Everyone Can’t Be Beautiful…And That’s Ok!!!

While reorganizing a couple of my closets a few weeks ago, I came across a few folders saved from my time as an educator. After going through the usual reminisces (ie: “Wow. David Jones. I wonder if he ever graduated college?”) and projections (ie: “Wow. Sasha Johnson. I’m sure she’s one of the top strippers hairdressers in Atlanta now.”) that occur when seeing names you haven’t seen in a while, I found the evaluations of a couple dozen or so students who were assigned to complete a semester long project.

Although these evaluations were based on their work on the project, they were specifically tailored to each student, providing a panoramic assessment of all of their work so far that year. But, although they were supposed to be unique to each student’s particular characteristics, I noticed the same word popping up in every single one of the evaluations: Smart

One was “…hard-working, smart, and funny.” Another was “…laidback, smart, but occasionally disinterested.” One was even “…too smart to just be a distraction.” There was a variation of smart in each of the 25 or so evaluations I read. Thing is, at least 10 (and as many as 15) of those evaluations were lies. I did not have a classroom full of smart kids. Some were decidedly unsmart. A couple were f*cking idiots.

If you take 25 random high school students, some of them are going to be smart, some of them are going to be average, and some are going to be below average. That’s just the way the world works, and in my own rush to assign above average intelligence to each student, I lied. It wasn’t an intentional lie, but it was a lie nonetheless.

And, to be clear, just because a student doesn’t have above-average intelligence doesn’t mean that I needed to call them stupid or dumb. There are thousands of other positive adjectives that can be used—adjectives that would do a better job of truly describing a student than just falling back on “smart”—and it’s the job of a teacher/evaluator to find and incorporate them. But, in my haste to make everyone feel good, I failed them.

I thought of this yesterday while reading an online excerpt of a magazine profile on a notable female celebrity. This woman is many very positive things—extremely smart, talented, witty, accomplished, graceful, engaging, noble, athletic, altruistic, rich, etc—but “beautiful” is not one of them. I will not say who this person was, but trust me when I tell you that hers wouldn’t be the 1st, 2nd, or 122nd name thought of when thinking of beautiful celebrities. Yet, when the author of the piece was describing her, “beautiful” was stuck in there, so obviously perfunctory and so obviously wrong that I re-read the paragraph to make sure they were still talking about the same person.

I realize that beauty, like intelligence—shit, like everything-–is relative. I also realize that exactly what constitutes beauty varies from person to person. (Well, varies somewhat.) But, while reasonable people will agree that most people aren’t smart or tall or athletic—because, well, the definitions of tall, smart, and athletic are inherently exclusionary—some of these same reasonable people throw reason out the window when beauty is in the picture.

And, when you allow a self-conscious political correctness to stretch the definition of a superlative adjective to include everyone, three things occur.

1. It makes the word meaningless

Basically, if everyone is beautiful, no one is beautiful.

2. It sets people up for unnecessary scrutiny

If I’m setting a homegirl up with one of my boys, and I describe him as “tall” even though he  is 5’9”—which is technically taller than the average American male—I’ve basically set her up to be disappointed, made myself seem like a liar, and set him up for a shitload of unnecessary judgment.

It’s not that I should have just called him short. If I would have focused on his other positive qualities, his height probably wouldn’t have been an issue. But, by stretching the truth, I’d  likely end up creating a situation where he’s facing an uphill battle because she’s spending the first 15 minutes of the date thinking to herself “I know this n*gga Champ didn’t have the nerve to call this dude tall! WTF?”

And, most importantly…

3. It does the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to do

I realize that this push to make everyone beautiful exists so that the Halle Berrys of the world—women who are almost impossibly gorgeous—aren’t the only ones made to feel pretty, appreciated, attractive, and, most importantly, valuable. And, while I do think beautiful is overused, there are two sets of people who can never use that word too much when describing the women they care about: fathers and significant others. Daughters should always be made to feel beautiful by their dads, and women have no business being in relationships with men who don’t make them feel like they’re uniquely beautiful.

But, while the intent is noble, bending over backwards to call every woman beautiful does nothing but reinforce the idea that beauty is the only trait a woman can possibly possess that matters. It doesn’t matter if she’s a genius, legitimately brilliant, outrageously witty, or impossibly accomplished. She can cure cancer, swim across the Pacific, ghostproduce the rest of “Detox” for Dr. Dre, and perform a successful exorcism on Katt Williams, but beautiful still has to somehow find its way into any description of her.

I know, I know, I know, I know. There’s a disproportionate premium on a woman’s beauty/physical attraction (or lack thereof), and it’s unfair to suggest that women stop doing something that’s only done because of male influence. This may be true, but continually testing the elasticity of the definition of beautiful to fit everyone isn’t the way to change that. It worsens it actually, reemphasizing the idea that making the covers of Time, People, Black Enterprise, Wired, Newsweek, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone doesn’t matter if you’re not also on the cover of Vogue. 

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

What Exactly Makes a “Good” Parent?

What a difference a month makes

As any NFL fan (and most New Yorkers) undoubtedly know, there’s an annual ritual that occurs somewhere between the 3rd and 8th weeks of the NFL season each year. The New York Giants will be struggling, a few anonymous sources from the team will leak quotes to the media about how much the entire team hates head coach Tom Coughlin, and a few prominent beat writers and reporters will pen articles about how the team has tired of Coughlin’s rigid ways and that it’s time to make a change.¹

Seriously, if you were to look up the term “hot seat” in the dictionary, you’d see a picture of a red-faced and exasperated Coughlin in the middle of the same exaggerated head shake/eye roll combo an assistant principal at a high school would make after hearing that the gym locker room toilets were clogged again.

He’s never won (and never will win) coach of the year. Whenever Sports Illustrated or ESPN.com does one of those anonymous player surveys, he’s always the choice as “the coach I’d least like to play for.” He’s not regarded as an evil genius like Bill Belichick, a guru like Jon Gruden, a master motivator/player’s coach like Mike Tomlin or Pete Carroll, or even an “old guy whose best days are behind him but still has something in the tank” like (the extremely overrated) Mike Shanahan. He is actually a stereotypically bad assistant principal — a micro-manager whose obsession with mind-numbing routine and authoritarianism ends up undermining the power he already has².

But, as of Sunday night, Coughlin is the head coach of two Super Bowl champions, a feat matched by few others. A man many wouldn’t consider a great (or even good) NFL coach has twice bested the man thought of as the best football coach of his generation.

Today, the Coughlin narrative is that he’s an underappreciated motivator and technician. The end results (two championships) have justified any means, and 50 years from now, no one will remember that he came within a hair of getting fired every year. All they’ll see is “Tom Coughlin = two-time Super Bowl champion” and they’ll assume that he was a great coach.

Now, there’s an obvious parallel between coaching and parenting (and teaching, even), and I brought up Tom Coughlin’s career because it ties directly into a question I’ve always had about parenting.

What exactly makes a “good” or “great” parent?

This seems like it should be an easy question to answer. A good parent is a selfless individual who loves their children unconditionally, stops at nothing to provide for and protect them, teaches them whatever needs taught, and models good behavior.

But, if the ultimate goal of a parent is to make sure their offspring are productive, capable, and well-adjusted members of society, what’s to make of “good” parents who were, to put it bluntly, failures?

How do you gauge the parental merits of loving, selfless, and upstanding individuals who’ve raised kids who grew up to be liars, deadbeats, thieves, rapists, murders, and Laker fans? Would you consider a parent “good” if they were successful and happy and well-adjusted, but their children were the exact opposite?

Perhaps, like a “good” coach who just wasn’t able to find a way to motivate his team, maybe a good parent with sh*tty offspring has all the proper parental tools but just didn’t apply them properly…making them bad at being a parent

On the flipside, what do you make of people who’ve managed to succeed in spite of what looked to be lackluster and/or deficient parenting? The man who’s managed to become a renowned surgeon despite his overbearing and still hard to please alcoholic father? The woman who never received a single compliment from her ruthless and manipulative mother but ended up being a caring, successful, and well-adjusted lawyer and mom herself? The kid from the projects who, after seeing how heroin tore apart his family, got a PhD. in neuroscience to study addiction and help make sure what happened to his family doesn’t happen to any others?

On the surface, no one would say that any of these people had good parents, but you can’t deny the fact that their relationships with their parents helped motivate and inspire them to become who they are today. Again, if parental merits depend on the offspring you send out into the world, the “sh*tty” parents definitely succeeded. Perhaps these parents, bad as they may have seemed, were only doing what they thought it took to ensure their children’s success as adults.

And, just as you probably won’t hear any Giants complain about Coughlin’s rigidity or out-of-touchness today, you’re probably not going to hear any of the people from the last paragraph complain too much about how they were raised.

If the Giants don’t make the playoffs this year, Coughlin gets fired. Now, though, each of his negative characteristics become pluses through euphemism. (i.e.: “he’s a micro-manager” turns into “he’s steadfastly committed to excellence”)

If these people don’t turn out successful, the drunk dad is an asshole, the manipulative mom is a bitch, and the kid with the addicts in his family just had too much on his plate to overcome. If successful, though, the asshole dad becomes “a guy who believed in tough love,” the bitchy mom is just a “perfectionist who wanted the best for me,” and the kids from the projects reflects on all the sacrifices his people made to help him make it.

I guess I’m trying to say that whether a person is a good parent or not is completely arbitrary, completely variable, and completely dependent on the quality of kid they produce. But, to be honest, I don’t even really believe that. A part of me still thinks that, despite what I’ve tried to prove today, good parenting is like pornography — you can’t really define it, but you know it when you see it. 

Hmm. I forget which Gladwell book it was (actually, it might have been “Freakonomics.” I really have no idea), but I remember a passage in it that basically stated that the best parenting is done before a kid is even born. The genes you pass on to him and the financial situation he’s born in do waaaaay more to help (or hurt) him succeed than anything you can do as a parent.

If this is true, perhaps coaching and parenting are more intertwined than I thought. As any Giants fan will surely tell you today, “good coach” is just another way of saying “he was lucky enough to have some good ass players.”

¹There’s an article at Slate.com that goes much more in-depth on this “ritual.” I remember reading it there, and I know it’s somewhere in here, but I couldn’t find it yesterday.

 

²No shots at any assistant principals reading this

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)