When Dr. Gladwell came to read to us, we all became very, very good at listening. Gathered in our classroom or in the school library, the usually rowdy crowd of grade ones and twos sat criss-cross-applesauce and held him in steady focus, this vaguely mysterious older man with a soothing British lilt that laced each story with vivid excitement.
His stories, more subversive that the usual selection provided by parents and teachers, formulated the canon of great picture books for me: The Balloon Tree and Something From Nothing, Paddle-to-the-Sea and Walter the Farting Dog. Storytime with Dr. Gladwell was the highlight of every other Monday and among the most formational aspects of my early education. He blipped out of my memory soon into grade three, just as, I assume, he came triumphantly reading into the lives of some truly blessed five-year-olds.
I could have embarked on the remainder of my education with a simple tip of the hat to Dr. Gladwell, a thank-you for bringing such wonderful literature into my life and nothing more. But some piece of him persisted: Dr. Gladwell had a son. You may know of him; his name is Malcolm.
We had three decades of separation, but this fact remains: I went to the same high school as The New Yorker staff writer and five-time New York Times bestseller Malcolm Gladwell. This was an average-sized, public, small town secondary school in Ontario—not the sort of place that boasts, or particularly cares, about its alumni. But we all knew about Malcolm Gladwell, that whispered name occasionally proffered by teachers when we grumbled about the lack of air conditioning or the incomprehensible distribution of washrooms. We could have our petty complaints, but Malcolm Gladwell was evidence that the building’s faults wouldn’t quash our potential.
His legacy loomed over me like cirrus clouds, not practically effecting me but certainly present when I paused to look around. All the details and privileges of life circumstances be damned, Malcolm Gladwell represented everything I could become as a graduate of that school.
My attitude was nonsensical. I never read any of his books. Even when some classmates did a study of Outliers, I opted instead to read Slaughterhouse-Five. I was too inattentive to care about The New Yorker. He writes about sports and cars and social psychology, a laundry list of topics I find tolerable but not engaging. Beyond the transient goal of “writer” and four years of education spent in the same building, Malcolm Gladwell and I have little in common.
But the name persists. This past summer, shortly after I graduated, I found myself once again thinking of Dr. Gladwell. I was working my first job, publishing children’s books that Dr. Gladwell would never have brought to storytime, and I felt a surging desperation to learn. I thought that need would come later, after a year or so of basking in the “real world,” post-college glow. Instead, the withdrawal came quickly, accompanied by a vague threat of meaninglessness and doom if I was not soon satiated.
Podcasts offered a simple solution to both the learning gap and the empty brainspace that flourishes during mundane data entry. I skipped around several unsuccessfully until I happened upon Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, a reinterpretation of past events that deserve a second look. I found it fulfilling. It satisfied my interest in unimportant, often otherwise insignificant historical tidbits—such as the history of Elizabeth Thompson’s “The Roll Call,” the origins of genius, and the recipe for McDonald’s French fries—a predilection I inherited from my own father. It’s rather cyclical: a newfound interest combined with an educational bent while listening to a Gladwell and surrounded by picture books.
Gladwell talks about his father’s passing in the final episode of Revisionist History’s second season. He recounts a series of scientific trials related to vegetable oil, and particularly the story of one man who is asked about the ways the results of the study will upend his father’s scientific work. In turn, Gladwell reflects on his late father’s legacy, his own need to honor the memory of Dr. Gladwell—to honor specifically “the principles,” the rules by which he lived his life. Such as, perhaps, instilling a love of eccentric and remarkable storytelling in the hearts of elementary schoolers.
My childish inferiority complex in the imagined umbra of Malcolm Gladwell has not evaporated. I’m still nervously aware that his career at The Washington Post began when he was just two years older than I am now, presumably the same number of years out of our shared high school as I will be by then. I have no sincere intentions of writing a book, but his bibliography, 1-2-3-4-5, still on occasion imposes itself on my memory. I can’t shake the feeling that I’m a few steps behind, that I’m not, in his lingo, on track for my 10,000 hours.
This brand of ambient anxiety is absurd. I remind myself that I won’t, and don’t need to, be like Malcolm Gladwell. Unless our high school is truly home to ghosts of students who perished in World War I and somehow conspired in the lives of future scholars, nothing binds my trajectory to his. If I must put it in writing to convince myself, then here it is: I am not the next Malcolm Gladwell.
But I hope that I too can honor his father’s legacy, what little piece of it I knew. I can trust children with the complex and the uncensored. I can nurture passion for interesting stories and engaging storytelling. And I can always be tickled by kids’ reactions to Walter the Farting Dog.