The Washington Post Magazine

Malcolm Gladwell
The Washington Post
Sun., May 17, 1998















Lost in the Middle
Malcolm Gladd & brother
The author (right) on his first day of school, age 4, with brother Geoffrey.

I. Father
One summer Saturday, when I was growing up, my father piled my brothers and me into the family station wagon and took us to a barn raising. This was in rural southern Ontario, in the heart of Canada's Old Order Mennonite country, where it was the custom when someone's barn burned down for friends and neighbors to rebuild it. There were probably 200 people there that day. They came from the surrounding farms in black horse-drawn buggies, the women in gauzy caps and gingham dresses, the men in white shirts and black pants. The women set up long picnic tables outside, and piled them high with bread and luncheon meats and pickles, and pies for dessert. The men swarmed over the skeleton of the barn, those on the roof and on ladders against the walls hammering away in unison, everyone else forming a long human chain, passing plywood and roofing metal and nails hand to hand to hand from the bottom to the top. It was a marvel of improvisational coordination, a communitarian ballet of burly cleanshaven Mennonite farmers in straw hats and loose cotton shirts, and in the midst of it all, in happy and oblivious contrast to everything around him, was my father -- slender, bearded and professorial, in the tie he rarely left the house without.

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  • My father liked Mennonites. He would chat all the time with the farmers who were our neighbors, talking of crops or the weather or cows or pigs or any of the topics that have always, weirdly, held his interest. The Old Order Mennonites of my home town are rather like the Amish of Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. They live in the 19th century and keep to themselves. But they seemed to make an exception in his case. He would come home from the nearby college where he taught, or get up from working on some mathematical equation, and go outside and strike up a conversation with one of our black-suited neighbors -- my father with his clipped English accent, the Mennonite in his guttural German dialect.

    I imagine that's how my father found out about the barn raising, since that's not something that a non-Mennonite would ever be invited to. My father probably asked, in his matter-of-fact way, and our neighbor probably felt compelled to respond. There is something in my father that does not recognize social barriers, and whatever that is makes him difficult to resist. I remember once when we were in Jamaica and my father took us for a long drive far into the mountains, where we all got out and had a picnic by a mountain stream. As we ate, children from a nearby village began to gather around, fascinated by the sight of what was probably the first pale, bearded Englishman they had ever seen. Before long, my father had organized all of them, and us, into a game, striding about explaining all the rules, energetically supervising a few dozen squealing, laughing 9- and 10- and 11-year-olds, fitting in as happily and easily as if he had been back home in the hills of England, or, for that matter, chatting to a Mennonite and hammering nails in a barn raising. When we left that day, piling exhaustedly into our rented Volkswagen, I remember that the children ran after us down the road, as if my father were the Pied Piper.

    My father's name is Graham Gladwell -- Graham Maurice Leslie Gladwell. He is a mathematician and a gardener and an art lover and an adventurer and, in the end, a little bit of a mystery. I often wonder what it is about him that permits him to cross so many barriers, because it's not immediately obvious. He is not charismatic or charming, in the traditional sense of those words. He is friendly, but he's also an egghead, a little bit awkward sometimes, a little bit of a dreamer, a little more comfortable inside than outside his thoughts.

    Some people, I suppose, might try to break down barriers out of a kind of earnestness, a missionary zeal, but that doesn't quite describe him either. There is something very self-conscious about the work of a missionary, and there is nothing self-conscious about my father. He does not bridge differences because he wants to bridge differences. He bridges them because he doesn't see differences at all: When he put on his tie and went to the barn raising, or played Pied Piper to the children on that Jamaican hilltop, he didn't feel out of place because I don't think it ever occurred to him that he should feel out of place. In the most rare and wonderful way, my father is blind, and when I finally understood this about him long after I had grown up, I think I finally understood how it was that my father came to marry my mother.

    My father met my mother, who was then Joyce Nation, in England in the mid-'50s. They were both students at University College in London. My father was very young. He had started college at the age of 16. My mother was three years older. She had taught for several years in her native Jamaica before traveling to Britain to begin university. They met in the university's Christian Union, and she was attracted to him because, despite his youth, she felt there was something serious about him, something profound. They did not date in college. They met each other in groups. Once, my father invited my mother to coffee, mistaking her for her twin sister, who was also at University College. Another time, he took her back to his parents' house, where she was greeted warmly as an "overseas student." Many of my father's friends in those years were overseas students. In the language of those days (which seems impossibly quaint now), he was an "internationalist."

    Once my mother graduated, they began a period of frantic courtship. Two weeks later, my mother returned to Jamaica to teach again, and my father informed his parents that they intended to marry. It was a difficult moment. My paternal grandparents had grave objections to mixed marriages. They objected, citing New Testament verses to the effect that God had set boundaries for the habitation of nations. "It's wrong for Graham to have a black child," my grandmother told my mother. "It is wrong for you to have a white child." It is easy, I think, with the benefit of hindsight, to conceive of my grandparents as bigoted or small-minded. But that was not it at all. They were simply expressing what my father, apparently, could not see, that his decision to marry my mother was a revolutionary act. When my father made it clear that he would not be moved, they acquiesced. His three sisters were my mother's bridesmaids. Her wedding veil was my grandmother's wedding veil.

    Today, like many happily married couples, my parents have grown alike -- not just in affect and expression but also in color. My mother's native brown seems to have faded a little, and my father's whiteness has grown darker. But their wedding pictures from long ago are photo negatives. My father's color leaps out from the page -- a startling, starched white. My mother's features seem fuller, her skin richer and darker. They are not two shades of brown. They are black and white. My parents' wedding pictures are radical in a way that their marriage today is not. I remember once reading an article about a famous case in Virginia in which a white man married a black woman and was prosecuted under state anti-miscegenation statutes. I was just skimming it idly, thinking of it as just another artifact of Southern racism, until I realized that the date the couple was prosecuted was the same year my parents were married. It was hard for white to marry black in the 1950s because mixed marriages were so unmistakably political. For my father, though, I think it was easy. The surest way to commit a revolutionary act, after all, is not to perceive what you are doing as revolutionary.

    (continued on Page Two)

    Page Two   |   Essay by Eric Liu   |   Essay by Meri Nani-Ama Danquah  

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