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When Saying “Yes” Means “No”

  • If I had been asked, when I was about nine or ten, what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would have said that I wanted to play center field for the St. Louis Cardinals. Not only was I not fast enough and didn’t have a good throwing arm, but I couldn’t even see the batter from center field. Well, for that matter, I couldn’t see the infielders all that great either. Not until I was in college in the drug-soaked 1960s did I encounter anyone else who was so far removed from reality.

It would have been easy for my mother, confronted with this as her son’s life goal, to sit me down and have a heart-to-heart about the realities of life. In an age that was not especially concerned about damaging a child’s self-esteem, such a talk would have been viewed as doing me a favor.

Instead, she said, “That is going to be pretty hard. After all, that’s probably something every other boy your age in the country wants to do. But, you might be able to buy the team. Not many boys your age are going to try to do that.”

Little did I know that my chances of purchasing the Anheuser-Busch Breweries and the Cardinals were about as good as playing center field. But, for the eight-year-old me, that really didn’t matter. I’d been given a goal that, while highly improbable, was something I saw as possible.

Childhood, for all of us, is a time of fantasy and coming to terms with reality. It’s not uncommon for children’s aspirations about what they want to do when they grow up to be highly improbable, even impossible. When the nondisabled child announces that he or she wants to be President (and I have no idea why any kid would want to do that today), adults may smile and tell them they will have to work hard if they want it to happen. Statistically, the chances for someone in my generation becoming President were about one in 40,000,000, better than playing for the Cardinals but not much.

We know that, in time, the child will discover how unlikely it is that they will be President and come to terms with that reality on their own, learning to distinguish between the very difficult and the truly impossible – an important lesson in its own right.

There is admittedly a thin line between squelching enthusiasm for a goal that, while daunting, might still be achievable and cheerleading someone down a path that is guaranteed to lead nowhere. Visually impaired children, far more than their sighted peers, are likely to have their aspirations dowsed with cold water. As an adult, I realize that the genius of my mother’s advice was that by saying “yes” to one course of action she was simultaneously, and ever so gently, telling me “no” to another option without me ever realizing it. In so doing, I retained my enthusiasm for baseball as a game while, at the same time, beginning to think a bit more realistically about what I wanted to do when I grew up.

I’ve certainly been willing to tell blind kids that, as much as they might want it, they were not going to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. The law of gravity wasn’t going to be suspended just for them. But that’s very different from saying that the odds of success are very long, success is improbable, and you won’t be able to do it. After all, the odds of being the first African-American President or female Presidential candidate of a major party in my childhood were considerably more than one in 40,000,000.

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