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Illustration: Ward Schumaker

Development Redux

Each stage’s claim to excellence

The word development evokes notions of maturing. As the developmental psychologist Bernard Kaplan said, development means movement toward displays of excellence. But these spurts of distinction don’t necessarily adhere to an upward trajectory. To really appreciate development, we need to see excellence as happening at any stage of life.

For example, an infant who clings to her mother’s leg for security while peering out at the world may be masterfully attuned to the incredible variety of sounds and sights in her immediate surroundings. In their first year, babies can pick up the sounds used to form words in any language. Once children acquire a first language, however, that ability is lost; they can no longer distinguish sounds in languages that their first language does not use.

Preschoolers can be filled with wonder through their ability to suspend disbelief. It’s difficult for adults to fully understand their intense thrill when not living by the laws of nature—what the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer called living in a “mytho-poetic” world. When my son, Evan, was four, he developed a passion for reenacting the battle of the Old North Bridge, the first of the American Revolution. We live near the bridge, and early one morning, Evan and I went there. As we approached, we saw a solitary, white-haired Redcoat, resplendent in his uniform and peering pensively at the bridge. The Redcoat turned slowly and greeted us without a smile. I asked him if he had seen Captain Laurie (the officer who had led the British in their failed attempt to hold off the Minutemen), and he replied solemnly, “Captain Laurie is not here.” Twenty years later, both Evan and I refuse to analyze this bizarre and thrilling experience.

In adolescence, different forms of excellence can surface, such as the physical skills to play sports at a high level. Calvin Hill, the great running back for Yale and later the Dallas Cowboys, remembers when his fourteen-year-old son, Grant, started to outplay him in backyard basketball—Grant would spin and drive against his suddenly flat-footed father. The father was both angry and proud as he realized his son was now the one who excelled.

I myself have resolved to consciously celebrate excellence—whether my own or that of others—at all stages of life. I want to use my memories to construct a positive personal narrative that will sustain me and create the possibility of achieving wisdom in my old age. I call these celebrations “last-at-bats,” and I offer two examples of that bottom-of-the-ninth, two-out perspective.

I played varsity baseball in high school and got more than a taste of the sport at its best. Last spring, John Casey, A80, G83, the varsity baseball coach at Tufts, gave me a last-at-bat—against one of his pitchers. I stepped into the batter’s box and took in the red dirt, the white chalk on the base paths, and the pristinely groomed field. I watched the pitcher lean in to get the catcher’s sign, saw the infielders poised in their “ready positions,” and listened to encouraging chatter from the dugout. All of it brought back memories of bygone excellence—and it mattered not a bit that I struck out.

This summer I scheduled another last-at-bat, one with my border collie, Abby, who is also my personal trainer. In my youth, I often took to the mountains—hiking at night with a flashlight, sleeping out on summits, getting lost and finding unexpected trails—a Lewis-and-Clark kind of high adventure. To celebrate those times, Abby and I flew to Wyoming to climb eleven-thousand-foot Table Mountain. Abby made it to the summit. I barely made it to the ten-thousand-foot ridge. As I waited for her to descend, I surveyed the glories of the natural world. I plan to do lots more hiking and climb small mountains, but I will not attempt another high adventure. The last-at-bat with Abby helped me move on.

Last-at-bats remind us that development is a story about different kinds of excellence experienced throughout our lives. And they remind us that although we may have lost some abilities, we can draw pleasure in remembering those times when we had them. Now, I’ll attend to my pursuit of the excellence shown in being wise.

W. George Scarlett is a senior lecturer in and deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. His border collie, Abby, is named for Abigail Eliot, who started the EP tradition of excellence in serving families.

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