One day I was volunteering in my daughter’s kindergarten class, watching the kids doing “show and tell”. Of course, there were the usual Barbie dolls and stuffies and flashing magic wands. One kid, though – a chubby girl with spiky red hair and thick black-framed glasses, orthotic shoes and an elfin grin – had brought in a small cardboard box containing her “science and nature collection”: a dead hissing beetle, a hawk’s feather, a piece of petrified wood, and an ammonite that her mother had found while hiking through a canyon in New Mexico. She went on to describe for the class the lifecycle of the beetle and the process by which dead trees are slowly converted into quartz. She explained it so well, even I could understand it.
During recess, she came up to me and asked if I wanted to know “how a volcano worked.” She said that she was in the process of building one at home from papier mache, with baking soda, vinegar and food colouring as lava. I asked her if she wanted to be a scientist when she grows up. “Nah”, she told me, “I’m either going to be a veterinarian or a carnivore.” She seemed fairly impressed when I voiced the opinion that she may be able to be both.
After recess, I read the kids a picture book about a caterpillar who was picked on by her friends because of her ugly, saggy, skin. Being different from the other insect kids, she is laughed at and excluded from the group. In the end, though, it all turns out all right, because the ugly, saggy caterpillar miraculously transforms into a sleek, beautiful butterfly, and is suddenly adored by everybody. The whole class seemed pretty satisfied with this happy ending, except the spiky-haired kid, who put up her hand and asked me why the other insects didn’t think the caterpillar was beautiful? And anyway, how dumb were these bugs if they didn’t know what happened to caterpillars?
For me, it was another example of the assertion that genius is childhood revisited. I hadn’t given it a lot of thought up to that point, but that whole archetypal ugly duckling / beautiful swan thing has always bothered me. It’s the irritating implication that acceptance is necessarily dependent on physical appearance, and that all would be well if only you could only “shed your skin”, transform yourself into something more conventionally attractive. In real life, though, there is no magical mutation. It’s this kind of wrong-headed thinking that keeps many a shrink and plastic surgery quack in business. Human caterpillars do not generally become butterflies.
And thank God for that. It is our uniqueness as individuals – our quirks and our imperfections and our gifts – that make us indispensable to the universe. Surely our individual destinies, the realization of our personal potentials, can only be achieved by becoming more of what we essentially are, not less. Surely our duty to the world and to ourselves is to explore and nurture our own caterpillarness – our potential to be a painter or scientist or comedian or world-class carnivore – rather than idly wishing for some superficial transformation that will make us more acceptable to others.
I think I know at least one kid who won’t have to learn that lesson the hard way.