Saturday, April 19, 2008

Fairy tale endings

Every once in a while, reading fairy tales with my daughter, I discover something the 100th time around that somehow escaped me on all 99 prior occasions. Like: how does the King react when the miller’s daughter, after he marries her for her gold-spinning skills (and after Rumpelstiltskin stops visiting), loses her apparent magic?

With the Hans Christian Andersen tales, what sometimes hits me on the 100th read is how they capture yet another human weakness. The Emperor’s New Clothes of my childhood memories is simply the story of a foolish emperor to whom only an innocent boy dares speak the truth. In my college and grad school years, the story morphed—as it does for so many of us--into a parable for how easily people fall for empty, ego-promoting jargon and rhetoric in order to avoid feeling--or looking--“stupid.”

But only since my crash courses in the higher superstitions of certain autism and education experts has Andersen’s second reason for claiming to see invisible clothes occurred to me: not wanting colleagues to judge you “unfit for your office.” For, of course, nowadays (always?) success in today’s education and academic establishments (among many others) means adhering to certain dogmas, however ridiculous they strike you, or risk your fitness, as assessed by peers and superiors, for anything from publication, grants, tenure, and promotion, to simple respect.

Then there’s The Ugly Ducking. In my childhood memories, it simply tells how someone who looks uglier than his more conventional peers can ultimately come into a beauty of his own. But then last night, as my daughter and I discussed how our hero wouldn’t seem ugly to swans, I suddenly saw his story as allegorizing the negative impressions wrought by narrow socio-cultural standards.

Imagine a world whose norms aren’t sleek yellow duckling feathers and a duck-like waddle, but “appropriate” interactions with peers and eager participation in group projects and class discussions. Such norms convert the quiet, disengaged introvert into an uncooperative, undeserving freak.

Until, we hope, she finds birds of a feather who appreciate all she is.

And until, we hope further, her right-brained peers revise their views of her from ugly “normal” person to beautifully eccentric left-brainer.


Nancy Bea Miller said...

Having seen your daughter, Lefty, I can only say that her real physical beauty will help her "make friends and influence people" even if her personality isn't the most outgoing!

lefty said...

Thank you, NB. As a painter, you've captured the essence of my daughter's beauty--in both its physical and (those dreamily absorbed poses!) its interior manifestations.

It is, of course, the latter that I hope will become increasingly evident to both her peers and the various arbiters of her future.