By Neil McKinnon


winnerA recent newspaper carried an article about a gentleman who keeps a piece of paper pinned above his desk. The paper is a school progress report written when the man was 15 years-old. It states, “I believe he has ideas about becoming a scientist. On his present showing this is quite ridiculous … it would be a sheer waste of time both on his part and of those who have to teach him.” The schoolmaster who wrote the report also told the boy that he was “too stupid” for science.

The man is John Gurdon, co-recipient of last year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine. He did the pioneering work that allowed a Japanese researcher to show that mature specialized cells of the body can be reprogrammed into stem cells. Gurdon joins a long list of individuals who have had obstacles thrown in their way, either by teachers or others in senior positions, and the shorter list of individuals who have triumphed in spite of obstacles.

We all know examples. They range from Marie Curie, two-time Nobel winner, who overcame extreme gender bias, ethnic discrimination and religious persecution (she was an atheist), to Douglas Cardinal, one of the world’s premier architects who was told at university, that because he was an aboriginal, he should take up teaching or welfare work.

The same newspaper that announced John Gurdon’s Nobel Prize also carried an article about another winner. That article was titled, Edward Archbold Dies after Winning Live Cockroach Eating Contest. The competition took place in Deerfield Beach, Florida and first prize was a live python which will now go to Archbold’s estate.

Edward’s story got me thinking. Perhaps there are individuals in this world who should have obstacles placed in the path of their ambitions. For example, Archbold might still be alive today if his kindergarten teacher had said, “Edward, stop eating bugs. Entomology is not for you. You’ll have to go into something easier … like dentistry.”

I decided to find out if there were other instances where criticism or a brutal assessment of talent might have proved beneficial to a particular individual. I soon found one. A 28-year-old California woman died after participating in a radio station contest called, “Hold your wee for a wii.” She had tried to drink large quantities of water without urinating in order to win a gaming console. It’s possible that this tragedy might have been averted had some kindly teacher, years before, taken her aside and told her that only people with very large bladders should engage in anti-pissing competitions.

I found other examples where setting up barriers might have been beneficial:

In 1993 Canadian lawyer, Garry Hoy ran into a tempered glass window in the TD Tower in downtown Toronto to prove that it was unbreakable. Unfortunately, he crashed through and fell 24 floors to the street below.

On the 11th floor balcony of his apartment, Ottawa engineering student, Ameer Jinah calculated he would need a running start to win a spitting contest. Sadly, his momentum carried him over the rail.

In 1923, Homer Morehouse participated in a dance marathon. After 87 hours on his feet, Morehouse collapsed and died. He came in fifth.

In 1920, 58-year-old Charles Stevens constructed a fool-proof indestructible barrel to go over Niagara Falls. He took height, buoyancy, oxygen and impact into account and made it safely over the falls. However he had neglected to devise an exit strategy and drowned inside the barrel.

In 1912, Franz Reichelt invented a combination overcoat/parachute and tested it by jumping from the top of the Eiffel Tower. It didn’t work.

Sergei Tugama, a 28-year-old Russian, bet two women that he could have continuous sex with them both for 12 hours straight. A few minutes after he won the $4300 bet he suffered a fatal heart attack caused, not by the sex, but by the complete bottle of liquid Viagra he had ingested shortly after making the bet.

All of these individuals could have benefited from some caring adult taking each aside at the appropriate stage of his or her development and informing each that he or she did not have what it takes. I myself could have profited from such advice. Imagine how much higher the quality of written exposition would be if some compassionate older individual had whispered years ago, “McKinnon, you really should take up skydiving.”

(Ed. Note: Neil is the author of Tuckahoe Slidebottle (Thistledown Press) which was a finalist for the Stephen Leacock Humor Award and the Howard O’Hagen Short Fiction Award.)

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