TAWN PARENT Commentary: The importance of being different

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Well, there’s a conversation-starter you don’t hear every day, I thought. It was inane even for the preschool crowd, which is known for the inanity of their questions.

“Um, I think it’s a Kenmore,” I replied.

“Oh,” he said. “Ours is an Oreck XL Classic commercial-grade vacuum with a bristled-edge cleaning system, long-lasting drive belts, an easy-load bag dock, metaxalloy motor fan, pile-lifting roller brush and non-marring bumper,” or something to that effect.

That’s when I realized Henry was no ordinary 4-yearold. This conversation, which took place last fall, was my first encounter with Henry, who was new to my son’s class. It’s a cooperative preschool, so the parents spend a lot of time in the classroom. We get to know the kids.

Over the past few months, I have had similar chats with Henry, about air conditioners and other things mechanical, although vacuum cleaners have been a recurring favorite. When Henry was not talking animatedly about one of his pet topics, he tended to be quiet. Although, as his teacher often commented, “There’s a lot going on in there.”

Playing a superhero was something Henry never tired of. He was fascinated by flight. He frequently asked his parents to throw him into the air, believing that, if he kept trying, eventually he would actually take off toward the sky.

Henry did not follow the crowd. No finger-painting for him, no matter how much fun the other kids were having. On “beach day,” he didn’t don a Hawaiian shirt or swimming suit, as most of his classmates did.

Henry’s inquisitiveness and prodigious vocabulary impressed and delighted us. Soon, most of us had a favorite “Henry line.”

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Henry choked on a vitamin and was rushed to the hospital. He lay there for days, while modern technology tried to work wonders on his damaged body. After a grueling week of waiting, we received the awful news that Henry had flown away at last.

At his funeral, speaker after speaker told of how their lives had been changed by this precocious preschooler, how they had learned to look at life differently, and to marvel at things anew. His uncle said, “There was no such thing as a one-sentence answer to a Henry question.”

I was struck by how many people had found such joy in Henry’s eccentricities. I began wondering what his life would have been like as he grew older. Would people have continued to be so charmed by his zeal and his quirks? Would they have encouraged his curiosity and hunger for detail? I like to think so.

But what if things had gone differently? What if, as he entered school and his peers played a larger role in his life, the pressure to be “normal” weighed on him, gradually narrowing his vision and dousing the fires of his passion?

I have seen it happen-bright people who find it so difficult to meet the expectations of a conformist world that they withdraw. Their gifts languish, undeveloped and unappreciated.

We need creative, curious and even contrary people to challenge us, to remind us that there’s more than one way

to build a widget. Some such people do manage to forge their own paths and become successful scientists, inventors and artists. Some win the Nobel Prize. Some come up with ideas that revolutionize our lives.

Consider the following “oddballs”: Albert Einstein, who suffered from delayed speech and was labeled antisocial; Walt Disney, who, as a teen-age Red Cross ambulance driver in France, covered the vehicle with cartoons; or Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who has transformed the way cattle are slaughtered thanks to her ability to relate to cows.

But far too many people who are “different” fail to reach such heights. In our workplaces, volunteer groups, neighborhoods, churches and even families are people who march to the beat of a different drummer. People who, given the opportunity, could enrich our companies and communities. But these valuable resources sometimes end up being the least valued. When talent is wasted, we all lose, but when innovative thinking is nurtured, we all win.

Tapping into the potential of unconventional people isn’t necessarily hard. All it may take is a little patience, an ability to look beneath the surface, a willingness to listen.

I walked away from Henry’s funeral with a new resolve to seek beauty, talent and inspiration in places I least expect it, like the employee who asks too many questions, the neighbor with the strange lawn ornaments, or a 4-year-old boy who is hooked on Hoovers.

Parent is associate editor of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tparent@ibj.com.

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