In Praise of Late Bloomers

BloomingFlowerby Anniel8/15/15
Come, see real flowers Of this painful world. — Basho  •  Our family has been discussing much about pain and its purposes lately. No one would deliberately seek out pain for themselves or their children, and yet it comes. The ends of that pain depend on our response to what happens to us.

Our youngest daughter has been plagued by so many illnesses and so much physical pain, and yet she still weeps over the obvious sadness and pain of a boy she knew in second grade. Johnny was a sweet, pale child who didn’t fit in with anyone in the class. My daughter says he wasn’t bullied at all, he was just ignored by everyone. We both wonder if being a “nothing” isn’t worse than being bullied.

One day as the “gifted” students were going out for their extra class, Johnny went to the teacher and asked where the other kids were going, and, after she explained, he asked how he could get to go, too. The teacher told him that he would have to read and be able to do math well, knowing full well that he would never be able to qualify. My daughter says he looked at the teacher with such sadness that she has been haunted by that look for over twenty years. I wonder if he ever made friends or fit in anyplace. He is about 30 years old now and I wonder if he has a job where he’s successful or a wife and family, and has he ever been happy? Was he “slow,” or a “late bloomer” who found wisdom and his own gifts along the way?

Right here I remembered a story called “Cipher in the Snow,” which I had read many years ago. I didn’t know it had been made into a short film but it popped up on U-Tube when I Googled the title. Watching it with tears suited my feelings perfectly.

One thing I am grateful for is that my own child was capable of recognizing such sadness in her schoolmate and still feeling the weight of it all these years later. We would all be better people if we could feel real empathy for the sorrows of others. Not to pity them, but to walk with them for awhile on their journey so they are not lost.

Because of our daughter’s long-term illness we have seen the many ways people deal with their pain. Some withdraw into themselves and grieve silently. Others make dramatic scenes and demands on others. Some people are unable to look at the pain of others and can only focus on their own situation. Some get very angry, and stay that way. Still others try with great difficulty to keep their lives and families as normal as possible. Those who lose a loved child may have a hard job learning to accept and then school themselves to regain joy in living.

It is also sad to report that some parents abandon their sick children, which is very hard for anyone to understand. I watched one young patient, a boy of about seven or eight, who got up every morning and stood in the doorway of his hospital room staring down the hall at the elevator. He wouldn’t talk to anyone or even look at them, slapping them away if they got too close. He stood there hour after hour waiting for his family to come. I do not know their circumstances, but no one ever came to see him. All the nurses and doctors were so distressed over the situation.

Some families who came to Ronald McDonald House to volunteer had been guests there themselves. Many had lost children after heartbreaking illnesses, and others brought their children in time after time, illness after illness, surgery after surgery. If their children survived they brought them back to give hope to others. If they eventually lost their children they still wanted to repay the kindness shown to them and let others know that they can still be grateful for the time they have with their loved ones.

One friend, whose four-year-old child died a few years after finally receiving a heart transplant, told me of the turmoil they had gone through once they were allowed to go home. The child’s life and health were so fragile. One day his son developed a fever (an oft repeated experience) and he was rushing the boy to the hospital just as he had done countless times before. In the ambulance he realized that this time was different. He leaned down and whispered in his son’s ear, “Hang on, please hang on.” His son looked at him sadly, shook his head tiredly and drifted away into death. He just couldn’t do it anymore. His older sister is now going to medical school to become a pediatric heart specialist, and his older brother also wants to be in a medical helping profession. They are one family I admire more than I can say. I remember the father telling me that someone where he worked felt sorry for him because “he no longer had a life.” He answered that he had a wonderful life, it wasn’t the one he planned, but it was still wonderful and he would praise God for the children, all of them, he had been given for however long he had them.

And we still had fun, in spite of everything we could laugh and cry and love, together. People we met through pain have become more than family to us. It is possible to come out the other side as better people. We will always remember the sadness, the pain, and the joy we shared.

In a sense we are all “late bloomers” in this world as we search, not necessarily for “smarts,” but for wisdom.

Wisdom, the real flower of this painful world. • (1324 views)

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19 Responses to In Praise of Late Bloomers

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    One friend of mine married a few years ago, and had a son who had a leaky heart valve that required surgery. Fortunately, they were able to afford it, and didn’t do something like ignore the child.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    A remarkable essay, Annie.

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    In a sense we are all “late bloomers” in this world as we search, not necessarily for “smarts,” but for wisdom.

    I have seen many very smart people figure out that “smarts’ are not so rare. Wisdom and character are.

    When I was running a company in Asia I came to this conclusion about hiring people for business. “Its easy to find smart people and it is easy to find honest people, but is difficult to find honest smart people.” That’s another one for you Brad.

  4. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:


    I believe it was Nietzsche who said, “That which does not kill me, only makes me stronger.”

    A cute, but somewhat supercilious one-liner from a frustrated loner who never had to think of anyone but himself.

    Things are different when other people must be taken into consideration. When dealing with situations like you describe the daily grind can become extremely taxing and one wonders if one can go on.

    I believe it is the occasional respite from such pressure and love for those we take care of which allows us to gather our strength for the next fight.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    One day as the “gifted” students were going out for their extra class, Johnny went to the teacher and asked where the other kids were going, and, after she explained, he asked how he could get to go, too. The teacher told him that he would have to read and be able to do math well, knowing full well that he would never be able to qualify. My daughter says he looked at the teacher with such sadness that she has been haunted by that look for over twenty years. I wonder if he ever made friends or fit in anyplace. He is about 30 years old now and I wonder if he has a job where he’s successful or a wife and family, and has he ever been happy? Was he “slow,” or a “late bloomer” who found wisdom and his own gifts along the way?

    As a conservative, expert commentator, and woman, what do you say to those who would hold back normal people (or achievers) so that those who aren’t as gifted don’t feel bad? That’s not a trick question, Annie. You’ve done an amazing job articulating the poignancy of things we all face as children (for there is always someone more talented or clever than we are). You’re obviously not a heartless person. But what do you say to those (and they are in the majority in some places) who value equality so that no one’s feelings get hurt at the expense of letting people achieve to the best of their ability?

    I say “man up” or “life’s not fair.” But I realize those words aren’t going to be effective with the weepy-weepy crowd. So, in all seriousness, what do you tell these equality people who value feelings over letting people achieve to the best of their ability, even if some are left behind?

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I think her point is that one can have such classes without treating those of lesser intellect (who may well be just as smart once they develop) as invisible. This probably can’t be done with many children themselves, but the teachers and other authorities could try to do something. No doubt the better ones do. (I recall that in their novel Inferno, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle had the main character encounter a teacher who was very good with gifted students, but had a tendency to label more difficult students as dyslexic — and they never learned unless they encountered a teacher who didn’t rely on such labels.)

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        No, I’m not addressing what her point was. I’m asking her, given her very nice description of a child with lesser abilities, what do you say to those for whom the solution is to “equalize” everyone so that no one ever has to feel bad?

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Feeling bad about oneself, every now and then, is a by-product of life; except possibly for some who are mentally ill.

          I don’t think a teacher has to overdo the sympathy, but in the case mentioned by Annie, I think in addition to what the teacher said, she might also have told the child that we all have strengths and weaknesses. And it can take a person some time to find out what they are. Furthermore, I would suspect that there were other “extra” classes than those mentioned and perhaps the child might have the opportunity to work his way to those.

          If religion were still approved in schools, the teacher could also have told the boy that God made us all different and we need to look inside ourselves to find what we are good at and what we like. Once you fine out these things, and start to work on them the world can start to open up for you.

          Any half-intelligent adult should know how to speak to a child and encourage the child while not misleading the child. We all need a little encouragement, at least occasionally.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Notice the things Sarah Palin has pointed out about the good aspects of her son with Down’s Syndrome. Or, similarly, the good qualities of Forrest Gump — though a friend who read the book noted that he was actually an idiot savant there.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              My answer (not trying to steal Annie’s thunder…I’m sure she’ll come up with something better) is that all people have talents they can develop and that, although the necessity to compete in the wide world is very real, we’re all ultimately competing against ourselves.

              I did my timed run up the mountain today. I had a good run because I had taken a few days off (for proper rest) and because it was a little cooler (although muggy as heck). I get to the top and a couple very plump, but congenial, ladies were up there already. They saw my stopwatch and asked me my time. I told them “27:57.” they said they had taken 96 minutes or so. And I said that if you keep it up, you’ll get better. As for me, I’m competing against myself, always trying to better my times. And we both agreed that a regular routine of exercise was useful in keeping the weight down.

              Our bosses, and life itself, means we’re not going to be able to live just in the kumbaya land of competing against ourselves. Even so, the point is to do what you can do and not envy others their abilities. Everyone can find a niche that suits them. And then you can continue to try to improve. And at the end of the day, many very very successful people are really quite average. It’s just that they kept working at improving themselves, at taking risks, taking the next step. And all those steps add up.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            But the self-discipline, the desire to KNOW, the hunger for knowledge for its own sake (which is the only thing that produces a scholar) are all at some deep, subterranean level, fueled by the knowledge of God.

            That’s right. I would tell the child something like that. My question to Annie, though, was what do you tell the “do-gooders” who would equalize outcomes with the purpose of making sure no one ever had to feel the pain of being not as good. And there’s a lot of that going around in public schools from what I hear.

  6. Anniel says:

    Sorry to be late to this discussion. It is something I have thought a lot about, especially after writing about Johnny and remembering what a sad and shy little boy he was. I could try to find his relatives to find out how he is, but mostly I tried to think how the teacher, his parents, or even I, could have helped him.

    I think Brad’s question is a fair one that needs to be dealt with, but I’m going to have to answer it in a different article, perhaps based on how schools used to be when every student met together and the older and more advanced children helped teach and mentor the younger, and perhaps slower, ones, to the benefit of all.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I certainly hope Johnny is doing okay. It’s good to remind ourselves that there are many people who are rich and famous who are hooked on drugs, jump out of windows, and otherwise are not particularly happy. The trick is to live within your means. Like Clint Eastwood said, A man’s got to know his limitations.

      Coming to terms with those limitations isn’t easy. That’s not an idea that will necessarily go down well in our feelings-based, everything can work out fine if we just Kumbaya culture. This culture doesn’t believe in limitations (and we have the national debt, the silly “No Limits” t-shirts, and homosexual marriage as proof of this). Telling little Johnny “Don’t worry, be happy” is a tough sell.

      Anyway, Annie, if you devote an entire article to the question “Why it’s not good to equalize outcomes even if it means hurt feelings” you are addressing a profound topic.

  7. Anniel says:

    Brad, I have some “feelers” out to a couple of well known academics on what is being called “Experiential Education,” which sounds pretty interesting. But I think I will start with what kind of schools we might want to build and some of the problems we face. Including what education actually is and what we have supplanted it with. When I start getting answers about what might actually be possible, and some things I dream about, I will send in articles. Maybe Deanna has some very practical changes she would like to see. I’ve noticed we have several teachers weighing in on the issue. There are lots of old articles that could be referenced, too.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Including what education actually is and what we have supplanted it with.

      I can’t help thinking the answers to this question are muddled because it’s so simple: reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.

      That’s it. Oh, yes, add in history and a few other things like that which make for the well-rounded person. But, geezuz, kids are being taught all kinds of crap — such as how to be “world citizens” — and many come out of the system barely able to read.

      Stop all the newfangled. Fire anyone who isn’t a principal or in front of the kids teaching them something. And that something better be some form of “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.”

      Anything over and above that is likely losing track of the very purpose of education, public or otherwise. It’s not complicated. And the techniques for teaching the academic subjects are (or used to be) well known.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        You should fire most everyone who is not a teacher or principal, but you need to hire some people who will enforce discipline! Even if a few of them are lawyers.

        In my experience, the majority of problems one encounters in schools could be, if not completely then largely, solved by enforcing discipline.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          I think there are a lot of clever people trying to find their way around that simple truth, Mr. Kung.

          There are many ways to rationalize around a direct approach. Some will say you have to entertain kids, that you’re competing against iPhones, video games, and all that. No. You’re competing against ignorance.

          The best teachers I had got to the point. They drilled us in what we needed to learn, using solid (non-flashy) techniques, and kept at it. We were rewarded when we did well and suitably failed or marked down if we didn’t. There’s no substitute for hard work. They don’t call it “homeplay.” They call it “homework.” And it should be no less so in the classroom.

          And you know how much money it takes to do this? Almost nothing. All it takes is the will to impose discipline, a good curriculum, and a teaching method (all of which are already known) to implement it.

          My favorite teachers were the hard-asses. My least favorite were ones who were just floating through the system, barely competent, and barely better than a baby sitter. One of my favorite teachers was Mr. Schaeffer who taught mathematics in high school. He was straightforward and no-nonsense, but extremely helpful if you were looking for honest help.

          This was an honors class I was in. And “honor” students can be just an insipid as anyone else, if not more so. I remember one girl (a friend of mine, smart as a whip…Catholic) who, when about to take a test, asked, “Mr. Schaeffer, can we use pencil?” The usual method was pen (or vice versa…I forget). Anyway, Mr. Schaeffer baritones out in his deep, authoritative, non-namby-pampby voice (and I can still remember his exact words): You can use blood for all I care.

          Mr. Schaeffer never lost site of the fact that his role was to teach mathematics, not to obsess over trivialities and irrelevances. I liked this guy. I also feared him just a little. That’s a good balance.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            One teacher I can remember, but unfortunately not by name , was my 6th grade teacher, who instilled a love of classical Greek culture (especially the myths) that has remained with me since (this was our last year in Greece). That wasn’t all she taught, of course, but it was a bit unusual. She was also the one who had a play version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in which I got to play one of the swindlers.

            Another important teacher was my geometry teacher, Mr. Straley, who also introduced us to computer programming (which became my profession later, so he was a decisive influence on me). I recall that he insisted that all our homework had to be on 1-sided paper (he didn’t like turning it over). I didn’t want to use a second sheet, so I always managed to put every proof on a single sheet. On one occasion he placed one of my homework sheets on the overhead projector to see it it could be read with the magnification effect. I was amused that it was still too small to read. But I received the Outstanding Student Award in geometry that year (a copy of Handbook of Mathematical Tables and Formulas, which I still have).

          • Anniel says:

            We need more Mr. Schaeffers Brad. And principals who have the guts to back them up.

            “Competing against ignorance.” I like that.

            I am writing my first article on this and it keeps growing like Fibber McGee’s closet (maybe that’s a close approximation of my brain these days). Remember, you asked for it. I want to do a second article when I hear from some contacts. I would like to at least give some real possibilities about what CAN be accomplished.

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