An Open Letter to Parents, Teachers and Others: From Parents of an Exceptionally Gifted Child
By Stephanie S. Tolan
© 1982 Stephanie S. Tolan
Author’s note, October, 2010
The following was written originally in 1980 for my son’s teachers at the private school we had sent him to after testing showed he was in the “exceptionally gifted” range. I hoped it would help his teachers and their principal see more of who our son was and why we were asking for radical changes in their normal teaching methods. I was still quite new to the world of gifted education and struggling to create a workable path on an educational journey for which I could find no maps. The open letter was expanded when my son was ten years old, copyrighted separately, and included as Chapter 13 in Guiding the Gifted Child, which I co-wrote with James Webb and Elizabeth Meckstroth in 1982. It is printed here as it originally appeared in the book, with original typos corrected.
One of the big changes since the publication of the book is in IQ testing. The new tests no longer give scores that discriminate well at the upper ends of the intellectual continuum. So the test scores labeled in the Open Letter as exceptionally or profoundly gifted are not scores children can achieve today on the tests currently in use. The Stanford-Binet Form L-M (which does provide scores that calibrate differences more clearly) may still be used as a secondary test when a child comes close to the ceiling scores on newer tests, but it is not common for this test to be administered today.
Much else has changed since then, of course. Homeschooling is possible. Computers have made it easy to create networks for kids and parents, to say nothing of providing incredible amounts of information that passionate learners can access with the flick of a finger. But what changes have occurred in American education have done astonishingly little to help the brightest kids, and in some cases (like NCLB) have further hurt them. I am regularly told by parents that this Open Letter recounts essentially the same struggles they continue to face today.
The original chapter is followed by a short update now that the two boys described here are adults with extraordinarily gifted children of their own. –Stephanie S. Tolan
An Open Letter…
In 1978 my husband and I officially learned that our son, RJ, is an exceptionally gifted child. He was tested two months before his sixth birthday, after we had done considerable research on giftedness and had met with numerous educators. As I write this, RJ is ten. The years in between have been full of ups and downs, of educational catastrophes and occasional periods of fairly smooth sailing. There are days when we find it hard to believe that our son is as different from the norm as the figures indicate, and other days when the difference is strikingly, blindingly obvious.
It took a long time for us to discover, and even longer to truly accept, that for children in the upper ranges of human intelligence the work being done to accommodate the educational needs of gifted children is simply not enough. Despite more than fifty years of research, the system has few answers to offer, so parents, teachers and children themselves continue to be pioneers.
For most purposes, I have found that children with IQ scores of 150+ are given the label “exceptionally” gifted, while a further grouping, sometimes called “profoundly” gifted, includes IQ scores of 180+.1 My own experience includes a child from each of these groups—my son and the son of my closest friend. Because our children are so different from the norm that even gifted programs don’t meet their needs, because so few educators or other parents have had experience with children in these ranges, we find that one of our greatest problems is helping others to understand something of what we are dealing with. While it is hard for us to know what more normal children are like, it is very hard for others to know what our children are like or what they are capable of doing. Perhaps this open letter will provide some insights into life with an exceptionally gifted child.
RJ was five years old before we began seriously to suspect that he was anything other than normally bright. The term “gifted” hadn’t entered our normal vocabulary before then. This is true of most parents of gifted children. Their interest in giftedness is seldom a matter of choice.
If we had known when RJ was born what we know now, we would certainly have identified his capabilities by the time he was two. The symptoms would have been clear to anyone who knew how to interpret them; we didn’t. Nor did anyone around us. Our three older boys, RJ’s half-brothers, are all gifted, though we hadn’t used that term for them as they were growing up in the 60’s and early 70’s. We knew we had a bright family. Temperamentally, the older boys were quite different from each other, so as RJ grew, we attributed his differences to the fact that he was yet another individual. Certainly, he seemed to fit into the family well.
The other, probably the major, factor that kept us from realizing the extent of RJ’s potential was that the son of my closest friend, born the same month as RJ, is also exceptionally—no, profoundly—gifted. (We know now that Jason’s IQ, though it defies the Stanford-Binet to some extent, is approximately 196.) Jason and RJ were raised almost together for the first three years of their lives, and did many of the same things at nearly the same time, though Jason was anywhere from a few weeks to six months ahead. Jason’s mother and I did notice vast discrepancies between what our sons could do and what the Gesell Institute said they should be able to do at any given age, but we assumed that Gesell’s guidelines were bare minimum, and we pretty well discounted them. We read, for instance, that a three to four year old should be capable of learning basic colors; when our 20 month olds had already known them for some time, we simply gave up reading the book!
RJ first out-thought me when he was two and a half. We were taking an overnight train to visit my parents. After dinner he discovered the water fountain in the train car and was fascinated by the cone-shaped paper cups. He poured himself cup after cup, running up and down the aisle from the fountain to our seat with every cup. Finally, I told him he’d had enough, and put him into his pajamas. Then he asked for another drink. I told him that he couldn’t go back to the fountain any more now that he was ready for bed. He began to fuss and I envisioned a “terrible two’s” temper tantrum that would disturb everyone in the crowded coach and embarrass me, so I told him that there was no point in arguing with me—I was a grownup mother and he was a very little boy, and he could never win such a battle. “I will always win!” I said. (Now I see how thoroughly I deserved what I got.)
He abandoned his fussing and settled down to our usual routine of bedtime stories and a few wooden puzzles. Almost an hour passed in these activities, and then I told him it was time to go to sleep. At the time he had to take a pill before bed each night, and he usually swallowed the pill with water. He offered to get the water for taking his pill. Without thinking, I set him in the aisle and he padded off for the water. When he’d returned with it and had taken his pill, he smiled angelically and said, “You see, Mom, I did win!” I remember quite clearly wondering what I would do with this child when he got to be 13. Since then, I’ve learned that he thrives on the kind of challenge situation I had unwittingly set up.
Very early in RJ’s life he was noticed and his conversations were commented upon in grocery stores, restaurants and other public places. Being used to his conversations and not knowing how other small children talked, I assumed he was being noticed because he was a cute little boy. Later, when he began to read, it became clear that it was not his appearance drawing attention. People would ask how old he was and then, to our discomfort, tell us—over his head—how “smart” he was. We began to notice a tendency on his part to “play to an audience.” His natural and fairly sophisticated sense of humor got him plenty of laughs whenever he wanted them. We didn’t know then that his sense of humor was typical of highly gifted children, so we thought of him not as “smart,” but as “theatrical,” and rather show-offy.
We also learned early that he was highly creative, but we didn’t know that creativity was ever likely to be accompanied by exceptional intellectual gifts. He was exceedingly sensitive to the emotions of other people, highly empathetic, and very loving and cuddly. These were not attributes we associated with brilliance either. What we were most aware of during his early years was that he was a great deal of fun to be with. He was two and a half when he first said what I recognized as a “poem.” He had asked about why the leaves were falling and being raked up, so I’d tried to explain autumn to him. He thought very seriously for a moment then said, “The leaves will fall off the tree and they will cry. They will say, ‘Mommy, Mommy, we are green and yellow and sad!’” Because I was a poet, I supposed that I was unusually attuned to what poetry there might be in the utterances of two year olds, and thought his “poem” probably expressed a typical two year old view of the world, in which trees and leaves might talk and separation from mother was the ultimate sadness. I did not know many two year olds.
Highly gifted children are individuals, just as other children are. Their personalities, temperaments, likes and dislikes are as varied as in any other group. Temperamental differences may also account for the failure of parents to recognize extreme giftedness early. We believed the myth that all “genius” children are unhappy or very solitary or seriously maladjusted, and RJ had been from birth a happy, outgoing, warm and generally contented person. As a baby he cried only to let us know when he was hungry or in pain. By six months he was contented with sitting in his car-bed for literally hours at a time, quietly looking at his toys, sometimes sucking on them contemplatively. Even as an infant he was already what he was to be labeled in school—“a dreamer.” He was always extremely observant and seldom apparently either bored or frustrated. Throughout his infancy he met new people and new situations easily and apparently without fear.
Jason was as different, it seemed, as was possible for a baby to be. He cried often and long and seemed never to be content with anyone or anything. He wanted always to be moving. While RJ was sitting at 6 months Jason was doing his frustrated best to crawl, shrieking in fury when he couldn’t manage it. He, too, was extremely observant, but demanded a constant change in stimuli. It was almost as if he were at war with himself. Like RJ, however, he never seemed to be afraid of new people or new situations, and found anything new worth investigating.
Today they are still very different children. Jason still demands constant stimulation—books to read, projects to work on, materials for arts and crafts or building. RJ is still a dreamer who engages in projects, but who also spends long periods of time entertaining himself inside his own mind. Their interests are not the same, but they are able to share them with each other, and despite their temperamental differences, they are still happier with each other than either has been with another child.
Many people who know RJ have told me that any other highly gifted children they have known have been unhappy children. They’ve suggested that Bob and I must be doing something right as parents that would account for RJ’s obvious happiness. It might be comforting—it’s certainly tempting—to believe that is has been our parenting that has made our son happy, but that would be neither true nor fair to parents of the unhappy ones. RJ has been cheerful and sunny since the beginning. His basic temperament is as much a part of him as his hair color.
What accounts for the observation that most exceptionally gifted children are unhappy? It is apparently not a mistaken observation—research shows that while the 130-140 range gifted child is likely to be unusually stable, happy, competent and outwardly successful, the 150+ child is likely to have emotional problems ranging from minor to severe. Have they all been born to “bad” parents or to unstable families? Obviously, the answer can’t lie in the family alone. These children are forced to live in a society for which they aren’t suited. They don’t “fit” their culture. They don’t fit the expectations of others. In particular, they don’t fit school, usually a rigid environment in which they spend a large portion of their waking hours.
A further complication is that these are the very children who ought to fit best in an educational environment. School seems to hold out for them the greatest promise. Their special joy in life is learning, so they are the children who expect the greatest rewards and joys in school. When the reality of school life turns out to be manifestly negative—holding them back rather than helping them move ahead—they must deal not only with that negativity, but with the shattering of their high expectations. The child who dreads school may only nod cynically if it turns out to be bad. The child who has looked forward to school as the fulfillment of his dreams is disappointed almost beyond bearing when it falls so desperately, incomprehensibly short. Even the child blessed with a naturally easy-going disposition cannot survive year after year of a school’s apparent refusal to let him learn without serious emotional damage.
It is also unfair to lay all the blame on the schools. Highly gifted children are difficult children to raise, no matter what their temperament. The example of RJ in the train stands out only because it was the first most obvious example of his having outwitted me. Similar events take place regularly. It can be almost unbelievably difficult for a parent to be subject to the constant scrutiny of a child who, whether two or twelve, takes intense delight in pointing out inconsistencies, discovering errors and exposing clay feet. No parent can think out every response to a child before opening his or her mouth!
In addition, the highly gifted child requires an enormous investment of time, energy and money from his parents. As a psychologist pointed out in a speech to a parent group, it takes the cost of a Mercedes Benz to raise a child today, and the cost of two to raise a gifted child. Most people understand that having a handicapped child is a severe strain on a family. Few understand that the same is true with an exceptionally gifted child. As the psychologist further pointed out, the parents never bargained for the position, so almost certainly resent the extreme demands at least part of the time.
Finally, there are the complications of ego involvement for parents. The gifted child has an almost uncanny ability to sense when a parent is “using” the child’s abilities to boost his or her own ego. We’d like to think this never happens, but we’d be fooling ourselves. When he was small, RJ’s method of fighting back when he felt used was to talk baby talk, particularly in public. Because the children are quicker to sense our need for them to appear gifted than we may be, I found the frequency with which he resorted to the baby talk weapon particularly depressing. It takes very little reasoning to see that his baby talk made me uncomfortable in direct proportion to how much I was depending on him to prove his giftedness.
When you consider the strains a parent must deal with, then add the complications encountered when the child is not only highly gifted but temperamentally difficult, it is possible to understand why some parents appear not to deal very well with their very bright children, and why the parents need special help.
Until the exceptionally gifted child goes to school, there may be few, if any, serious difficulties with him. Often, as in RJ’s case and Jason’s case, the child is not identified before beginning regular school. At home and in some good, open nursery schools there may be enough flexibility to allow the child to be himself, regardless of how different that is from the norm. Eventually, however, the child is sent to school and, one way or another, the trauma begins. Reactions to school may be different, but the one thing that seems inevitable is that in school obstacles are placed in the way of learning, usually for the first time. Children react in one or more negative ways, though some of those ways are not recognized at first as negative. Some children attempt to please adults by rigidly adhering to the system’s requirements, some withdraw, others rebel and become disruptive. Some try each of these responses in turn. But in every case there is real damage to their attitudes, learning patterns and abilities.
Having begun five-mornings-a-week preschool at 28 months, RJ had already had three years of serious but open-ended education when he began full day kindergarten at a public Montessori school. He could not understand why no one gave him anything to read and why there was nothing to do in this new school except “play.” When I spoke to his teacher about arranging for some reading, she explained that RJ was being very patient with them, but that with 28 children, many of whom knew no numbers, no letters and few colors, she and her assistant could not do much for RJ. As soon as she could, she got him into a group with others in his class who could read, though the whole year he remained unchallenged and felt he was not learning anything. However, he enjoyed recess, lunch, art and music well enough to stay reasonably happy and didn’t complain too much. For the first time school had become a place to endure instead of an environment in which he was free to explore and learn at his own pace.
Because he did endure it, we didn’t suspect the magnitude of his problem until I did a poetry residency at his school with third, fourth and fifth graders. I had never worked with such young children before and I understood immediately that something was very wrong. Either his school was such a dreadful school that middle grade children knew very little more than kindergarten children, or RJ was not at all a normal kindergarten child. The chief difference I noted between working with those students and dealing with RJ was that I had to stop more often to explain the words I used to the older children than I did with RJ. He seemed able to do anything they could do, except that they were learning to write cursive, while he could only print. So began our journey of discovery.
I began to read a little and wondered if our son could possibly be “gifted.” We began to write down examples of our interactions with him that showed the way he thought and learned. One of these occurred one day when he was home sick from kindergarten. He asked me to tell him what 45 times 18 was. I figured it out and told him, then asked why he wanted to know (since he’d only had adding and subtracting under 10 in school, I didn’t know he ever knew what multiplication was). He said there were too many holes in the metal top of his aquarium to count them all, so he’d only counted one long side and one short side, but the numbers were too big for him to multiply. We still have no idea how he understood that principle. We only know he had never been taught.
As these examples grew into a small portfolio, we decided that the next step was to take them to “experts” and find out whether RJ was unusually bright. That is when we had our first encounter with what virtually all parents of gifted children must contend with throughout the children’s school years—the denial syndrome. Even taking our suspicions to educators was embarrassing and a little frightening. What if we were wrong? What if we were overestimating, showing ourselves to be typical, doting parents?
That is exactly what we were told! Our motives, our observations, our honesty and finally our parenting methods were questioned. We were told that while RJ’s accomplishments might be somewhat unusual, they were far from amazing and could probably be accounted for by our having pushed him ahead too fast, started him in school too early, demanded too much from him. We were led to believe that given our terrible pressure on him, he was lucky to be as yet fairly normal. Most of all, we were assured that he could be handled by his school, in which there were many equally bright children, being educated quite well!
His teacher, when we took these assessments to her, strongly disagreed. She knew that far from pushing, an adult usually had to work to keep up with RJ. She told us she had never, in 30 years of teaching, known a student as bright as he, and warned that finding him an education that would suit his capabilities would be hard, and would involve a battle with the schools. She advised us to have him tested so we could go into that battle armed with numbers that would command respect. And so we had reached the next step; we arranged with a private psychologist to have RJ tested.
I’ll never forget driving home after the first of three testing sessions, certain that we were stark, staring mad, that his tests were going to prove he was exactly what we had always thought him to be—a bright normal child. It may be hard for other people to understand the emotional upheaval parents go through when they begin the testing procedure. We believed that brilliant people were seriously maladjusted and that everyone would be better off somewhere in the comfortable middle. The fact that RJ was so happy seemed to mean either that he wasn’t gifted or that he would soon become unhappy and weird. Though we hoped the testing would show he was gifted, at the same time we were afraid that it might. We saw that our egos were involved and wondered if the tests showed him to be “normal” if we would be seriously disappointed, and perhaps make him feel he had somehow failed us.
On the other hand, if he did turn out to be gifted, would we begin pressuring him in destructive ways? Could we, in fact, handle what we were going to learn about our son? We had no way of knowing. Was intellectual precocity a good thing to have anyway? Clearly, the answer to that one didn’t matter. RJ was who he was, and all we were doing was trying to learn enough about him to help him and ourselves cope with that reality.
Since then, I’ve talked to a number of parents of highly gifted children, and all of them tell of these emotional ups and downs about testing. In addition to all those questions, most of us had already made a rather considerable fuss about a proper education, and we were risking a great deal of embarrassment if we were proven wrong. While those may be unworthy concerns, they’re quite real.
The other memorable moments were when the psychologist told me, after her last session with him, but before she’d worked out the numbers, that RJ was the brightest child she’d ever tested—a moment for me, of stark terror—and the drive home after Bob’s and my final meeting with her, when we faced together the fact that RJ actually belonged in the range that is sometimes referred to as “genius.” Though we were pleased to be vindicated after our unpleasant encounters with educators, we were afraid of what we faced in finding him an education, and of what he faced in finding a place for himself in the world.
Jason’s parents, too, decided to have Jason tested, taking him to a school psychologist. They were told that Jason’s IQ was 150. This score would have put him below RJ, and made no sense to me at all. No one explained to them that the test they’d used had a ceiling of 150. No one suggested that further testing might be more accurate. When his mother and I tested his reading and discovered that he was reading 800 words per minute with almost total comprehension the summer he was six, we began to suspect that the test had not told the whole story. In my reading I found that children with IQ’s over 180 are very likely to teach themselves to speed read, so we guessed that he might actually belong in that category. Even so, none of us really knew what that meant or how different either of the boys might be from other children their age. Jason and RJ were both expected somehow to “fit in” at school, perhaps with a little extra help and input from their parents.
As I began looking for a school willing to make a commitment to educating RJ, I began the research into the subject of gifted education that continues to be part of my life today. I really thought, then, that all I had to do was read widely enough and I would find the answers. It took many months before I could admit that there didn’t seem to be any answers, or else that there were many, many answers that contradicted each other. More than fifty years ago Leta Hollingworth pointed out that 150+ children could learn all of the standard elementary school material in one fourth the normal time—or less. But since then, no one has offered a way to let them routinely do that. She said that these children “waste” at least three fourths of their time in the classroom and that the 180+ children waste nearly all of it. But where were the suggestions about how to avoid such a waste? And who could tell us how to help our children cope with a system that ate up six hours a day when even on weekends or summer vacations they always had more to do than there was time for? How could we justify to them the loss of all those hours?
It’s hard for parents to give up the belief that schools should know how to educate their highly gifted child. And it’s equally hard for teachers to believe what parents say about the ways these children learn. It’s hard for anyone to believe what they can do, even when you see it, because it can seem almost supernatural. As one person said, it is almost as if they don’t have to learn anything, needing only to be reminded of it. What the research and our day-to-day experience proves most clearly is that highly gifted children cannot fit into most existing educational systems. So the stage is set for difficult and often unpleasant confrontations between parents and educators.
The story of Edison, who was declared unfit for education, is not an unusual one. The highly gifted child learns in ways that are very different from the ways schools teach. While most educational methods present one small step at a time, one detail, to which another and then another are added in a specific progression until the larger picture can be seen, the gifted child makes a “giant leap” and sees the overall picture almost immediately. When he is then required to concentrate on the details—often for weeks at a time—he finds it difficult, boring and apparently purposeless.
Putting the highly gifted child into a normal classroom may be likened to putting a natural runner at the beginning of a running track on which every step is carefully painted and numbered. He is told to run the track, putting his feet into each proper space in turn. When he tries to run that way, he stumbles, falters and loses his natural rhythm, balance and stride. But if he gives up the attempt and runs in the way that is most natural to him, anyone evaluating him on how well he puts his feet into the proper painted spaces would consider him a dismal failure. Either way, it looks as if he is not very good at what he is supposed to do.
Parents continually have to deal with educators who are doing exactly that—evaluating the child on how well he puts his feet into those spaces. And so we are told that our children are not as bright as we think they are. We are told that, in fact, there are several other children in the school or in his class, who are much brighter. Or we may be told that if he really is bright, he is clearly stubborn, antisocial and difficult to handle. Most educators don’t understand the difference between extreme intellectual ability and “academic talent” that succeeds well within the system. It is a help at such times to remember that Einstein was considered dull and slow, that Edison was “unfit” and that Picasso was “strange.”
Parents find themselves in confrontation with educators primarily because parents are the first to notice that the experience of school may be doing serious emotional damage. Parents know what the child was like before he went to school and see the personality changes caused by frustrating the child’s innate desire to learn and by attempting to force the child into a pattern that doesn’t fit him. But even parents often take longer than they should, partly because they look for other explanations first, and partly because they don’t want to admit that schooling is the cause, knowing there may be very little they can do to change the school situation.
RJ and Private School
On our psychologist’s advice, after visiting many schools, we decided on a private school whose Individually Guided Education program seemed to provide some flexibility. RJ began first grade and we decided to stay out of the way, letting this expensive good school do its work. We didn’t want to interfere partly because we didn’t think we knew much about educating first graders and partly because I had no desire to be the mother everybody would run from. (I didn’t know it was a role I would have to learn to deal with.) We had provided the school with test scores, a full psychological evaluation, and as much explanation as we could give them on the way RJ learned, and assumed they would use that information appropriately. By the first parent-conference in November, RJ had reached the point of feigning illness in the morning to avoid going to school. Having already “wasted” a year in kindergarten, he had run out of patience.
With the support of the psychologist we made some changes at that time—giving him a fifth grade reader and a fifth grade vocabulary book, for instance—that seemed to help. But again, if I had known then what I know now, I would have recognized sooner that we had changed nowhere nearly enough. By the spring RJ was no longer a warm, outgoing, happy child. He had become grumpy, difficult, argumentative and prone to temper tantrums. Our interactions at home became more and more negative until we were fighting almost all the time. First we blamed ourselves—we must be doing something wrong with him suddenly—then we decided it must be a developmental phase that had something to do with turning seven. We were forgetting that we had weathered all the typical developmental hot spots with RJ quite easily. Nothing had prepared us for the possibility that school could be responsible for such sweeping changes.
Luckily, though we hadn’t focused in on school problems, we did see that RJ was having difficulty relating to his chronological peers. Though he would agree to play games his classmates wanted to play, he complained that they would never play the games he wanted to play. He had difficulty placing himself with them, difficulty knowing who he was supposed to be. He didn’t understand their preferences; they didn’t understand his. He began imitating some of their wilder behavior in his attempt to belong, and was confused when that behavior caused particular trouble for him with adults who had learned to expect him to be more controlled. We insisted that he be moved from Unit I (grades one and two) to Unit II (grades three and four) for the following year. I knew that Unit II children were treated less like babies than Unit I children, and we hoped that higher expectations would be better for him. He has never liked to be “treated like a child.”
When school was over at the end of the first grade year, it was as if someone had pushed a magic button. The RJ we knew was suddenly back! Gone were the grumps, the temper tantrums, the constant conflict. We finally understood that the culprit was school—educationally, socially, in every way. Free to choose companions from an age range unlimited by grade level, he was able to interact happily with children younger than he, his age, older, and—as always—clearly enjoyed being with adults. As is common with children whose mental age and chronological ages are very different, he chose his most constant companions from mental rather than chronological peers, but continued to prefer the combination. He and Jason, though by this time living in different states, enjoyed their visits with each other enormously, freely ranging from the talk and behavior of twelve year olds down to seven—or lower—and back up again.
Jason’s first grade year had been survivable because he had a teacher who allowed him to finish work as quickly as possible and take refuge in reading. He had less trouble with classmates because he avoided interacting with them whenever he could. None of us knew that while allowing Jason to read did keep the peace and fill his time, it would strengthen his already growing tendency to shut out the difficult and often inexplicable outside world and retreat to the safety of books. The ground was being prepared for withdrawal.
Our school had put up a fight over acceleration and predicted dire consequences if we actually put RJ into third grade. “It has never worked!” we were told. By this time, we had begun to trust our own assessments, however, and once again we were vindicated. After a couple of weeks in a third/fourth grade classroom, he joined a group of gifted fourth graders in language arts and by the end of the year had completed fourth grade with ease. His biggest difficulty had to do with the amount of paper work required of fourth graders. He loathed doing homework after six hours of school; his handwriting—so newly learned—was no match in speed or legibility for that of his classmates, and though he learned to touch type, he could not do everything on a typewriter. In addition, his naturally dreamy and scattered approach to life caused difficulty with organization. Socially, he had great success, getting along far better with fourth graders than he ever had with children his own age. Perhaps the most important factors in his success were his two teachers, kind and caring people who wanted him to make it and were willing to make an effort to understand the way he learned.
Meanwhile, Jason—in second grade in public school—had met his Waterloo. His new teacher didn’t allow him to read when he finished his work, and tried hard to “help” him fit in with the other children. After only a couple of months, he had reached a point of such confusion and pain that his withdrawal became absolute. He would speak to no person, child or adult, from the moment he set foot inside the school building until he left. At home he clearly showed his rage at his parents for continuing to send him off to what he considered torture five days a week. It was then that his parents found a psychologist to test him (using a Stanford-Binet this time) and started therapy for him. It can be said fairly accurately that only twice-a-week therapy got Jason through the second grade without serious and possibly permanent damage.
RJ’s second year of acceleration worked far less well than the first, in spite of the fact that the group of children he had moved up with remained supportive and friendly. He was now in Unit III, with new teachers—an eight year old in class with both fifth and sixth graders. The sixth graders gave him a steady diet of teasing and his new teacher not only failed to support him, but subtly undermined his position, frequently reminding everyone that he was both younger and smaller. Her comments on his end-of-the-year report card, in spite of his good grades, were a summary of a year in which he had be criticized for being “immature” and “disorganized,” and told over and over that his study habits were poor. Again, it had been a year in which homework had caused friction at home. His school put a premium on “homework as discipline” and RJ did not think he should have to do work that had no purpose except to take his time. He greeted the end of that year with joy and relief.
Jason had had a far better year, even though he had been kept with other eight year olds in the third grade. He had been moved to a private school that had agreed to try to make a supportive environment for him, and he found another gifted child who became a friend. Continued therapy helped as well, and by spring he and his family felt that things were going well enough that they could drop regular therapy.
During the summer after RJ’s fifth grade year, we moved to another state, and a hasty school search had to be undertaken. I had learned something by then that I think is vital in trying to find a place for the exceptionally gifted child. Private academic schools that pride themselves on sending students on to ivy league colleges, that publish honor rolls and class standings, may not be appropriate for exceptionally gifted children. Such schools may be very good for many gifted children, especially left-brained achievers, but the chief characteristic of the most highly gifted is not only their ability to learn, but the difference in their methods of learning. One must be careful to avoid schools whose procedures and patterns are too rigid to allow for those differences. Heavy competition for grades and public achievement may not be as important to the exceptionally gifted child as his need to explore whatever subjects he wants to explore. The social pressure common in that environment is especially hard on the highly gifted child who is, by definition, very different. Finally, the academic school is likely to be especially defensive about its reputation for handling “the best and the brightest.” They may be particularly unwilling to consider the possibility that any child needs something they don’t offer.
We were lucky enough to find a private school that is extremely flexible, designed to allow each child to progress at his or her own rate. In an environment where every child is seen as an individual, RJ is no more noticeably an individual than the others. While an especially caring teacher was once again responsible for the success of RJ’s year, the school’s philosophy of nonviolence and tolerance for differences provided the background for good social interaction. As for academic growth, the result was more mixed. Technically, he was called a fifth grader again, though his work was from standardly junior high texts, and he probably didn’t learn what he is capable of learning. However, he was comfortable, he liked the approach the school takes to learning, and he had a chance to try new things—drama, pottery and running. His comfort in school means a great deal, because it allows him to be himself at home and to pursue his out-of-school interests with the energy and enthusiasm lacking in uncomfortable years.
The year was once again disastrous for Jason, who was still kept with chronological peers in fourth grade. Social interactions became more and more difficult, finally violent; there was nothing for him to learn in the classroom; his teacher lost no opportunity to accentuate his difference by trying to force him to interact with the others. Jason asked to resume therapy, and his parents have decided that next year they will try a new tack, in a new school, with whatever combination of radical subject-matter acceleration and out-of-school learning they can arrange. It has taken a long time to be finally convinced that an over 180 child is so different that minor alterations of normal school methods can’t be enough.
There are frustrations to living with an exceptionally gifted child than can get parents down. It can mean living in a perpetually messy world of half-completed projects and discarded socks. It can mean continual conferences, often emotional and usually frustrating, with educators. It can mean demands on time and resources that seem unreasonable and somehow unfair. It can mean—regularly—sending a child to brush his teeth and finding him an hour later, teeth unbrushed, deeply involved in perfecting a new paper airplane, making a dragon out of clay or building a skyscraper out of drinking straws.
But there are many compensations. I can’t imagine a parent, even in the midst of the greatest traumas, who would really want to trade such a child in on another model. We have been given a gift as well—a unique child to be loved and cared for and enjoyed as we try to find ways to help him reach his potential.
There are no cookbooks, no guidelines, no educational courses that provide sure-fire methods of parenting and educating the highly gifted child. We are all pioneers, and will need to share our resources and information with each other. When he was four, RJ was told by another child in his nursery school car pool that he would not be invited to that child’s birthday party. RJ looked at him for a moment and then said, “You don’t exist. You are only in my mind.” We don’t know very much about that mind, except that it would be criminal to tie it down.
In the nearly 30 years since this chapter was published, people have often asked me if RJ and Jason are okay—what happened to them after the age of ten? Did either family ever find the right school, the perfect situation? The quick answer to “right school” and “perfect situation” is no. But what I’ve learned over the decades is that it isn’t essential that school be perfect. It’s essential to recognize what’s right in any given situation and concentrate on that, while staying willing to keep looking and open to finding something better.
RJ’s school history was checkered—we moved a lot and he entered whatever grade seemed right to him and to us and to the new school at the time. Eventually, he enrolled in a small, private high school with what we were told was the brightest class they had, and finished all four years there. He remained pretty disorganized, was known as an underachiever (which frustrated his teachers a lot because they did see his “potential”), and had what were probably his best learning experiences at TIP, Duke University’s summer Talent Search program. He went on to an excellent state university, went into theatre after he graduated, and decided against graduate school because he had never, ever liked school. “Why should I go back when I don’t have to?” he asked. Did he “turn out okay?” Yes. He has found a way to do what he loves. And he’s currently dealing with the issues of parenting two extraordinarily gifted kids.
Jason’s schooling continued to go badly till his mother let him leave school altogether, after which he joined RJ at TIP one summer and was thereafter admitted to high school at age 12, because of his SAT scores. His school journey was not typical, but it eventually worked out well; he received a doctorate and did post-doctoral work in his chosen field (the very subject his grade school teachers all proclaimed he simply wasn’t able to do), and he is now a well-loved professor at a major university, and a regular speaker at international conferences in his field. He, too, is a father who faces the challenges of educating an extraordinarily bright child.
And so another generation of off-the-charts kids begins the tricky journey through the American educational system, where—still—they are the least regarded, least served, and possibly most misunderstood population of all.