A School of Reindeer
It’s the season. Gift-giving and tree-worship and traditional songs reworked yet again. Angry drivers and a strange obsession with snow. And the shows - movies, TV specials, celebrity variety hours with special guest Travis Tritt.
And Santa. Heat Miser. Rudolph. You know – flying reindeer with the red-nose. Turns out the same thing that rendered him a freak made him essential on Xmas Eve. The same authority figure who’d rudely judged his ‘specialness’ came begging for favors. How'd you like THOSE cookies'n'milk, Big Fella?
We love oddballs and underdogs in American culture. The rejects. The outliers. The misfits. Aladdin, Dumbo, the Hunchback, or Stitch. That ugly fairy tale swan-duck. The cast of Glee before it started to suck. William Hung. The Guardians of the Galaxy.
They are Davids to our Goliaths, and we adore them for it. They stand as our proxy in our battle against insignificance or 'other'-ness.
Then there’s Rudolph, and Hermey – an unfortunately-named elf who wishes to be a dentist. The tale is a familiar one, especially if you grew up in an era of three network channels – only one of which was likely to be showing a proper Christmas special at any given time. The lesson is one we’ve come to expect in a culture celebrating individuality (at least in theory) – it’s our “flaws”, our differences, which make us “special”.
Oft-overlooked is the fact that Rudolph proved himself useful – his nose so bright and all. He was an oddball, but that wasn't sufficient to go down in history. He found a way to take his strange and make it productive. As did Hermey, Yukon Cornelius, and even the Abominable Snow Monster once willing and properly instructed.
But they’re not the only weirdos in the tale. Before our plot can climax, our heroes discover the Island of Misfit Toys – Christmastide’s greatest collection of sentient jetsam.
Presumably the lessons of the red nose extend to these forgotten darlings as well. They certainly have one of the better songs, and a nice mix of humor and pathos as the various ‘toys’ lament their condition.
But… that’s all that really happens with them. Eventually Santa, now enthralled to the mutant reindeer with the gleaming proboscis, retrieves them for distribution to unwitting victims on Xmas morn, but with no real indication of what they can actually do - what purpose they in fact serve.
A Charlie-in-the-Box is badly-named, but otherwise as useful as any toy based on repeatedly frightening children unable to discern cyclical patterns. Dolly the Doll seems pleasant enough, other than some heavily-veiled emotional issues – but as long as they stay heavily-veiled, who’s to complain?
But a train with square wheels is useless. It can’t and doesn’t and won’t go anywhere, or carry anything, under any circumstances. There's no conceivable situation in which a boat that can’t float would be necessary to save the proverbial day. And a squirt gun that shoots jelly merely makes your victims sticky and annoyed before you’re suspended for a mandatory 45 days.
The kids on Glee are irritating as hell, but they sing rather well. Dumbo learned to fly thanks to the freeing properties of inebriation, and did something useful I can’t recall but seems to have involved scary clown firemen. Hung made records people actually bought, the Guardians saved the Galaxy, and Frodo Baggins destroyed the ring – sort of. Even Nestor, the Long-Eared Donkey, proved himself essential – although in so doing he became part of the most unintentionally creepy nativity claymation ever.
The Island Misfits show no such ambition or skill. Being weird may not deserve condemnation, but neither does it in and of itself merit any particular accolades. There are, in fact, essential elements our lauded bohemians have in common – character traits necessary to actually accomplish anything, even amidst this cultural cult of eccentricity.
(1) Hard work – Rudolph faces many struggles even running away, and more trying to save his family and reindeer love-interest Clarice. Dumbo works hard, as do the X-Men. Those kids on Glee are always preparing for competitions against heavily-funded high schools full of the same twenty performers every time. There’s no slacking with the loser hero. They do not merely lay around the island waiting to be dumped off on someone else.
(2) Responsibility – When the moment of decision comes, the useful misfit does what he or she can do. Rudolph won’t stay on the Island if his nose endangers even the most useless of toys. Hobbits take journeys. Aquaman organizes fish. Groot is Groot. Some variation of “this is my job” or “I have to do this” is expressed. Often they save everyone at great personal sacrifice.
(3) Using Their Skills Effectively - The nose. The ears. The ability to quote the King James while holding a blanket. Music. Humor. Shooting ice from your hands, seeing through walls, or sticking people with your pokey-claws. The skills vary, but they’re all wanted or needed by someone sometime for something. It’s not enough to be different – they’re different in some useful or entertaining way.
(4) Willingness to Learn, Practice, and Grow – An Aladdin or an Ugly Ducking can’t afford to sit back and wait for their moment of speciality to burst forth. They apply themselves to whatever’s in front of them – how to behave like a prince, expertly sweep a fireplace, or properly fill a cavity. Buddy the Elf had some issues, but he'd paid enough attention to help fix Santa's sleigh when it crashed in Central Park.
Useful Misfits don’t neglect their gifts, but they more than most realize the value of a growth mindset and of playing the cards you’re dealt. They don’t hang out on islands waiting for Santa – they journey through the snow seeking their purpose.
(5) Self-Perspective – "Starlord" Peter Quill has moxy, but he’s aware of how often he’s getting by on bluff and style. Kurt Hummel gives football a shot for one episode – as kicker and lead choreographer – but otherwise devotes his energies to singing and not getting beat up. Misfits need not live in fear, but they recognize what they are and are not, what they do and don’t bring to the table. Reality is their friend.
I love my students and value their quirks and individuality (mostly). I’m appalled at our efforts to run them through the standardization machine so we can label and letter their worth. I want the freedom to teach them whatever I believe will prove useful or engaging, and to help them learn how to pursue and learn on their own whatever stirs their passions.
But as we celebrate the value of diversity, and specialness, and glowing red noses, let’s keep in mind that equally important are the essential skills and mindsets that they’ll need no matter what their individual gifting or choices.
Let’s not run so fast and so far from our terror of "common standards" that we end up producing and validating a generation of choo-choo trains with square wheels but GREAT self-esteem. Let’s not go out of our way to foster island-sitting, or waiting on someone red to sweep down and take them off to be coddled without having to actually do anything.
Let’s celebrate being weird – but doing something with it. To use it to lead, maybe to fly. Something, perhaps, to merit going down in history.