation that they would ever be held to account, because their status presumably convinced them that they need not be judged by the standards that govern the behavior of the common rabble in the cheap seats. What is the point of getting famous in the first place if not to be elevated above the silly rules that ordinary people have to live by? And if you're literally allowed to get away with anything, where's the crime? Can we even blame them for thinking this way, when we, the public, are the ones who gave them a free pass all these years by showering them with unthinking adulation?
Celebrity worship is not a victimless offense. One of its more insidious consequences is the idolization of political figures, whose de facto celebrity tends to shield them from accountability, and thus runs afoul of most of the fundamental tenets of democratic government. But its effects are most widely felt among the masses of the poor and poorly educated whose opportunities in life are limited from the outset, and whose dreams of stardom steer them from paths that might otherwise lead them to a fulfilling and productive but "ordinary" life. The excellent documentary "Hoop Dreams" from the 1990s documented starkly this slow-motion tragedy. It followed several boys of moderate talent whose fixation on NBA stardom led them to an inevitable dead end of college and minor-league basketball, often without even earning a degree along the way.
In the intervening years, the situation has in many ways only grown worse. Consider the story of another young African American, Casey Gerald, whose riveting new memoir, There Will Be No Miracles Here, frames the issue in all its shame and darkness. He grew up in a poor Dallas suburb, the child of a mentally ill mother and drug-addicted father, both of whom were frequently absent from his life. Though bright and personable, and surrounded by many other close relatives, including an older sister who gave up her own education to stay home and take care of him, he was lost, frightened, insecure, and oblivious of everything but his own immediate circumstances. When his high school football coach presented him with the possibility of playing for Yale, it was the first time he had heard of the school. When he was admitted, the Dallas schools literally made him a poster-boy for academic achievement, plastering his face all over the district on a poster that read, "Look who's going to Yale. He did it and you can too."
In retrospect, Gerald does not find all of this attention flattering, but exploitative. As his scholastic stardom brought various benefits, he grew increasingly aware of how his personal success had absolutely no impact on the thousands of other students who would never get the one-in-a-million chance that he was given. He writes about being selected to participate in a Mayor for a Day program in Dallas: "One student from every public school would be chosen, sent downtown for a special experience, and a write-up in the paper, and the city would otherwise continue its regular programming of letting the children in its public schools waste away."
Self-disciplined, emotionally aloof, and unfailingly polite, Gerald developed a refined ability to get along in whatever situation he found himself. He gamely played his role at Yale, starring on the football team as he had in high school, idling away his summer internship at a prestigious Dallas law firm, applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, then attending Harvard Business School, and accepting a position on Wall Street (ironically, at Lehman Brothers just as it was about to implode in 2008). While at Yale, he even helped to found an organization expressly devoted to helping other African American male students reach the finish line, without much anticipation of what lay on the other side of that line. He was so invested in making a success of himself and his fellow students, and so lacking in any countervailing perspective from his family background, that it took him years to realize that he had not learned much of value in all those years, and had no idea what he was doing. When asked in a job interview about books he was reading, he had to acknowledge to himself that he had hardly read a book in his life, including in his four years at Yale. He finally understood that his on-campus celebrity enabled him to remain ignorant. And he came to the painful conclusion that, even with the advantages that come only to a chosen few, he was still utterly lost and confused about his place in the world. The system that opened doors for a kid whose father, before his fall from grace, had been a big-time football star at Ohio State, and that gave him access to a wide network of fabulously successful Yale alumni, was designed primarily to produce symbols. What would happen to all those other kids without those advantages? What are the schools and the society doing for them?
In a recent interview on PBS, Gerald elaborated:
"This American dream deal is a fantasy, it's a myth, it's a distraction. You take a poor black queer kid, damn near orphan from Oak Cliff, Texas, you send him off to Yale and Harvard and Wall Street and Washington, put him on the cover of a magazine, and it distracts us from the fact that there's a conveyer belt leading most young people from neighborhoods like mine from nothing to nowhere, while picking off the chosen few like me. So what I'm trying to do with this book, when I say it's an intervention, it is try to get us not so much to stop believing in dreams and miracles ... but to really focus on the American reality, and to say that one Casey Gerald does not justify the suffering of millions of children. And we can build a country and a society and we can build lives that are more humane, that are nobler, that are kinder, that are gentler, that don't leave 13 million children without food to eat or one in 30 children without a place to live."
Those without a particular talent that can bring them renown, or the social connections to raise them to high places, must content themselves with a quieter and more obscure existence. That is the ultimate reality for nearly everyone, and a potential recipe for contentment for the vast majority of humankind. Our tragedy, in our media-fixated society, is that we consider this alternative to be a mere consolation prize and therefore not a balanced choice. A society that places such a high value on just being famous and so little on the high honor of, say, teaching, is doomed to see the gap between haves and have-nots grow ever wider. There are many prizes worth striving for — loving relationships, happy children, meaningful work, fulfilling pastimes, secure communities — but none of these will put you in the headlines. If the difference between success and failure is constantly reduced to winning the biggest accolades or going home a loser, then great numbers of people will feel as if they've achieved nothing, and that their lives are worth nothing. We should not all have to endure what Casey Gerald endured to learn that winning the biggest rewards comes at a great cost, and that they are not the only rewards worth having. That's what the goal of education ought to be: not making great stars of the few, but good citizens of the many.
January 12, 2019
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