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Learning to Tough it Out

By Noah Oppenheim

The D-Day sequence in "Saving Private Ryan." has been hailed as the most extraordinary depiction of brutality ever put on screen. It didn't faze me a bit. As far as I'm concerned, nothing can top the savagery of an elementary school playground.

I, myself, was fairly lucky. I held my own in kickball, and I could throw a baseball with sufficiently masculine form. But, I was certainly no athletic superstar, and I endured my fair share of teasing. To this day, the sight of a gym rope makes me shudder.

I'm sure that many here at Harvard are intimately familiar with the cruelty of youth. I doubt that too many Math 55 prodigies look back fondly on middle school dances. Yet, we've all survived any travails we may have encountered and hopefully we've emerged stronger people as a result.

Now, child psychologists are looking to save awkward youngsters from the anguish of being disliked. Educators are being encouraged to be aware of students who appear to be having a rough time getting along with their peers. These students are then sent off to be tested for a condition called "dyssemia." Dyssemia describes an inability to interpret and use non-verbal skills. As a child ages, this inability manifests itself in all sorts of socially clumsy behaviors--talking too loudly or softly, standing too close to people, touching them inappropriately, laughing or crying at inappropriate times.

The researchers who "discovered" dyssemia estimate about 10 percent of all children suffer from some form of it. (When I look around this campus, I'm forced to conclude that the rate here is much higher.) The treatment regimen involves teaching these children the social skills that they lack through the use of supervised play groups. A therapist will observe a group of kids interacting and gently encourage them to behave more in accordance with normal expectations. Essentially, the therapist tries to make the child more likable.

If there is any group that has no trouble earning my sympathy, it is unhappy children. I can't imagine that someone wouldn't want to do everything in their power to help a suffering kid. But, labeling social failure the product of a disease seems a bit suspect. However sad to may be, perhaps certain people just weren't meant to be class president.

Of course, being an outcast is only the most recent unpleasant human condition to be cast into a medical context. Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), which has become the popular diagnosis for kids who won't behave, was the first to enter the national consciousness. ADD is treated by drugging hyperactive children with Ritalin.

In the adult world, Prozac is so widely prescribed that it is commonly referenced in pop-culture. I am sure that some people do suffer from clinical depression, but a fair number of folks who are merely dissatisfied with life have also taken to popping pills, whether they be Prozac, Zoloff or St. John's Wort.

Granted, if people are afflicted with genuine physiological ailments, then the treatment of those ailments is, for the most part, a good thing. I do not deny that mental illnesses are real illnesses and that they ought to be cared for. But I fear that with all of the medicating and the therapy groups, we may be narrowing the spectrum of human experience.

There is something to be said for being picked on at school, or being distraught, or being a troublemaker. The weird kid who talks too loudly, the dark, despondent brooder and the uncontrollable class clown are the characters that spice up daily life and open our eyes to the variety of human personalities.

And, these people aren't just freaks that exist for the purpose of amusing others. More often than not, society's most marginal figures are its greatest contributors. How many maladjusted geeks have made earth-shattering scientific discoveries? How many tortured souls are responsible for our most extraordinary works of art?

Some might argue that these people could make the same contributions without enduring the same amount of pain, that their "illnesses" are unconnected to their talents. I think it unlikely. Untamed misfits are more inclined to buck existing conventions, pariahs have more opportunity for productive introspection, and great sorrow has always been a fertile source of inspiration. If you eliminate the unpleasant formative experience, you eliminate the greatness that is so often born out of coping.

This weekend the aforementioned "Saving Private Ryan" will likely win the Oscar for Best Picture. But if its director had grown up in today's world, I have to wonder if the film would ever have been made. Growing up outside of Phoenix, Ariz., Steven Spielberg didn't have many friends and was often picked on by his peers. He does not look back fondly on his days in the schoolyard, and it is unfortunate that, as a boy, he had such a difficult time. But if he had been dragged into a therapy group and taught to be more congenial, who knows whether as a man, his imagination would have dreamed up that remarkable Normandy landing? Noah D. Oppenheim '00 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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