Monday, June 28, 2010

Barriers and Freedom

To my mind, one of the greatest myths young people have been taught is that they are encircled by countless limitations. It would be impossible to even estimate how many barriers my students see surrounding them. There are physical barriers (“I’m not fast enough to be a good soccer player”) and mental barriers/emotional barriers (“I’ve been diagnosed as having an attention deficit disorder, and I will have it for the rest of my life”) – and all of these barriers are seen as undeniable and invincible. They are insurmountable, kids are told, and must simply be acknowledged, accepted, and managed. What I find strange, first of all, is that we adults feel qualified to officially proclaim that this or that limitation exists in a child’s life. Who are we, for heaven’s sake, to make such executive proclamations? Where did we ever get the chutzpah, the nerve, perhaps the impudence, to make a young person believe he will never be able to perform some task or reach some goal? Certainly it’s important that we help students identify their weaknesses, but shouldn’t our next step be to help them overcome these weaknesses and thus surmount the barriers? Shouldn’t we be encouraging them to strive instead of settle? Am I being hopelessly old-fashioned in believing that trying a little harder is better than telling yourself you’ll never succeed? One of mankind’s greatest discoveries, proven countless times across the centuries, is that limitations are created and cultivated in our minds, not in the real world. Change your thoughts and you can destroy barriers, as Helen Keller, Bill Gates, Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey, Anne Frank, Woody Allen (expelled from New York University Film School), J.K. Rowling (rejected by 12 publishers), and the Beatles (rejected by Decca Recording Company) discovered. Haven’t most of humanity’s major accomplishments happened because certain individuals refused to accept a limitation or bow down to a barrier? It is said that Thomas Edison had to conduct over 2,000 experiments before he got the first incandescent light bulb to work. What if a well-meaning person had said to him, after experiment number 1,999: “Thomas, give it up. Accept your limitations, deal with this failure, and move on”? He probably wouldn’t have listened anyway, because later, when asked how he was able to handle 2,000 failed experiments, he replied, “I never failed once. I invented the light bulb. It just happened to be a 2,000-step process.’” He somehow knew that barriers always give way to a true feeling of ground-breaking freedom. To learners who have a sense of unbounded interior liberty, there are no real barriers, obstacles, barricades, or fences – except those that can be conquered by simply not quitting. Thomas Edison knew that truth, and I hope my students can learn it.

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