A few weeks ago the kids were deep cleaning their rooms and considering whether to donate unused toys and stuffed animals. As they resisted with the exclamation, “That one’s special!” I finally shared this life lesson with them: If everything is special, nothing is special. Sienna marveled at that comment and asked me to elaborate. I simply explained that “special” means unique, and extra important. Everything cannot be special, by definition.
Shortly later, Sienna participated in a Socratic discussion with her class and they pondered the questions: “Can everyone be a leader? Are leaders born or made?” As we went for an evening walk, Sienna told me about her contribution to the discussion. “A lot of people were saying that everyone is a leader, but I said, ‘No, my mom said that if everything is special, nothing is special. So, if everyone is a leader, then no one is a leader.” I was so tickled at her application of this idea, which seems right to me. Leaders necessitate followers, so everyone cannot be a leader.
I’m slowly making my way through Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and was struck by his description of the decline of heroic worship in modern America. This satire describes action and attitudes you’ll want to instill in your children, in order to destroy their imagination. Esolen writes, “Encourage the snigger rather than the cheer; the knowing smirk, rather than the flush of adoration. Lead them in laughing at what you do not understand. Finally, since the hero stretches our minds and hearts by being so strikingly different from the rest of us, even superior in some way to the rest of us, teach your children to hate and suspect excellence,” (pg. 147).
Later in the section, I grinned when I read: “If everyone is a hero, then no one is a hero…” It’s the same idea I’d shared with the kids about things that are special. Something is unique, special, different, or excellent because it’s not like everything or everyone else. It’s the opposite of mundane, similar, average or unexceptional.
The more I thought out these ideas, especially how heroic figures have declined in interest, I realized that excellence is truly at stake. Along the lines of giving out trophies for all the participants in a soccer league and lowering expectations so everyone can meet them, excellence has taken quite a hit in modern America. This happens when we applaud every action a child makes in order to build their self-esteem. Or, when we don’t allow anyone’s performance to be lauded as exceptional, because other children might feel badly.
Ironically, when our kids switched to The Cambridge School, I was struck by the frequency of competitions and schoolwide acknowledgment for the winners of the math Olympics, spelling bees, and the annual Speech Meet. Rather than lowering the bar and recognizing everyone who reached it, excellence was publically praised!
Interestingly, the response from students who didn’t win was never pouting or complaining about why they didn’t win. Instead, they celebrated with their classmates and recognized the excellent performance that won the prize. I remember Sienna proudly commenting, “Quincy did so well on his speech!” when he won the Speech Meet in fourth grade. She was right, he did an amazing job! For Sienna, seeing his accomplishment served as an example of what an excellent speech looks like. Rather than being discouraged or upset that she didn’t win, she was inspired and energized by witnessing an excellent speech. As a classmate and friend, she cheered for Quincy and felt like a participant in his success.
Excellence is something to praise and acknowledge. But, in order to do so, we must be able to distinguish outstanding performance from average performance. We must have the courage to say this contribution or creation is special from the others. Heroic acts of bravery are different than overcoming the everyday stresses of life. We can’t fall into believing everything is excellent or nothing will be.