Finding your spark of genius

Albert EinsteinIn the post immediately preceding this one, I spoke about American gypsy girls who are steered into young marriage, followed immediately by a career as a homemaker, no matter their talents.  There’s nothing wrong with being a wonderful mother and homemaker, but one does wonder, of course, whether those girls were deprived of the opportunity to discover a hidden talent within themselves.

I’ve been thinking about the whole “hidden talent” thing a lot lately.  It’s been a part of my thinking for years, actually, ever since my sister went to college.  Her first boyfriend there grew up in a small farming community and was the first person in his family to go to college.  When he got to college, he was required to take his first ever language class.  He chose French, which is where he met my sister.  She was also taking German, as a continuation of her high school studies.

Over the course of just one semester, my sister’s boyfriend became fluent not only in French, which he was actively learning, but in German, which he was passively absorbing, both from my sister’s studies and from my parents German-language conversations.  It turned out that, when it came to languages, he was savant, and could learn any language with passable fluency over the course of a few months.  Had he stayed home on the farm, it’s likely this gift would have remained dormant forever.  As it was, within two years of meeting my sister, he was one of six American college students selected to go on a special Russian language program to the Soviet Union.

I thought of this guy just last week, when my high-school-aged son came home from his first day in art class at school.  He’s never had an art class before, but he brought home an incredibly good representation of his own hand, meticulously worked in 3D.  He didn’t need lessons in perspective; he instinctively understood it.  Had he not been required to take this class as a prerequisite for graduating, he might never have known he has this gift.

And in this same vein, I’d like to recommend a bad, but wonderful documentary.  The documentary is called “Blood Brother,” and it’s playing on PBS.  The young man who made the documentary focuses on his friend, an almost paralyzingly ordinary boy from Pittsburgh, who did wonderful things.  The documentary is bad because it’s poorly constructed, poorly photographed, poorly narrated, poorly everything . . . but it’s still worth watching.

The ordinary young man is Robin “Rocky” Braat.  Rocky grew up in a dysfunctional home, suffered terrible abuse at the hands of his mother’s many boyfriends, got shunted to his grandparents for a few years, and then ended up with his father.  He describes himself as a kid who was so bad in school, he was “marginally retarded.”  When he speaks, he has the slurred, dull cadences of a stoner (although there’s no indication that he is, in fact, a stoner).

Rocky was aimless.  He had a short attention span, and felt that there was nothing for him in Pittsburgh.  He decided for no reason whatsoever to go to India, because he wanted to go someplace “authentic” (although why Pittsburgh, in its own way, isn’t as “authentic” as anyplace else in the world, I do not know).  Once there, Rocky came upon an orphanage.  What makes this orphanage unique is that all of the children and all of the staff have HIV.  Rocky had found his place on this earth.

Although Rocky readily admits that he didn’t like children when he arrived at that orphanage, there was something about the children there that called to him.  Watching the boundless love he feels for them, and the equally boundless love they return to him, is incredibly moving.

The best part of the documentary comes at the end, so you have to stick with it or, if you have it on TiVo, fast forward a bit.  One of the HIV-infected boys, a kid maybe 9 or 10, ends up in the hospital with God knows what.  His skin is a festering, bleeding, peeling mass; his eyes are so crusted and white they look like a corpse’s; he’s coughing his lungs out from tuberculous; and his kidneys are shutting down.  The child looks gangrenous and he’s in an Indian hospital in a remote region where care is minimal and death a certainty.

Rocky cares for that child as if the boy is his own flesh and blood.  Wearing only gloves to product his hands, he bathes the boy’s endless wounds, oils his broken skin, cleans his oozing eyes, and holds him as he cries in pain.  It is an outpouring of selfless love that would make Mother Teresa proud.

It turns out that, when it comes to caring for HIV-infected children in a remote region of India, Rocky is a savant.  Had he stayed in Pittsburgh, he would have been nothing.  If he worked, he would have had a low-level job.  He probably would have drunk too much on weekends, and wasted his days away in a haze of bad television, cheap food, and a kind of nagging existential despair.  Instead, because he wanted something more, he found himself.

One of the blessings of living in America is that so many of us have the opportunity to explore different pathways in life.  Maybe we’ll just have a variety of experiences that we’ll talk about later (and boast about when we’re old).  But for the lucky ones, their travels in America will introduce them to the genius within themselves.