The “customer with the incredibly gifted kid” narrative is a popular one among booksellers, the source of wry social media posts on our personal pages, and arched eyebrow anecdotes shared with colleagues at conferences and events. We all have our pet stories of the four-year-old whose parent was seeking Proust or something equally challenging for their child, and the list of pat answers (that we might only scream inside our heads) to the well-meaning grandparent looking for a gift for their little genius, who has of course “read all of Harry Potter.” (Usually, he’s 7.) We acknowledge the brilliance of the child, gently suggest some age-appropriate titles, offer to gift wrap and hope for the best, or get ourselves paged to the stock room for an “emergency.”
In some ways, however, I think we might encourage this behavior when we ask adults “what is your child really INTO? What do they DO? Do they play a sport, have an activity, a real passion?” We think we’re helping to narrow down choices, and pride ourselves as book people on the knowledge of just the right title for an accomplished gymnast or aspiring architect, but we may also be contributing to the general expectation that all kids have a “thing” — and that they know what it is, and so does everyone else.
Rachel Vail, immensely popular award-winning author (http://www.rachelvail.com) and totally pitch-perfect voice of tween dialogue, posted this letter in her online “Ask Rachel” advice column this week:
Dear Blah, That’s an awful feeling you’re having. I know: I was the exact same way in seventh grade! It was horrible. I played saxophone terribly (never practiced; got bottom braces; bloody disaster). I tried After School Gymnastics; I sucked. Art classes: no talent, kept falling asleep and gluing things to my hair. Tai Kwan Do? Chess? Oh just kill me now, I told my mom. I campaigned for a woman named Erma Oppenheimer for I don’t know maybe City Council with my mom (her version of your mom’s do something for the world idea) and ended up after a few hours just shoving flyers at scared people in the shopping center, yelling Erm! Opp! Neimer! until my mom took pity on the townsfolk and dragged me away. I got onto the (no cuts!) Track Team, which was mind-bogglingly boring until I decided I would do the hurdles, at which point it became both terrifying and ridiculously damaging to my body and self-esteem.
Seventh grade is brutal. Is basically my advice.
Oh, Rachel and young friend, yes it was. And I wish that I could melt the ice age of middle school by spending every afternoon in our shop, hugging middle schoolers and telling them that they’re great, and to just pick up and take home whatever book they want, even if it’s “not at their level” or not likely to improve their high school entrance exam scores. Of course, nothing in the world would be more humiliating for a 7th grader than to be hugged in public by the lady at the bookstore… I get it, I do, but I don’t even have the chance to embarrass most of them. They’re too busy. After school, there’s allstar team practice (no one actually plays for a team without “Xtreme” in the name anymore) or private coaching clinics or extra conditioning sessions or tryouts for All State music something, or voice lessons before the school play auditions or dance team rehearsal before competition season begins or fencing lessons or math tutoring for Academic Olympics. They are doggedly performing, practicing, honing their “thing” — the thing they picked or had picked for them as early as second or third grade. Woe descends on the kid who decides to quit their thing at the age of 12… representing hundreds of hours of practice invested, thousands of dollars of parents’ income spent at weekend tournaments, and numerous plastic tubs in the garage overflowing with outgrown gear and expensive shoes.
Often, we don’t even see these kids during the school year. We sell them books, of course, or rather, we sell books to their parents. Moms who stop by right before carpool to pick up something for their child to read to meet that “X number of daily reading minutes” school requirement, tucked into the SUV loaded with coolers full of iced water bottles for the team, or dinner in a foil-covered plate to be eaten on the way to practice. “Just anything is fine — he loves sports, and I don’t want him just playing video games at the hotel at the soccer tourney this weekend.” “Something challenging” or “something inspirational — nothing we have to worry about, you know,” are code phrases for books-as-nutritional-content with no room for the experimental, the escapism of fantasy, or the opportunity to try on a completely different path that books provide, if they are picked up through happenstance by a browsing teen, or highlighted on a handwritten a shelf talker that speaks just to that wondering child alone.
More daunting, however, than 5 am alarms for time on the ice, or daily drives to the barn and back in the dark and cold, is the question “what do you DO?” to a child who has not yet committed to an activity. Our societal addiction to activity and accomplishment has left many of our kids feeling inadequate and confused, unable to take time to try on different roles and dream of possibilities. Books, it seems to me, are the most obvious windows to dreaming a life, or just dreaming. When we keep our kids away from those vistas, how will they ever imagine a journey to that place beyond the horizon? Time to read, time to select and try and discard and try again with books without regard to schedules and levels and goals. Reading without walls, yes, but also reading without blue ribbons. Just reading to be, and to become. This part of Rachel’s response is my favorite:
Don’t pressure yourself into finding your passion right now. Seventh grade is hard enough. Be kind to yourself. Definitely do some things if they seem at all interesting and not likely to break you in any way. Try a variety of activities. It’s fine to be terrible at them; it’s fine to not love love love any one thing yet. Try above all to be patient with yourself, even though that’s so hard.
Don’t pass any verdicts on the blahness of your life yet. It’s too early for that. (It is always too early for that.)