The Tortoise and the Hare, Take Two
By Kathleen Casper
Do you remember the fable about the tortoise and the hare? The one where they race and the hare is so fast that he lies down to take a nap since he is so far ahead, but then the tortoise passes him by while he sleeps…? And the moral of the story was that being slow and steady is better than being fast sometimes… that the hare shouldn’t have been so confident of his abilities to win that he got too cocky and slept while he was passed up….
Yeah, there’s a reason I always hated that fable when I was a kid. Because I liked being quick. I wanted to be happy to be a hare. And even as a child I was aware that there were probably more reasons why that hare laid down than the story said. So I didn’t think it was a good fable at all. Now as an adult, I surely do not believe it is a moral we should perpetuate for any of our youth.
I mean really, do we want our tortoises to feel they can only win when the hares fall asleep?
And do we want our fastest students to be so bored in school that they are racing ahead and then so bored when they are ahead that they fall asleep? Do we really want them to feel bad for being fast, or to not be proud of the way they can speed ahead? Of course we want the slow and steady people to finish the race too, but what if the hares of our world were encouraged and challenged so that they were able to speed ahead as fast as possible … maybe we could increase the race length … maybe we could set the bar higher for speed and accomplish even more with amazingly quick and eager racers like the hare. But instead we set the course so that it is so easy that the quickest fall asleep instead of racing ahead.
Our current school system is set up so that learners who race ahead are often penalized with having to sit around and wait for the rest of the class to catch up, or having to do page after page of math problems, or reading comprehension questions that they could probably do in their sleep. They are taught that to achieve, they need to complete every page of their usually repetitive homework so there are no gaps in the grade book, and that they have to sit still and listen to directions so they can correctly fill in the bubbles on multiple choice standardized tests. They are taught to sit quietly and amuse themselves when they are done early with their work, or are doomed to having to “tutor” other students even though they aren’t trained as teachers and certainly can’t teach someone else how to “get it” when “getting it” comes naturally to them.
In society, when a gifted person achieves amazing results, the student is first congratulated and supported, but as the years go by they are given subtle cues to stop “showing off,” and the praise gets decreased exponentially as others realize the gifted person is doing things they can’t do and probably never will be able to do. Eventually, gifted people realize that standing out as the incredible person they are is going to get them dirty looks or snubs from the other people in their social circles, so they downplay their achievements and try to fit in by being mediocre. Just like the hare, they slow down on purpose so they don’t alienate themselves.
It happens daily with peers in the elementary, middle and high schools (yet I would argue that it happens less when the kids are younger because they still have the hope that they will also be great and somehow haven’t learned to be hateful or judgmental as much at the kindergarten and first grade ages… but it starts to grow even that early, unfortunately.) And then when the gifted children are in their teens and hyper-vigilant about what others think it gets even worse, with peer groups snubbing them for such ridiculous things as what clothes they wear or what items they own, so they surely aren’t going to raise their hand and call attention to themselves in class anymore or talk about the awards they got in the geography bee last weekend.
It doesn’t get much better as they grow into adults. Grown-ups aren’t nearly as adult as we all dreamed they were when we were the kids. They still get catty and mean and jealous and judgmental. They ostracize those who are different and they still can be immature and demeaning to those who are doing great things that make them feel small. And they also get even better at being nasty. So being amazing when you are an adult is even harder when you are surrounded by tortoises.
Our society slows the hares down little by little until they don’t even want to run anymore. Eventually, they fear that they are being “outed” as someone special, and they begin to question their self-worth and stress standing out for any accomplishments. And then the tortoises march by laughing, still not accepting the hare as a friend or welcoming the hare into their circle of friends because hares are still hares and tortoises usually don’t know how to be friends with hares for long. Eventually their “hare-ness” shows through, and the tortoise remembers that the hare knows more about something or is better at something else, so the jealousy comes back anyway.
So no one wins in that race.
The hares are afraid to win. The tortoises continue to pace themselves and never break any records or push the limits of the course. And society stays in the status quo, neither winning the races nor losing them. Our country then continues to make up new courses to reshuffle the results, so that it appears that the tortoises are making progress, and the hares get frustrated with the whole process and step off the turf.
Once in a while one of the hares runs ahead anyway and discover ways to prove to the tortoises and the other hares that it is possible to win the race. It is rare, but it has happened. In fact, those are the only times when our society moves ahead. Look back in time; the major accomplishments of the world were done by the hares who were the square pegs that didn’t fit into the round holes. They were the ones who pushed the envelope and won even while the odds were stacked against them- the Bill Gates of the world … the Thomas Edisons … the Albert Einsteins … the Stephen Hawkings. They didn’t fit in with society, and society continually questioned them, doubting what they were doing. Some didn’t finish traditional schools or dress like everyone else. They could have stopped when they were ridiculed or challenged by the nay-sayers, but they didn’t. And that’s what the hares of our world need to know: they do not have to give up. Being good at something is worth celebrating, and if they are not appreciated by their current “friends” it is time for them to find real friends.
Finding other hares is what often gives the gifted the confidence they need to soar; knowing they are really appreciated for their gains and encouraged to keep going farther is integral to their achievement. But even tortoises with enough confidence in their own strengths can make amazing friends, too. The youngest hares that have others who understand and respect them won’t shut down before they hit their fastest strides; they will set their goals even higher and prove to their family and friends that they can do even better and better, setting the records, creating the products and cures for diseases and alternative fuel ideas for vehicles, and communication tools that the rest of us can’t even dream of. But the hares who are told to conform and who are not supported by their peers are going to find ways to slow themselves down and take more naps and eventually may just give up and stop doing what they are “supposed to” do at all. Those are the ones who end up dropping out, getting into trouble, and finding other not-so-great things to amuse themselves with when the world of the tortoises proves to be way less stimulating than their minds can take.
So how do we focus our energies on fine-tuning the gifts of the quickest? How do we push our civilization ahead instead of finding ways to keep everyone the same and pulling the most gifted back or behind? The answer lies in being better friends, listening and cheering each other on more, and having faith in our own abilities enough to not dislike others who are amazing at things that traditionally aren’t “cool” or interesting to the masses just because they aren’t like us, or because they show us up.
It also lies in us changing our priorities in America. It is not wrong to be incredible at something other than football or growing businesses. There are people who can add amazing things to our world if we only take the time to support them when they are young. Today’s standardized test-focused society is keeping the best of the best even with the rest. Our school systems need to find ways to speed the fastest even faster and challenge them with new courses so they strengthen their problem-solving abilities and come up with new ideas and new skills. We need to support the “odd” kids who don’t always fit in by finding ways to connect them with other people who have their same interests and who understand the different challenges they feel. Gifted programs give all of these types of opportunities, but not every gifted child is recognized for their talents or skills. We need to find new ways to reach the hidden hares. And every hare that comes along may not race the same, so we also need to offer enough differentiated activities and challenges so that every hare finds a path that they can conquer, just as all tortoises may not be able to race on the same tracks. Feeling successful and adequately challenged is more important to both tortoises and hares than finishing the race anyway so that each time they run they go farther.
Until we discover cures for envy, bullying, and peer pressure we are likely going to have to rise above it when we see it in order to give our superstars the chance they need to run freely. And one of the best things we can do to start this is to teach our kids that it is OK to achieve and to be the best of the best. And to let them know that first of all, sleeping while the others strive to catch up is not acceptable – we want them to continue to run at full speed and without embarrassment or guilt for as long as they feel they can, because they are so capable. And secondly, the race will likely not be as challenging as they’d like, but if they run even farther ahead there are bound to be turns in the road or bumps and bridges that they have never seen before, so they need to keep going. They must not do just what the tortoises do, no matter what the rest of society says. And don’t read them the tortoise and the hare fable without stressing that the hare was the loser not because he was so quick or cocky, but because he didn’t keep running proudly as fast as he could so that the world could have seen him in all his glory surpassing the finish line and continuing to run and run and run.
Or you could just tell them the story a little differently… Once upon a time there was a hare who was an incredibly gifted runner. For some reason someone put him in the same race as a tortoise, who was slow and steady and incredibly nice, yet who surely didn’t need the added stress in his life of having to race the same course as a talented hare. But when the starting whistle sounded the hare raced ahead and was the most beautiful runner ever- taking huge strides and running with such grace that the whole audience gasped in excitement and cheered him on. And even with the hare far ahead, the tortoise continued on anyway, slowly and steadily, realizing that he was a tortoise, which meant he had incredible tortoise gifts of his own and the audience cheered for him too because he was so focused and so determined. And at the end of the race the city celebrated both of them because the hare ran the fastest and was still running and encouraging the course-makers to create even more challenging race tracks for him to achieve, and the tortoise was so proud of himself for doing the best that he could too. So everyone was a winner that day and all the residents of the city felt great about themselves for supporting both their tortoises and their hares, and for making sure that all their runners were racing at the best speeds for their own needs. Then everyone went home and had pie. (Why pie, you ask … because for some reason almost every gifted child I’ve ever met has gone through a phase where they want to talk about pie. So yes, pie.) And they all lived happily ever after.