by Raju Peddada
Three hundred eminent artists and inventors studied by a research grant were proven to be bad students at their schools. This study, "The coincidence of ADHD and creativity," was conducted by Dr. Bonnie Cramond in 1995. Thirty-eight percent of these seminal minds studied were deemed anti-social.
"Of all the animals, the boy is the most unmanageable."
(Swans - July 4, 2011) History brims with accomplished and exalted individuals, who in their childhoods, were malingerers, interlopers, daydreamers, hooky-players and just plain rascals. The annals of history are replete with seminal personalities whose potential could never be accurately prognosticated. Predictably, these folks as children were deduced as dull, and deemed anything but special by the "authorities." These children, seen around in ordinary circumstances, stumbled through their schools, mostly shunned, even by their own siblings, disappearing for decades, then, suddenly appearing on the global radar, as some recognized genius in some calling that stuns the ones who once "knew" the individual. In fact, at the Harvard University, the Alums were categorized into A students as academics and C students as billionaire donors. What does that tell you? The commentary and conclusion on such kids had always been in hindsight and in detailed retrospectives after their apotheosis.
In the late 19th century, there had been a "summons" of sorts, from a grade school teacher to a parent, a mother known by the name of Nancy. This summons was nothing but a parent-and-teacher-conference, regarding a young boy. At this meeting the teacher, a Reverend Engle, had made it abundantly manifest that the boy was an "addled" presence in the class. Apparently, the boy, with his daydreaming, fidgeting, and quirky behavior had become a distraction for the class. The teacher recommended that the boy be switched to a "special attention" school, or be home schooled, followed by vocational schooling, as he did not see any potential. The indignant mother stood up for her son, and promptly excised him from the school, thus ending his long three-month schooling. This demeaning experience actually intensified the mother's faith and dedication for her boy. He was home schooled, but eventually attended the "university of Life" selling newspapers, candy and vegetables on the trains between Detroit and Port Huron, and finagling a place from the train conductor to do his experiments.
He persisted, despite privations and humiliating circumstances. Decades dissipated, and it seemed he also had dissolved into oblivion. Then, suddenly he surfaced, out of the darkness of mediocrity, as if an incandescent light bulb was switched on, which actually since the late 19th century, has not been switched off -- it still radiates in his honor and namesake. Who was he? After attending the "Empirical University" in his own laboratory, he managed a mere 1,093 inventions, most of them fundamentally seminal, transmuting the standards of living for humanity across the globe. He also founded 14 companies, including "General Electric," which today is one of the most successful and largest publicly-traded corporations -- with revenues larger than the GDP of most nations, employing thousands. Thomas Alva Edison invented the 20th century. He was the man who technically separated the new world from the old Victorian one; he was the one who made it legit for the historians to use the term "modern" when referring to that era. All this with no formal education. His astonishing individual achievements can never be surmounted or eclipsed, which already had become the stuff of legends.
Here are some common traits of highly creative individuals that have shaped humanity and civilizations:
** Day dreaming and inattention
** Inability to complete projects in a given time
** Hyperactivity/restlessness and surplus energy
** Difficult temperament and deficient in social skills
** Academic underachievement
** Different learning style, empirical learning
** Sensation seeking and relentless curiosity
** Frequent Jobs/projects switching
** Clue to genius: sloppy appearance
In the school yearbooks, they look perfectly ordinary, like Bill Gates or Clinton did. What potential resides in a child is impossible to gauge; the gene pool, the circumstances, the personal dynamics and drive, or the home molding that accounts for the making of a psyche. A psyche that could survive on the fringe, and turn into a force to reckon with, or exist like the rest, in mediocrity. Children represent latent potential; this stage, their chrysalis and their collective metamorphosis, requires selfless parental nurturing, augmented by institutional guidance.
We also know of another boy, who was rejected by a famous school of arts in Paris in the 1890s. In the decades that ensued, he methodically mastered every type of expression in the visual arts, whether it was impressionism, realism, abstract-expressionism, cubism, romanticism, or sculpture. In the process, he not only deconstructed and restructured modernism, but more than anything, he dismantled all the conventions of "procedural creativity" espoused by art institutions for centuries. His ascension, inversely increased the general derision for such institutions that worried more about the processes than the probing, and focused more on the technique, than the travels of a mind. Pablo Ruiz Picasso exploded like balloon of colors, on the face of a gray and prosaic conventionalism, forever destroying the boundaries professed by systematic mediocrity. Recently, a Picasso painting was auctioned for over 104 million dollars. It seems that a rejection by the purveyors of conventional wisdom is a sure blessing for recognition and riches for that rejected talent.
Would MIT or Cal-Tech give admission to a couple of talented bicycle mechanics? Well, think hard, because if they don't, they wouldn't have had the Wright Brothers on their roster of alumni. What this means is that schools, with their various psychometric gauging systems, must make it a point to identify and nurture talent, not just teach. On the other side, it also becomes a parental imperative to decipher their child's "operating code" at their earliest learning cycle. Unscrambling their creative potential becomes an urgency, to enable better guidance at both ends, the home and the school. There are individuals who are self motivated, like Steve Jobs, Harold Bloom, Orhan Pamuk, George Lucas and many like them; then, there are those who need encouragement, most fall in this category; followed by some, who need negative or punitive motivation. But, it all emanates at home.
More than adults, children have this instinctive and resurgent capacity to rise from the ashes of adult dysfunction, chaos, and acrimony. As a contrarian, I bank invariably on their combative spirit to overcome even the most fearsome hurdles. Children are products of symmetrical, as well as asymmetrical environments. Asymmetrical being the proxy for destitution, privations, and hardship. I would advance and even embrace this hypothesis that great protagonists of history, those who had and continue to affect humanity in positive ways, were actually "beneficiaries" of their asymmetrical circumstances. The inference here: the heroes of humanity, for the most part, spring from the meanest of circumstances, like Frederick Douglas and Lincoln. The gritty and grating hardship is what chisels individuals into the marble deliverers they become.
It has been argued that symmetry breeds predictability. Some of the "safest" homes are the places that produce banality, mediocrity, or even malignancy. Pressure and stress create marble and granite, beauty and utility. Let us assume for the sake of polemics that normalcy rarely produced paradigm shifters, except on rare occasions, and that too only in the individual arts. Whether we peer back into antiquity or look at the present, we find coherence for our hypothesis. Every lionized Roman emperor who had arrived from asymmetrical circumstances of privations and hardship, sired and raised tyrants, despots and killers in their cushy Palatine palaces: products of symmetry and supply. All one has to do is peruse their chronology.
The best example of individuals, rising from their wretched conditions to create singular works of beauty, come from the world of literature. The artists of the letters, whether impressionistic, realistic, or magical, have illustrated the human condition in piercing, as well as poignant prose. Artists like Miguel Cervantes, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Stendhal, Jean Jacques Rousseau, or Gabriel García Márquez, painted the human landscape through their experiences; not to mention the searing literature from the Holocaust survivors, like Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. I also stumbled across a treasure trove of authors in the "The Columbia Guide to The Literatures of The Eastern Europe Since 1945" compiled by Harold Segel, who had stepped out from under the debris of WWII to write their wrenching experiences. What is really indicting is that most of these writers were never formally schooled in any sort of writing program, they simply wrote from the inside.
On the other hand, our hypothesis that pressure and adversity create gems out of "human coal" can be debunked instantly. There is no need to possess that thousand-yard stare to see how many have fallen through the proverbial cracks due to their asymmetrical circumstances. The state and federal correctional facilities are packed with individuals that have been incarcerated for some reason or another, most coming from dysfunctional or broken homes with single parents. This reverts me to the necessity of a "complete" home, as the keystone of dual parenting, and the exigent imperative for guidance and discipline for our progeny. It begins at home and ends at the school. It is the school that becomes indispensable in instilling communal perseverance, systematic diligence, creative trajectory, and application for success.
Children, especially the creative ones, are propelled by self preservation impulses, extricating themselves from their poisonous milieu, and escaping into their imaginary therapeutic and nourishing spheres, closed off even to the closest of confidants. Constant scolding and negative reinforcement can render a child withdrawn, resulting in the osmosis of a criminal mind. The ones who succumb and the ones who don't both need observation for our own education. Our hasty judgments can never be remedial, redemptive or rewarding. Parents and pedagogues must continue with their vigilance, yet fortify their fragile psyches by being curative, patient and allowing for their reticence and spatial ambiguity.
Weeks after that P&T conference, and after some sticky anxiety, we had come to the conclusion that there was nothing wrong with our son, Butch, and even if there was something that bothered him, we could not identify it and neither could he. We even dragged him to his pediatrician, with a degree in child psychiatry, who promptly exclaimed "nothing wrong with him...we don't want him performing like a robot, a zombie...stay, sit, fetch - do we?!" He went on to echo my own sentiments: "boys are testosterone creatures... we never should neuter, with drugs... Ritalin." This, coming from a doctor, surprised me, but was a relief. I also feel that micromanaging a child's psyche could be more damaging than letting nature take its own course. Despite that note from his teacher, I can't complain about a second-grade kid who does fifth-grade math (fractions), reads literature for entertainment, and gets published for his artwork. Boys at that age are troublemakers, and this is what makes them engaging and endearing; this is what sustained my parents in their recollections of us. We simply cannot destroy their boyhood on account of our inconvenience; rather, it is something temporal and glorious to revel in.
In conclusion, from the fictional characters of Dickens to the real life eagles like Anne Frank, the human spirit remains vociferously combative in the face of ugly odds. There are many storied legends of personal extrication from seemingly apocalyptic circumstances, to their eventual apotheosis that prevail upon us like beacons of enlightenment, and antidotes against prejudgment. We parents and pedagogues remain trapped in a mystifying conundrum of antipodean realities, somewhere between the sanguine homes that produce the likes of a Ted Kaczynski or an Adolf Hitler, and the dysfunctional homes that sire the likes of Alexander the Great or Alexander Hamilton. The parent and teacher team must remain vigilant and find congruency in solutions for better guidance. More than anything, it seems that our solace resides in our own restraint, and in allowing ourselves to be entertained, by letting our firecrackers go, till they get naturally spent, in due course. We cannot afford to repress their brilliant sparks; after all, they are our continuance, we so yearn.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)