I remember once leaving an appointment with a photographer when the girls were little. The photographer had been something of a strange bird – an artsy type who lived and worked on an old mill. While her photographer’s eye was incredibly astute, her social skills were ever so slightly off kilter.
As we got into the car, Luau looked over at me and said, ‘Well, she was a little O-D-D, huh?”
We rode quietly for a few minutes as I tried to puzzle through what O-D-D might stand for. Obsessive Dompulsive Disorder? Oppositional Defiant Disorder? What the .. ? I finally turned to my husband and asked what the heck O-D-D was.
He looked at me as if I had three heads (which happens more than I’d care to admit), then whispered the answer, so as not to be heard by the girls.
“Odd, Jess. She was odd.”
We dissolved into laughter.
“I take that as a compliment.”
~ Albert and Lionel in the King’s Speech
The other night, a friend of mine was upset. In a school assignment, her older son had been asked to find a word that described his younger brother, who has autism. He’d chosen the word odd.
To her, the word had felt like a punch in the gut. ‘We work so hard to get him to understand his brother’s behaviors and quirks’ she said. ‘If I can’t get my own son to understand all this, how can I get the rest of the world to see how special my boy is?’
I felt her pain and I knew her frustration. As a matter of fact, I was pretty sure that I knew exactly what she was feeling. I’d had an eerily similar conversation with Katie a while back.
Katie had called her little sister ‘weird’. I had bristled at the word and immediately sat her down for a heart-to heart. I chased my maternal tail attempting to find a way to talk to her about it. I did my best to sound like a grown-up as I explained to her that her choice of words had been extremely hurtful and that Mama was very uncomfortable with that kind of talk.
In typical Katie fashion, she took it all in, then looked at me and said, ‘Mama, she IS weird. It is what it is.” I was about to pounce when she shrugged and added, “But she’s great weird. She’s Brooke weird. She’s OUR weird. And we love her.”
As always, Katie was a hell of a lot smarter than her Mama.
Our kids are odd. As Katie said, it is what it is. We can explain their behaviors – the WHY of what they do – until the cows come home. But the reality is that those behaviors are, well, kinda strange.
My nearly eight-year old girl asking strangers what Mary Magdalene would say to Jesus ‘if Jesus ate the wood chips’ is odd. Tough to deny that one. Needing to wear headphones to make it through a meal in a restaurant is out of the ordinary. Allowing Brooke to lead us in a team cheer before our family dinner every night ain’t exactly normal. Yes, we really do.
But odd doesn’t have to be negative. The challenges that come along with odd may downright suck, but odd itself can be pretty damn amazing.
The photographer who took the photos of my children that day? She’s incredible. Her work is all over my home and will undoubtedly live on in my family for generations. People flock to her for her uncanny ability to capture the essence of their children in a photograph. The way that she knows and uses the natural light at the mill is breathtaking.
Andy Warhol was weird. But his weird was think out of the box and create something entirely different weird. He was shake the world up and turn it on its head weird. He was take another look at the most mundane items from a whole new perspective and find the beauty in them weird.
What if, heaven forbid, someone had convinced him to be ‘normal?’ Andrew, stop staring at that can of soup. For heaven’s sake, it’s just soup. Go play baseball! The world would be without an icon of a generation and a standard of modern art.
What if someone had told Albert Einstein to stop messing around with all that crazy physics nonsense and go outside and make some friends? Or hey, at the very least, get a haircut? Albert, for the love of all things holy, no one will ever take you seriously with that crazy coif!
What if Lewis Carroll had finally walked away from that fantasy world of his so that he could carry on a proper conversation with people his own age? Please, Lewis, enough is enough. You’ve got to live in the REAL world if you’re ever going to make something of yourself.
Ed note: It is often said that all three of the people above had significant autistic characteristics and would likely have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders had they been alive today. I have no idea about the photographer.
Our kids are odd. They are quirky. They are different. And yes, they are even weird. And while we want desperately to mitigate their challenges and to find ways to allow them to ‘fit in’ if they so choose, fitting in doesn’t necessarily mean (and may not be able to mean) not being odd.
I worry about the ramifications of overly homogenizing our kids. I worry that if we beat the odd out of them then we’re going to create a generation of functional yet miserable adults who eventually implode from the weight of a life that feels like a grand charade of normalcy. I also worry that in so doing, we could lose the next Warhol or Einstein or Carroll (or amazing children’s photographer).
As elusive as it may be, I’m convinced that there’s a balance somewhere. A fine, nearly impossible balance that will come from giving our children the tools to navigate the world around them – granting them a CHOICE in deciding how they will be perceived by the rest of the world – while also celebrating their uniqueness just enough to let them know that it’s OK to be who they are. Letting them fly their ‘freak flag’ (as an adult friend of mine on the spectrum likes to say) if they so desire, and standing behind them, cheering them on when they do.
If we can do both – if we can give them an understanding of societally expected behavior (and its power to drive how they are perceived and received by the world at large) while also teaching them to value their differences from that world, then the choice is theirs.
And just think, if everyone started celebrating their oddities – if everyone let their own freak flags fly – guess who would be the odd men out in the end.