Can’t

I. “I wish I could do that.” Every young person has that feeling, looking at another guy or another girl and admiring their skill. We learn to focus on what we’re good at. But not completely. In the back of our minds, there’s always that sense of the negative. I can’t go that. In this topic, focus on a negative, on something you weren’t good at. Begin with a story that gets at deficit. As always, it’s useful to compare yourself to other people as you begin to explore this topic.

I’m no good at that. Ask a kid, he’ll tell you. I’m no good at math, I don’t get grammar, I’m bad at music, at dance, at sports. I don’t understand science, I don’t like to read. Early on, with a little luck, maybe we learn what we’re good at. You certainly hope so. You definitely learn what you’re bad at. At some things, so bad it’s not a deficit exactly. It’s more like a void, an empty space. There’s nothing there to build on. 

When I went off to college I got to know two guys in the dorm, Eddie and Bob, who wanted nothing more than to play football. They were freshmen. They had played high school ball, all four years. They had build, they had muscle. Football was what they knew how to do. They are were good at it Naturally they went out for the college team. At a smaller university they might have had a fighting chance. Here they did not. They went to practice every day, after which they dragged themselves back to their dorm room in the late afternoon and waited for the mess hall to open. Protein, they would say, they needed protein. Somewhere in that dorm room were textbooks. They did suffer from overuse. Study.  Those  guys needed to study. 

II. You may have lots of stories to tell about what you’re no good at. Pick up where you left off. Tell another story about at talent you wish you had. That’s right, you’re sort of talking about failure here. Enjoy it if you can, but don’t be afraid to delve into a difficult subject. And remember: place, time, people, what happened. You might try a little dialog to, keeping it short.

I looked at my art work. Blue clouds. That pathetic airplane. I was in first grade, and I already knew: I sucked at art.

“I can’t draw,” I told my mother.

She said that’s okay. 

Okay? No, it wasn’t okay. And really, that wasn’t quite the right thing to say. Do you want to draw? Do you want to learn to draw? How can we help you learn how? She said it was okay, I think, because she couldn’t draw either and had managed to establish a meaningful life, forgetting that it’s terrible when you suck at something.

We didn’t do art projects in our house. My mother abhorred a mess.  Art was messy. I didn’t cut stuff out with scissors. Cutting was messy. I have no recollection of crayons or colored pencils. Some kids had easels, with a tray for paint brushes, a cup holder, and a plastic cup for water. We did not. Painting at the kitchen table was not on the menu of home activities. That was messy.

III. It’s embarrassing. It can be humiliating not knowing how to do something that others are good at and do so effortlessly. Go ahead, wallow it in memory. Confront your nightmare. There are all kinds of situations when you have to pass on something. Nope, I can’t do that. If another situation comes to mind, go into that.

There were periodic invitations to draw. And worse.

Much worse.

Our school administered the California Achievement Test, evaluating your verbal and quantitative skill (okay), and spatial reasoning (uh-oo). Like most kids ushered into the school library, told to sit at sufficient distances soas to preclude cheating, I did not approach this ordeal with a can-do spirit. Most of us were sullen little Bartelbys. Once we were seated, the door closed and we were loaned special green pencils to mark our answer sheets. Test booklets were distributed. We steeled ourselves to the task of filling in blanks. 

You may begin work. The clock started. Verbal.

Please set down your pencils. The work stopped.

You may begin work. The clock started.  Quantitative.

Please set down your pencils. The work stopped.

Then came spatial reasoning, analysis, problem solving.  Torture.

I knew what was coming on the spatial section: cubes; images of sheets of paper with folds; mirror images; diagrams of objects I had to assemble; 3-D rotating figures you were asked to look at from the top, from left and right, from beneath the table, where I wanted to be. These problems went to the heart of my deep-seated insecurity. I didn’t even try

Please set down your pencils. 

Today I would say I lacked visual intelligence.  Call it vi. I felt about vi the way Bob back in college felt about pi.  And still do.

IV. Another story. Once I started writing about this subject, all these memories came flooding back. I was a pleasure to remember school (even though the memory was about failure). Like I’ve said elsewhere, the time not writing can be productive. You’ll continue to think about the topic, you’ll remember stuff and think, Hey, I can talk about that, too. If that’s happening to you, don’t hold back. Roll with it. Tell another story.

A glimmer of hope amid chaos. 

In eighth grade I took art. The one and only art class I ever took. You were expected to take a couple of those classes that did not involve “book learning,” enrichment classes like band, choir, or art; career classes like shop or mechanical drawing. I was in the band already, playing the trumpet. Looking back now, I should have taken choir. I could already sing. I could have learned to sing better, maybe even smarter. The teacher was Miss Culver. She was young, she was cute. I must have associated choir with church. Against my better judgment I elected art. 

The class was taught by Mr. Perry, who was mainly a science teacher. Biology, to be specific. In that discipline he conducted labs involving scalpels and frog carcasses, bunsen burners and test tubes, and he did so with iron discipline. That must have made him a good candidate for art class, where controlled chaos would be the order of the day. In my memory the class is kind of a blur. There was a day or two, it felt like a week, on color theory, the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. It was the first time I’d ever heard the word “tertiary,” which I found both exotic and terrifying. 

 

V. Past is prologue to the present. So far perhaps you’ve been concentrating on early times, before you reached adulthood. We carry our difficulties, our insecurities and failures forward, into adult life. Go ahead. Wallow. Talk about a more recent incident or experience in which you confronted your demon, in which you reminded of what you’re no good at.

When I had kids of my own and they came home with school projects that involved art, I panicked. All those colored pencils and markers. Crayons were obsolete by then. I hated markers. Markers made semi-permanent stray marks, on the table, on the kids’ fingers, sometimes on me if I got too close, marks that were hard to wash off. Of course there was also the scissors and the messes of paper on the kitchen table. And painting. It was all more than I could take. 

Mostly it was their expectant looks in my direction that paralyzed me, filled me with terror. Can you help us? 

Well, no, I could not.

I married a woman who made her living as a visual thinker, as a draftsman, a designer. She was good at what they called “mechanical drawing” in my high school. She could help. She could do more than help, she could teach them, inspire their confidence in themselves. Where I ran away, she sat down and engaged. 

VI. What difference does it make? The fact that you can’t dance, can’t speak French, can’t fix cars or play the piano, can’t cook–whatever it was: how important was/is this deficit? Talk about what it means, how you managed to keep this thing in perspective. (Maybe it still bugs you, will always bug you. If so, try to make sense of that.)

I lived in a 3-D world but was capable of thinking about it only in 2-D. Did it matter? No, not in any practical sense. I rode a bicycle. I learned to ski. In the vacant lot across the street I played baseball with my pals. On the softer sod behind Dean Gaul’s house I played football. On days when he was visiting his Aunt Bernardine and Uncle Ted, Ronnie Thurlow played too. He had a good arm. When I was on his team he threw beautiful passes that cut across the evening air in beautiful arcs and that I caught and took into the endzone, which was a grove on pine trees in the back of the yard. In our huddle before each play, he held out his hand, palm up, and sketched 2-D patterns I would run in the backfield.