Some time ago I was hanging out with a group of friends and friends of friends and near us, on a table, there was a bowl of mixed fruit, as there so often is. And, as a group is want to do, we gravitated towards the food. After all, even if you aren’t all that hungry, a group of people makes you want to eat. Or is that just me? Anyway, the fruit prompted a side discussion among two people I barely knew. I overheard the slimmest part of that conversation, “No, I can’t eat cantaloupe. I’m allergic. It makes my mouth all itchy.” My ears perked up. Cantaloupe makes my mouth all itchy! I’m allergic to cantaloupe? So I in, “Excuse me. Hi. You say that you’re allergic to cantaloupe and it makes your mouth itchy? Me too!” And just like that, the two of us had bonded.
How often does that happen, I wonder. How often do two people form a small, silly, basically insignificant bond over some random commonality? Sudden this person and I were able to talk more freely. We nodded at each other when our paths crossed for the remainder of the evening as if to say, “I see you, my cantaloupe-intolerant friend.” Would I call this person and ask to hang out later? No. Would I help this person move? Probably not. But I would nod at them in passing and exchange a few pleasantries. After all, they are like me. They too, are allergic to cantaloupe.
I bring this up because recently I started a new writing project with my students. Firs, I told them the cliché about every snowflake being different from every other snowflake ever. Then I called them snowflakes and told them that they are different, somehow, some way, different, than every other person that is, was, or ever will be born. I know, big concepts, right? (By the way, seeing yourself as an individual is not in the standards so keep this between us, all right? Thanks.) I challenged them to make a list (teacher-to-parent translation: I ordered them to make a list) of ten things that make them different. Not physical things like I’m tall or I have black hair. Physical similarities or differences are meaningless. I wanted them to think on more inside things, self-reflective things. This is not easy for an eight-year old. I told them that if they worked really hard on their lists then when they were done they would have a list that was not exactly the same as anyone else in the room. In fact, it wouldn’t be exactly the same as anyone else ever.
I did one too. I tried to show them they should be creative. My list has things like, “I play the air drums whenever I hear any music, no matter where I am.” And “Sometimes when I’m walking somewhere, I walk like a monster for a few feet just to mix things up.” (Both true.)Eight year olds come up with lists like, “I like baseball” and “I love cats”, so some fine tuning took place. More details please. What kind of baseball? To play or watch or both? What team? What kind of cats? You take care of them? Just like pictures of them? Why in the world would you like cats, they are evil creatures? You know, teacher questions.
In the end, all of their snowflake lists are different. Ten things that are, as a whole, unlike ten things any of the other 22 students with them came up with. They may have lists that are similar in nine out of ten ways, but that last way makes them special. And if I increased the challenge (assignment) to 100 things, I know the differences would be even more pronounced.
What does this have to do with my being allergic to cantaloupe? This: I believe we should be proud of our differences. I spent a lot of time when explaining this lesson trying to help my students see that they shouldn’t want their lists to be the same as anyone else’s. Homogony is boring. How we are different makes us who we are. One student said, “I don’t want to say the same things as everyone else. I want to say different stuff. My own stuff.” Exactly, child! But now I’m thinking, and if I had older kids with better critical thinking skills, and more time with which to do so I would challenge them to write about this too, what about how those similarities make us feel?
See the disaffected youth at a Marilyn Manson concert. The unifying theme? No One Gets Me! No one, that is, except for the 15 thousand paying fans surrounding me. Except for them, I’m all alone. But I’m part of a group that is all alone. Together, we are all alone! And that makes those fans feel better. They feel like their snowflake lists do not resemble anyone else’s. And maybe for some of them that is true for nine out of the ten things on their lists. But they have that one thing in common.
Picture an ocean with islands floating on it. You see individuals. Cross-section that image, look beneath the water. Each of those islands is linked to a surface deep below the waves. Connected, but separated by oceans. (I know this geologically doesn’t hold water, but metaphorically it works pretty well.)
Beyond the physical, I am different from you and that is wonderful. It makes me an I and you your own I. But no matter how different from you I am, we have some little thing in common. Some place that makes us the same and can make our two I’s a We. Do have to like you just because you’re allergic to cantaloupe? Of course not. But it does change you from a face to a person. I’m forced to see some part of myself in you and, in doing so, make you more real. If I, if we, could just see the I and the We in each of Us, it would make life on this planet a whole lot more pleasant, without making it any less interesting.