Genes are Overrated

Most everybody can roll their tongue in a tube. But have you ever tried the cloverleaf? It’s hard. Super hard, in fact. When you first try it, you flounder around and can’t even come close.

Back when I was in fifth grade and again when I was in college biology class, my teachers informed me that tongue-rolling, like so many other talents, is genetic. They said around 80 percent of people have the gene to roll their tongues in a tube shape. A far smaller percentage — a genetically chosen few — could fold their tongues into the rare cloverleaf.

But a funny thing happened the other day. I was driving my daughter Katie to school and she stuck out her tongue at me and said, “Look! I can do it!”

I look over, and sure enough, she’s folded her tongue into a cloverleaf shape. It’s kinda freaky, but kinda cool too.

I’m not saying our family is weird or anything, but Katie is officially the third Coyle kid to be able to perform this feat. Also, I’m told that several of their friends can do it, too. So what’s up with all these cloverleaf experts? It must be the genes, right?

Thinking about this got me thinking about when I was in 8th grade. One day a new kid arrived in school. His name was Bob Audette, and he had just moved to Anchorage  from far-off New York. To us, he might’ve moved from the moon. Bob Audette was different from anybody any of us kids had ever met. Bob Audette wore cooler clothes than we did. Bob Audette spoke in a thick accent that sounded exactly like Vinnie Barbarino on “Welcome Back Kotter.”  Bob Audette called the water fountain “the bubbler.” Coolest of all, Bob Audette carried a basketball everywhere he went, and he would sometimes flip the ball into the air and spin it on his finger with supreme Vinnie Barbarino casualness, the ball revolving there while he chatted up the girls in the hallway. It was magic.

This had a strange effect on me. After watching Bob Audette for a few days, I found myself taking a basketball and trying to spin it on my finger. I didn’t play basketball — this skill was completely useless — but for whatever reason I got obsessed, spending hours in my basement spinning this ball. Of course, I was terrible at it for a long time. But then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t terrible. In fact, I could do it as well as Bob Audette. (On all other fronts, I remained a lot closer to Horshack than Vinnie Barbarino, but hey, it was something.)

I asked my daughters about the cloverleaf trick, and they reminded me who had started this whole thing: it had been Mitchell Black, from Brooklyn. Mitchell, 11, had visited us in Alaska a few years ago with his parents. He was a city kid, smart and funny and personable, and he’d shown us his trick. Our girls had stared in amazement. They started trying it, mimicking him, competing with each other. Next thing you know, a whole bloom of cloverleaves has started.

Genes are so overrated.

(And the power of Mitchell Black and Bob Audette is so underrated.)