Tuesday, January 03, 2012


Geordi LaForge: "What's normal?"
Soren: "'What's normal?' Well, that's a good question. Normal is what everyone else is and you are not."
--Star Trek: Generations

Many decades ago, a suburban couple was concerned about their infant son. For the first eleven months of his life, the child had not grown much at all, had not sat up, rolled over, stood on his own power, or any of the usual things that children do within the usual months of birth. It wasn't right, it wasn't normal, and so they took the boy to the hospital for what became a long battery of medical tests to find out what was wrong.

They were fortunate that they lived near a hospital that specialized in endocrinology, which happened to be where the boy's problems existed. The tests revealed that the boy had a problem called hypothyroidism, which had inhibited his body's uptake and processing of proteins. Thus the lack of growth, the lack of movement. It turned out that there was a simple fix to the problem as well: a single, small pill, which the child would have to take for the rest of his life. But with the pills, the child's body started receiving nourishment again, began to grow. If he could not walk by his first birthday, he could definitely walk by his second.

There would be side-effects, of course: the boy was short and thin for his age, and would remain so until well into his late teens. The lack of any muscle development meant that the boy was clumsy, barely able to walk without tripping over his own feet. He spent his first five years of elementary school in the Learning Disabilities (LD) program, learning to walk, run, jump, and exercise like a normal kid. It was a little humiliating at times, having to learn how to do things that most kids his age took for granted. His penmanship, of course, was a mess, and he remained in a category suburban boys dislike greatly because it showed painfully one's social status, "picked last for kickball."

On the flip side of all this physical drama, the boy also had a brighter than average mind. Quite a bit above average, in fact. This, too, presented difficulties and set the boy apart from his peers, as it put him in the "gifted" program to facilitate his accelerated learning curve. Not too surprisingly, the boy could read before he could walk, and it was his reading and writing that provided him with a sense of sanity and security, as he visited imaginary worlds made by others and by those he himself invented. His vocabulary, expanded by books that were several years above his assumed reading age, made him sound "snooty" to his peers, resulting in shovings or beatings against which he had little to no defense.

If there was anywhere the boy placed his hope for survival, it was in friendship, and his ability to establish it. Given his lack of physical defenses, all he had were his words. Supranormal in intellect, subnormal in physicality, the boy had only his relationships with people to make him feel "normal," and thus any failure there wounded deeply because it was only through others that the boy could define himself in terms "normal" people could understand.

By his 20s, the boy--now becoming a man--finally reached a point where he could consider himself physically "normal." He was able to play team sports without making a complete embarrassment of himself, and his weight fell into line with his height. He could finally give his body a rest and simply be the intellectual he had always wanted to be. Then, too, he'd finally gotten out of the school environment, where differences were more often settled by physical violence. He was able to live in what he thought of as a predator-free environment.

He learned a few things along the way to manhood. He learned that others struggled in their minds as he struggled in his body, and he learned not to speak with scorn toward those less gifted. He even learned how to appreciate and value the physical abilities of his athletic superiors. Not able to keep up, nor interested in doing so, he at least learned to admire them and wish them well. Perhaps he even learned some philosophy or politics in his struggles, for he learned that all people were deserving of equal respect, even if they were not literally "created equal," as his nation's founding document said. The boy who became a man could not rightly say what "normal" is, any more than a certain Star Trek character, but he at least learned to find what was normal for him, and that was a thing worth knowing.

Author's note: If you guessed that this was me, you are correct. Even if you hadn't, the story is still worth reading.


Yenie Tran said...

I enjoyed reading this. After all these years of knowing you, I still get to learn fun things about you.

Bart Leahy said...


Thanks, Yenie! And thanks for reading! Hope grad school's treating you well.