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April 17th, 2009
05:21 PM ET

The Susan Boyle phenomenon

Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

The Susan Boyle phenomenon is what educators call a “teachable moment.”

Just look at the reaction of the audience of the British television program as Boyle steps on stage. Boyle’s is a face that you wouldn’t notice twice walking down the street, a newspaper said, certainly not one to raise expectations.

But when she opened her mouth to sing jaws drop en masse.

Remember the adage about not judging a book by its cover?

Well, the audience in the auditorium (and no doubt also the viewers at home) pre-judged Boyle based on her appearance. And appeared stunned by the quality of what they heard.

"It wasn't singer Susan Boyle who was ugly on 'Britain's Got Talent' so much as our reaction to her" was the headline above a piece by Tanya Gold in the British newspaper the Guardian.

“Is Susan Boyle ugly? Or are we?” Gold wrote at the start of her commentary.

Call it a “preachable moment,” as well, one for clergy to consider as they address their congregants this weekend.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed 45 years ago of a day when his children would “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

We tell our children not to look down upon those of different races and faiths, those coping with mental disabilities or physical infirmities, those standing homeless on the side of the road.

We want our children to view everyone as a valued member of society.

But we don’t do that ourselves, do we?

Not all the time, not as often as we know we should.

That’s the great lesson of Susan Boyle and the reaction to her singing.

I wonder whether the judges, audience and viewers stopped to think about how they had pre-judged Boyle.

Were they embarrassed?

Will it change the way they act in the future?

Writing in the Guardian, Tanya Gold was doubtful.

“Susan will probably win Britain's Got Talent. She will be the little munter that could sing, served up for the British public every Saturday night. Look! It's "ugly"! It sings! And I know that we think that this will make us better people. But Susan Boyle will be the freakish exception that makes the rule. By raising this Susan up, we will forgive ourselves for grinding every other Susan into the dust. It will be a very partial and poisoned redemption. Because Britain's Got Malice. Sing, Susan, sing – to an ugly crowd that doesn't deserve you,” Gold concluded.

One commentator I heard wondered aloud whether the response would have been the same had that voice come from a prettier face.

Of course not; it probably would have been the equivalent of “that’s nice,” rather than the “Oh, my . . . “ reaction to Boyle.

There’s a lesson in the Susan Boyle phenomenon not just for our children, but for all of us, about judging books by their covers.

By the way, if you want to hear more of Susan Boyle, check out her 1999 rendition of “Cry Me a River”

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