This is the full text of an essay read by the author of this blog at the BYU JC variety show on Friday, November 23, 2007. The text has undergone a few minor editions since then. It is intended to be read out loud by the author. MP3 available soon probably.
Discovering one's talents is like looking for gold coins in a sewer—if you find some it's well worth the effort, but once you've got the gold, you don't really tend to emphasize how you found it. Our fall starts, our early failures and the effort and time it takes to develop real talents often go unmentioned. This essay is dedicated to the notion that sometimes the process of discovering talents can be interesting, even compelling. So, with the following true stories from my life, I'd like to explain a couple of talents that I won't be performing tonight.
Like any soccer team comprised entirely of seven-year-olds, my soccer team followed the ball around the field like a school of fish. My style of play was the exact antithesis of this. At the start of each half, I would trot out to my spot and stand there for the entire half. I alone was a pillar of enlightened soccer playing: the only child on the whole team to take the coaches' admonition to stay in your position so literally, so precisely, so narrowly that even the near proximity of the ball could not entice me to leave my spot.
One time, the ball was coming straight to me and I decided to produce some tension by spreading my legs apart only to close them at the last minute. Thus, I thought to stop the ball both stylishly and effectively. Seized by a vague, but inexplicable desire to imitate an evil cartoon butler, I planned to say something like “where do you think you're going?” or “Not so fast!” or “I have you now!” or “you’ll never get away from me!” The ball rolled between my legs several seconds before I got around to closing them. I was no soccer prodigy.
After winning a spelling bee in 2nd grade, my career in competitive spelling looked promising. That is until, in a fifth grade spelling bee, I misspelled the word “monkeys.” Incidentally, that same day, I also discovered that I did not have a knack for losing graciously. I started to walk away as if I were about to leave school grounds. With tears streaming down my face, I muttered an angry diatribe against everything that came to mind. My plan was to elicit the sympathies of my mother and my teacher who would catch up with me and console me before I got too far. I would then resist but let them take me back; maybe they'd even give me a treat or something. They didn't. My mother saw right through my shenanigans and waited back at the school. I turned around and threw my arms into the air, desperately hoping to persuade someone to pursue me. I neared the sidewalk, realizing that I'd soon have to actually leave school property or bring the whole episode to a humiliating close. The gate that I neared was not just between the playground and the sidewalk. It stood between mere petulance and insubordination, between the safety of the school grounds and the danger of the streets, between a silly stunt and an inexcusable violation of school rules. I turned around. With no more tears and no more muttering, I walked back ashamed. I haven't spelled competitively since.
Sometimes we discover our deficiencies later in life. For example, bargaining is a skill I discovered I don't have just this semester. The now-well-known purchase of my ud in Egypt illustrates. The ud is an Eastern instrument that is the ancestor of the lute. After watching a merchant’s underwhelming demonstration of ud capabilities, I waited for the merchant to retrieve another ud from his stock. I needed to leave and I really didn’t want to buy a ud, but I was deathly afraid of doing anything that would bring my honor into question. So, upon the merchant’s return I hoped to end the negotiations like a man by politely asserting that I did not want to buy an ud. I wavered. I decided to end the negotiations using the slightly-less-manly method of saying that I didn’t have enough cash to make a good offer. He said he accepted Visa. Under duress, I settled for the even less manly technique of making a semi-reasonable offer that I thought he’d never accept. We left, thinking we were done, but as we walked away, he shouted to us that he accepted my offer. To my chagrin, I was now honor-bound to purchase the product—the imminent departure of our bus notwithstanding.
I soon discovered that “accepting Visa” in Egypt means that the merchant is willing to run with you to an ATM 3 blocks away. I dropped my things and ran on my recently-injured ankle with only the merchant whom I had never before met to accompany me. I retrieved the cash and ran back holding the money in plain view in my right hand. I was much slower than the merchant. My Visa card broke in half.
Now the proud owner of an ud, I looked at it closely for the first time. It was missing three strings and there was black gunk on the back of it. The decorative inlays were already falling out. I wondered if I could use such an ugly instrument. Using the ud never actually came up though. You see, just two days later at the Taba border crossing, my aspirations of learning the ud met an unceremonious end.
Things were going badly after the ud fell from the x-ray machine on the Egyptian side, which knocked loose more of the decorative inlays and cracked the back of it. My ud fared still worse at the Israeli bag-inspection station. I looked and the tuning pegs seemed to be less symmetrical than I had remembered. I looked again at the ud and realized that one of the tuning pegs had broken off. I attended to my other bags as they were inspected by Israeli border officers. I looked again at the ud and noticed that the entire pegbox of the ud was mounted at a suspiciously shallow angle—almost as if it were about to break. I looked for a fourth time at the ud. You take a look: maybe you'll notice the same thing I did. [hold up hopelessly dilapidated ud here]
If I ever become an accomplished ud player, it will not be with this ud. If I ever become an accomplished negotiator, this incident will not be on my resume.
But a failure to demonstrate natural ability early in life is hardly definitive. I recall an occasion when the State of Florida made elementary school kids submit a writing sample to be scored by some testing agency. My essay was about Christmas. It started with an inspiring and well-crafted paragraph on the importance of receiving gifts. The materialism of this first paragraph made me feel a little guilty, so I dutifully discussed the birth of Jesus in my second paragraph. Having assuaged my guilt and exhausted all of my ideas on the subject of the nativity, I unwittingly completed the chiastic pattern by further elaborating on the importance of receiving lots of gifts in my third paragraph. It was personal. It was sincere. It was both secular and spiritual. I thought it was good.
The reader who scored my essay, however, did not agree. Mine was one of the lowest scores in the class. I was deficient. I was a shame to school administrators and state governors. I was evidence that American schools were failing to educate their children. I was practically illiterate! I thought perhaps my fervent explanation of the religious aspects of Christmas had provoked some kind of religious discrimination from the grader. It hadn't. A cursory reading of the paper, however, readily reveals that what I thought was witty and articulate was a mash of mostly incoherent ramblings organized into three ugly, overlapping paragraphs, none of which served to support the vague assertions I made in my conclusion. Many sentence fragments.
The story does not end there. If you came today to watch me play soccer or spell or purchase a quality good at a reasonable price, I'm sorry to disappoint. But if you wanted to hear the reading of an original essay by a kid who only recently felt sufficiently confident to write for pleasure and share his work, well, you just saw it.