When my son was in school, I often had trouble talking with his teachers about how he was different.
I would routinely attend parent-teacher conferences and ask my favorite educational question: “What are Robby’s strengths and weaknesses?” Too often, his teacher would look at me blankly and say: “Your child is just the same as everyone else in my class.”
Some people are tall; others are short. Some people have lots of hair; others are nearly hairless. Some have big hook noses; others have little button noses. All we have to do is look around to observe differences.
Perhaps we don’t really want to see them. Too often, differences lead to division. Witness the conflict that frequently arises with differences in religion, race, and politics.
Even though it may be uncomfortable, let’s consider individual differences. I’m mostly referring to differences in ability, such as being fast versus slow in learning certain skills.
Like a star athlete, your student can be different and excellent too.*
Aptitudes vary greatly, person to person. Some people put pegs in pegboards quickly and perfectly; others drop pegs all over the board. Some people remember long lists of numbers without effort; others can barely remember their own phone number. Some people produce a rapid flow of ideas; others struggle to produce a few.
There are enormous differences in ability among us. Within us, too. The person who drops pegs may be exactly the same person who produces a rapid flow of ideas. Even superstars aren’t good at everything.
Nevertheless, differences tend to become threatening in a country that believes “all men are created equal.” Perhaps one underlying fear is that if we are not really all the same, then life will be inherently unfair, with no way to level the playing field.
So let’s reflect on the literal playing field. While it may be offensive to suggest that someone is different—especially when that might mean better than we are—sports are an apparent exception. Maybe because it’s so easy to observe the talent of athletes, when they’re in the right arena, playing their sport.
Then it’s okay for athletes to be different from the rest of us. It’s even okay for LeBron James to be better than other professional basketball players, paid an astonishing $30 million a year.
If athletes are allowed to be different—and excellent too—then why not students?
We have a specialization-of-labor economy. Most individuals need to do what they do best in order to earn a living wage. That being the case, I believe it makes sense to affirm individual differences from grade school on. Differences in ability, once developed, become an ace in the hole, a winning strategy.
Differences, in the eyes of talent mentors, are opportunities. Think of it this way: Your child’s talent is her own unique version of a big, strong LeBron body, unstoppable on the basketball court.
If your students’ talents aren’t athletic, or don’t show up in everyday activities, wouldn’t you want to know those strengths exist? That way you can help your protege connect to her own best chances for contributing to society. And earning the big bucks.
*Adapted from the title of John Gardner‘s book, Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too?