What is Genius? Part 3: Tom, Marty and the Meaning of Life

by Rick on October 31, 2012

Marty Dutcher, a colleague whose first career was early childhood education, told me about a guy named Tom he used to hang out with in his twenties. Tom especially liked to listen to Marty play the guitar.

On one day when Marty asked him to sing along, he said “I can’t. I’m tone deaf.”

“Who told you that,” asked Marty,

“My first grade teacher,” his friend replied.

“She was wrong. She shouldn’t have said that,” said Marty.

“No, really, I am.”

“No, really you are not. If you were tone deaf, you wouldn’t enjoy my music,” said Marty, who then proved to him that he wasn’t.

Liberated by this new discovery Tom learned to play the guitar, left his environmental teaching job, interviewed watermen and farmers all around the Chesapeake Bay, and wrote songs that came from his interviews. From that time until his death in 2010, Tom performed his music all around the bay to educate the public on the life of the people who made their livings from the bay. Marty played backup guitar on his first album, “Chesapeake Born.” His music is on the Smithsonian Folkways label.

One small intervention from a friend was all it took for Tom to become Tom Wisner, “The Bard of the Chesapeake” and to find the meaning of life.

The something we are becoming is often obscured by something we are hiding. -Rick Ackerly www.GeniusinChildren.orgThe something we are becoming is often obscured by something we are hiding. When God told Moses he was going to lead his people out of slavery, Moses protested that it was impossible. He had a speech impediment. I can hear the conversation now, because I have heard this kind of conversation so often:

Voice: Your destiny is to lead your people out of slavery.

Moses: That’s crazy. I can’t even talk, let alone give inspiring speeches.

Voice: Don’t worry about a little thing like that. We’ll take care of it.

Tom had a similar conversation:

Voice: Tom, I want you to tell the story of Chesapeake Bay, and sing it throughout the land.

Tom: Nice idea, but that’s crazy. I’m tone deaf.

Voice: Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Pursuing our calling is the vehicleIt happens to each of us whether we hear voices or not. Each of us comes into the world in pieces and each of us has a calling. Pursuing our calling is the vehicle for knitting all these pieces together into one. Don’t let a little thing like a disability get in the way of what you are supposed to be.

Here’s a conversation I didn’t have because dyslexia hadn’t been invented yet:

Voice: Ricky, I want you to get the world to stop underestimating children.

Ricky: That’s ridiculous. I can’t write? I can’t spell. I can’t even read. Don’t you know I have dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD and God knows what all?

Voice: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Just keep writing. Someday word processing will be invented.

Often we don’t actually hear voices; we just get notions that seem to come from nowhere. Sometimes, we are just driven toward something and have to come up with a rationalization of what we are doing and why. In trying to tell others about it, some people find it useful to put words into God’s mouth, or claim our genius made us do it. Neurologically, it’s probably just the brain continuing its work of knitting itself together.

Years ago in New York City I had the following conversation with Nancy the art teacher at my school:

Me: “Studying algebra? Why are you going back to school to study algebra?” I asked.

Nancy: “Because I learned in school that I was no good at math. I am divorced from that part of my brain, and I want it back.”

I had almost the same conversation with the art teacher at my next school. She, too, had decided she had to go back to school to study mathematics for the same reason: part of her was missing.

My wife, who is so good with words, learned in grade school that she was no good with numbers. During the fourth year in her current position the top management at her company was required to take two online courses, one in accounting and the other in finance as preparation for a professional development week at the Harvard Business School. Beside herself with fear, she nonetheless plunged into the work and asked me if I would help her.

The mighty effort to overcome this fear took place at home in the evenings and lasted for two weeks. She forged through the accounting lessons, passed the online test, and then with even greater anxiety tackled the lessons in finance. I thought I would be needed for help with mathematics. As it turned out I was only necessary for emotional support. She figured out the mathematics on her own—in fact she got mad when I tried to give her an answer or explain something. Not only did she pass the test, she did better than some of her colleagues who were “math types.”

Life is about creativity—from birth to death we create. Whatever we do out in the world, on the inside we are creating a whole brain. When we start out we have about 100 billion brain cells making about 2,500 connections with each other. As it gets to work trying to organize our lives for us, it sets up nodes—little islands of mental activity all over the place. It spends the rest of its life trying to link them up and get them coordinated. One hopes that when we are done, it is clear that we have created a whole life.

We use words like integrity, wholeness and graceful when we get that feeling that “things are coming together.” Phrases like “comfortable in my own skin,” “Playing out of my head,” “Feeling complete,” express the experience that self-creation is working—at least for this moment.

My poor brain! Trying to make one mind out of thousands of disparate parts of brain must be exhausting. It works so hard to create meaningful structures to help me make my way in the world, and then things happen, and it has to reorganize all over again. No wonder I act weird, say stupid things, tip over wine glasses, offend people, get mad, and feel like I am going crazy sometimes.

This is why educators must be committed to transcending the generalizations we make about ourselves. We don’t want to get imprisoned inside notions like “I’m tone deaf,” or “I am a shitty writer,” or “I can’t do math.”





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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

janetlansbury November 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm

I love this, Rick. Reminds me of the chat we had back when…so encouraging, uplifting and true.

Marty Dutcher November 2, 2012 at 7:04 am

You wrote a very powerful frame for my story about Tom, and I agree … we all have that little voice. Me, too. Who am I to think I can change the quality of life in one family let alone shift the whole culture of education (nurturing)? Just being willing to hear this voice within at all is step one, as I think we all have it. Understanding where it comes from is step two. How we inadvertently, even the “best” of us, pass it on to our children is a third step. Working together as educators (nurturers), whether we are also teachers, parents, mentors, employers, colleagues, or just friends, this is our opportunity. Often I continue to think I am all alone on this quest, and so small a thing in such a big world. I am neither alone, nor small, nor a thing, and yes, it’s big world! I am glad. Thanks for being there.

Rick November 2, 2012 at 7:34 am

Who are you, Marty? Somebody!!! You are the bearer of a genius. And you showed it–you showed us all the way.
(I know you don’t like to admit this, but you even told someone they were wrong.)

Marty Dutcher November 2, 2012 at 7:50 am

Thank you, Rick. And I just realized we were talking about two different voices – both of which are applicable. The first voice, the one you write so eloquently about and call our inner genius, is frequently hidden. The voice I meant to distinguish in addition to our genius (calling) is also a hidden voice that has become internalized but learned from the significant people in our environment. It is like a collection of unintentional messages of insufficiency. I think we all have both going on. Listening, as a creative act, means listening for things, both that empower us and that disempower us. And being able to hear both is empowering for us and those around us – especially when we are able to share what we hear as if nothing is wrong, and love is not conditional on any response. As you did above.

Dave Klaus November 2, 2012 at 8:15 am

Thanks Rick, and thanks Marty and Tom!
This piece really resonated with me. Until four years ago, one of my life’s regrets was that I never learned to play music. I “knew” that I had a terrible voice, and though I also felt deep connection the music and rhythm and dance, I thought it was too late to start at age 40.
Then I started hanging out with some musician-friends, who encouraged me to try. I started taking guitar lessons, and then three of us agreed to gather to play music together once a month. The group grew, and I got better, especially as I began to let go of my shame around not being good enough for public performance, that little voice saying “Quiet!! They’ll laugh at you!”
And to be sure, it was definitely rough going there for a while!
Four years later, our jam group has a regular attendance of 12-15 musicians, about a third of whom started playing recently as adults. I am now playing four instruments, and at the jam we all switch around. I lead songs, belting out spirit in my rough but serviceable voice. Then my daughter decided she wanted in too, and now we play and sing together; she joins the jam for a few songs now and then.
Last year, I wrote my first song.
The jam has become a hugely important and community-building force in our lives.
And it was all because of loving non-judgmental musicians, who invited me in and said, don’t worry, just sing!!! Cause to quote Teddy Pendergrass, “Life is a Song worth Singing”

Marty Dutcher November 2, 2012 at 9:46 am

Dave, good for you, and, by the way, Tom was almost 40 when we had that conversation and he began to learn guitar.

Marlaine November 3, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Thank you for another wonderful article Rick! As Einstein said
“Everybody is a genius but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will spend its whole life thinking it is stupid.” In my prior role as the Director of an academic tutoring club, with students from pre-school age to college, I enjoyed observing successes like that of your bride’s with math daily. The critical point for change is the BELIEF that someone CAN, not so much the methodology we utilize. “We see it when we believe it” as Wayne Dyer stated. Thank you for knowing every child IS a genius. Hugs!!!

Rick November 3, 2012 at 6:31 pm

I prefer to say that each child HAS a genius in order to distinguish the spirit that guides and directs a child (and each of us) from the notion of genius as an ability label. Each of us has something we are supposed to make of ourselves. Genius is a spark that points the way, and it is a little oblivious as to disability. Robinson’s “Element” is only somewhat an expression of ability. One often transcends the question of whether or not we are a genius when we are “in our element.”

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