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"Why didn't you make me a prodigy?"
What's that now? I was driving my 17-year-old son, Fox, to yet another interminable water-polo session at the suburban behemoth that is a locus for every budding swimmer, diver and gymnast in a 50-kilometre radius when he petulantly tossed out this gem.
"You can't make a prodigy," I responded. "They are literally freaks of nature."
He looked out the window as we passed the site of his one-time guitar lessons and exhaled, shoving his chin into his palm. "Yes, you can. If I had started playing violin like some other kids in the school orchestra, when I was 3, I would be a prodigy."
I felt a shot of heat rising up the back of my neck. "At 3, I had you in a well-respected music class, meaning it wasn't in somebody's basement and the name even contained the word 'conservatory.' You could barely bang two coconut shells together."
"Well, it was a crappy school."
I was skeptical of that assessment, since the school recently expanded to a larger building and appeared to be thriving. We had 20 more minutes of driving ahead, so I pondered my next move. As any parent knows, trapping teens in cars is an ideal way to further a conversation without them slamming a door or whipping out a phone to Snapchat with a more telegenic human. A savvy friend of mine recently lectured her teenage son on porn and why sex in real life isn't like that (until he threatened to throw himself out of her Honda if she didn't stop talking). I didn't want to shut the discussion down, but I was stumped.
I have tried to expose both my son and daughter to a multitude of experiences so they could discover a passion. I didn't expect them to master it, just enjoy it. I began listing for Fox all the activities he's been involved in, beginning at six months old, when we endured mom-and-tot swimming lessons in a pool so blissfully warm I can only assume it was 90-per-cent urine. From there we ventured into gymnastics, followed by taekwondo (I appreciated the discipline of the sensei, but suspected the class was full of children with undiagnosed rage issues). A stint of hockey followed. It was becoming increasingly clear that Fox wasn't superaggressive. When he had the puck, oh-so-briefly, he would stare at it as if trying to communicate on a metaphysical level until another player deftly flipped it away. Summer meant soccer and tennis. Fox and his best friend spent more time looking for snails in the woods than on the playing field. Baseball was a hit, though: We did three seasons before his interest began to wane.
As I write all this down, I realize I sound completely manic. But wait – there's more. Following a fascination with Godzilla, both my children asked if they could attend Japanese lessons on Saturdays so they'd be able to watch the movies without subtitles. Done. To this day they can only say "peach" in Japanese.
After a short flirtation with diving (Fox thought the Speedos were embarrassingly tiny), he made an unexpected switch to the other end of the pool, where the water-polo team was training. The joke was on him: Not only are the suits even smaller, you have to wear two during tournaments so there are no wardrobe malfunctions. He loved the game, worked hard and his team won the provincial championships.
So this music thing was burning me. Really, the only whim I hadn’t indulged was archery.
When Fox was in middle school, he took up the violin and it sparked an interest in music that has enriched his life. He flourished at strings (he also plays electric guitar and mandolin). In high school, he’s performed with both the strings ensemble and the orchestra and been a counsellor at a music camp, so I assume he doesn’t stink. When he practises, I don’t want to cry and I can identify the riffs unless it’s classical. A theme song for Salada tea from the 1970s seems to figure prominently. My side of the family has no musical talent; we were often asked to lipsynch in choir. My husband had a teenage DJ business, but aside from some rudimentary scrubbing abilities there was nothing in our collective past to hint at prodigy material. It would no more have occurred to me to shove a tiny violin into Fox’s three-year-old hands than to let him perform his own dental work.
The thing is, when your kids are prime prodigy age, how are you supposed to know what they’re into – besides Froot Loops and Teletubbies? There is enormous pressure on kids today to be not only good, but excellent. He is a bright, interesting kid, isn’t that enough?
After running through the list, Fox snorted. “None of those activities are practical.”
“Swimming isn’t a practical skill?”
“Well, I am not as good as I could be if I was forced to do things at a high level.”
There it was. I was never a tiger mom, and now I was paying the ultimate price: being mauled by my own surly cub. And then there were those coconuts! I can say with complete confidence, he was not good on those coconuts.
Wendy Jacob lives in Toronto.