“For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Matthew 25:29) While the words of Jesus can seem incredibly unfair and unjust when taken out of their parabolic context, they ring so true to modern life that, some 40 years ago, sociologists began to talk about “The Matthew Effect.” In a word, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.
I just began “reading” (and by reading I mean listening to the audiobook) Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Outliers. Right away, I have been wrestling with this notion that it is neither talent alone, nor is it hard work, that often determines who succeeds and who doesn’t. From pointing out the curious fact that the vast majority of Canadian pro hockey players are born in the first three months of the year (due to receiving greater opportunity for falling right after the age-class eligibility cutoff date of January 1), to the “hidden” aspects of Bill Gates’s rise to success (he came from privilege and was given extraordinary access to learning long before he dropped out of college to begin a software company), Gladwell has cut me to the quick. I hope to see this tension resolved or at least developed more fully as the book continues. Surely there is a way for those not already born with a silver spoon in their mouth to rise up?
Thinking purely about this age cutoff phenomenon, I have to say it’s probably true. When I think of students I have worked with over a period of time (either when I did long-term subbing or as a ministry volunteer), I can identify many whose birthdays fall early in the school/ ministry year who have been tall, athletic, and popular. Conversely, the ones with later birthdays have often been immature (duh), extra squirrelly, and often go to extreme lengths to get the attention that older kids command with little effort. All in the same grade or age group. Granted, in middle school especially there is a huge variety among kids in the same grade everywhere you look, but overall, I think it’s fairly accurate.
Gladwell also contends that because certain kids are identified early on as gifted or talented, often because they are simply a few months more mature chronologically than their classmates, they get better and better opportunities year after year. Yet they might have seemed quite average if they had been compared to the next year up, and the “average” kids in their own grade might have fared better if the standard of comparison was the next year down.
Are we guilty of putting kids into “tracks” too quickly? And I’m not only talking to my teacher friends here. In ministry, are we locking kids into labels that are neither accurate in the long term nor healthy from the start? Those who seem to show signs of “spiritual maturity” in 6th or 7th grade may lose all interest by high school. And, as many a youth pastor would illustrate, it’s that wiggly, ADHD, pain-in-the-you-know-what kid that God will grab a hold of someday and use him or her in powerful ways.
The difference between success and mediocrity (let’s not even entertain “failure” as an option in ministry) is often the way the adults in student’s lives view them. In the trenches, perspective is easy to lose, but God can always make a rock star out of the zaniest twerp.