I’m not sure how old I was when I realized that I didn’t have to save the world to have a meaningful life, and to be honest, I’m still not sure how I feel about that realization or whether or not I actually agree with it or think it’s a cop-out. Am I relying on others saving the world, or just hoping that if we all do our part, something will happen? I’m not sure, but I loved the message in this book of just-graduated high school seniors on a road trip, one of whom is going through a very existential crisis: he’s been a child prodigy all his life, something he reminds us is very different than being a genius, as prodigy implies that terrifying of terrifying things: potential. Well, he isn’t a child anymore. So what is he? And what happens to “potential” when you grow up?
Summary and Review:
Colin Singleton is a half-Jew child prodigy who thinks, upon graduating from high school, that he’s all washed up. After all, he can’t be a child prodigy if he’s not a child anymore. Not it’s time for him to prove his worth and accomplish something. But what? After being dumped by his 19th Katherine (yes, that’s right, he’s had the dubious honor of ONLY dating–and only being dumped by–girls named Katherine), he decides to invent a mathematical theory that will predict the course of a relationship. With this theorem in hand, he reasons, not only will he have fulfilled his long-studied potential, but he will also know when the heartbreak is coming before it comes. Somehow, he thinks this will be a good thing.
He’s hanging out with his best friend, a devout Muslim and fellow outcast, who (at least until this road trip) is completely sworn off drinking and women, and whose lifelong goals include lying on the couch and watching Judge Judy.
Together, they embark on a road trip that takes them to a small town in Tennessee where adventures with their first jobs, two local girls, neither of whom are named Katherine, and a small factory-dependent community, the two boys unwittingly learn a little bit about life.
Follow-up with the kids:
If your kid is a math genius, you can ask him or her to decode the formula for you. Apparently, as it exists and evolves in the book, it actually works according to the rules and histories of the characters and relationships experienced in Colin’s life. Despite helpful footnotes and a lengthy explanation at the end, this was math beyond my level of comfort. Maybe I could have handled it fifteen years ago (that’s a scary thought), but that part of my brain has more recently been sacrificed. On the plus side, I can now change diapers and wipe noses, which going back to the idea of fulfilled potential, should be some encouragement.
There’s also something to be said in this book about what it means to have potential and what it means to fulfill it. We all have potential to do a lot of things. In no way are we going to fulfill all of it, so how do we choose? And my favorite question, if we have the potential to do something, are we thus obligated? I think a lot of kids grow up today thinking this way, and that’s why the book has rung so true to so many of them, even if they aren’t child prodigies studied by development experts and put on TV game shows. If they have the potential to be a great piano player, is it okay if they choose to be a mediocre guitar player instead? If they have the potential for an ivy league school, is it okay if they choose to travel the world instead? And pick up their education ten years later at a state university? Well, I know what I think the answers are for my own life. But what is your answer, and does it agree with your child’s? And if not, is the disagreement putting a strain on your relationship or your child’s own view of his or her self-worth?
These are tough things to think about and tougher things to talk about. But I was just told by a friend of another high school suicide. Star athlete, the whole shebang. I don’t know the story of why. I don’t know that, in this case, it had anything to do with potential, realized or not. But I do think these things are important enough to be work the effort of conversation and understanding.