Keith Birdsong passed away tragically this past week. You probably don’t know him by name, but his realistic likenesses of Star Trek actors made him one of the world’s most in-demand Trek illustrators. He drew a likeness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. displayed in the Smithsonian and once drew a caricature of Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger that Jackson wanted to buy. Birdsong was hospitalized following a car accident and was unable to recover from his injuries. Life support was terminated after he completed his desire to donate his organs on Tuesday.
How could I consider Birdsong unsuccessful? Ask his art teacher who gave him bad grades because he wouldn’t follow directions. He said he always started drawing what the teacher wanted but found himself finishing it according to his own directions. Check with his principal who disciplined him more than the bullies in the school because he would be found walking the halls instead of staying in class. He had considerable trouble concentrating on what the teacher was saying and found himself causing trouble in class. He also was chided for drawing illustrations of men and women that faculty members considered too detailed, whatever that means.
Birdsong just couldn’t resist drawing in class. Clearly an expert illustrator as an adult, he was unsuccessful as a student by conventional standards.
How many of our gifted experts and inventors were failures as students? How many caused problems in class or seemed unimpressed with what the teacher needed to teach? Maybe we need to pause to remember that some talents are stronger than the weaknesses they outshine. Learning to follow directions remains an essential skill that gifted students often fail to master. Another voice speaks too loudly in their heads.
I’m not saying we need to stop expecting our children to mind or allow them to draw pictures of muscular males during math class. I’m simply suggesting that something should go off in the back of our minds when we choose to discipline these budding experts. Sometimes annoying behaviors represent strong leanings and expertise that seem unrecognizable by normal standards. If we must correct these children, we should do so thinking they might just be exceptional experts-in-the-making rather than assuming they will never amount to anything.
Birdsong’s passion for drawing helped him complete 97 Star Trek drawings one year. They booked him for jobs several years into the future. He beat the odds again after suffering a stroke last year. Birdsong was told he shouldn’t attempt to draw because his memory and vision loss could cause depression. He wasn’t supposed to walk, or talk or do anything but he continued to use old photographs for inspiration. He loved drawing his granddaughters and proudly displayed a drawing of them at a lemonade stand in his home.
Keith’s passing during the week of our 75th Anniversary remembrance of D-Day was appropriate since he was also a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne who jumped out of the plane the first time he ever flew.
Remember Keith Birdsong the next time you discipline your seemingly disobedient child or student who has trouble staying on task. Their passion for a deep inner talent might be thwarting their ability to look like all the other children. And that might not be as terrible as you think.