Leon’s Existential Cafe

Unseen Talent: How Our Environments Prevent Us From Shining

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” –Stephen Jay Gould

Stunted Gifts

Our society is structured in a fascinating way. In distant lands, they tell tales of American riches, achievements of common individuals working long-hours, and attaining success through talent and grit. The American Dream, they’re told, is solely based on talent and effort; America, in its essence, is the land of opportunity, as it is the land of effort. Yet, the evidence persistently bears otherwise. Our magnanimous land of meritocracy is currently at one of its lowest points in social mobility.

One can argue that the reason being is that the gifted and talented, mostly, reside in the wealthier classes, but that assessment is impossible to validate. So, it leaves us to wonder how many children, who are inherently capable of achieving, and providing, wonderful things for the rest of us, are stunted by their environments?

The Effects of Poverty

Considering poverty and mental illness, the two, seemingly, go hand in hand; where one is, the other isn’t far behind. And, one can easily imagine a household in which parents struggling with depression neglect their children’s academic lives. You would think, and hope, that the public school system would intervene if needed, but it rarely does; the state fails as a crutch. I grew up in a house in which both parents struggled with depression, where one displaced his anger on the rest. That sort of environment does little more than foster hopelessness, leaving one with a perceived incapacity to manage their own existence: success wasn’t secondary to survival; it wasn’t even an option.

So, I think of myself, and others, who could have matured differently, who don’t have to spend their adult lives battling against memories of poverty and depression, which sustain beliefs of inadequacy and worthlessness. I don’t know whether or not I’m successful, but I can note how amazed I am about the fact of my having received a graduate degree. In the public school system, I was labeled as a deviant; I didn’t even have one teacher who considered it appropriate to have me tested for mental illness. Thus, as a kid, I figured that I was simply lazy. I didn’t have many academic interests or passions, nor the self-esteem needed to foster whatever inherent talent I may have had. But, I loved to write and tell stories, so that was what I did, not knowing, or caring, how good I was. I wrote storylines involving professional wrestlers and their various disputes with one another, I wrote tales about superheroes and villains, and stories that were too ridiculous to share; I simply wrote.

Finding Forrester

Having barely survived junior high school and possessing a GED, I dropped out of college after about two weeks in, reinforcing my belief of my incompetence. And, for a lengthy period, I was convinced that my life would follow the same trajectory as my parents’. Talent, without nurturance, is useless, like knowledge without action; and, so many kids who live in poverty are currently faced with the same grim prospects that I had.

One of my favorite films, and one I think of often, is Finding Forrester, starring the prominent Sean Connery and Rob Brown, who played Jamal, a kid trying to survive and adapt to daunting circumstances, which were comprised of poor living conditions, noisy neighbors, bullies, and a culture that shunned academic achievement; there are few characters in cinema with whom I strongly identify with, and Jamal is at the top of the list. He loved to read and he loved to write, and in William Forrester, he found a mentor to nurture his inherent talent; he found a saving grace. When I finally decided to return to college, I didn’t do it because I truly believed in myself, but I chose so because of the awful alternative; I couldn’t accept a life of minimum wage and unceasing financial-struggle.

For most children of poverty, college attendance isn’t indicative of self-efficacy (a sense of the ability to master various tasks), but of sheer terror; to them, failure takes a back seat to the dread of poverty’s certainty. So, I took the risk because the alternative was psychologically intolerable.

My Very Own William Forresters

Thankfully, I had wonderful professors, including two mentors, Tim Stroup and Ric Medrow, who significantly helped raise my assurance in my ability to interpret, and articulate, complex concepts. Although the public school system simply judged me, the public university system helped foster my growth; and for that, I’m forever indebted to it. I’m fairly certain of what life would have been like had I not received that invaluable nurturance; I would have projected my childhood poverty into the future, and it likely would have continued with my children, because that’s how poverty works, and that’s how our society works: the American Dream is a fairytale. The self-made man is a myth, but the village that rears children doesn’t have to be. This article was written with the hope that we’ll begin to focus less on privileged and talented children and more so on the talented but destitute; consequently, our world would then become a much more enriched and egalitarian society.

“To ask us why we turn from bad to worse is to ignore from which we came,
You see, you wouldn’t ask why the rose that grew from the concrete had damaged petals,
On the contrary, we would all celebrate its tenacity,
We would all love its will to reach the sun” -2Pac

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