The Value of Challenge

15 Jul

 

Almost all parents of highly to profoundly gifted children know quite well that one of the major difficulties in their children’s education is a lack of appropriate intellectual challenge. When Leta Hollingworth suggested in the first half of the last century that highly gifted children waste most of their time in school and profoundly gifted children waste almost all of it, she was making it clear that the primary challenge for these kids in most school situations was boredom. There was little or nothing for their active, questing minds to engage with, little challenge from which to grow and develop their knowledge base, or discover new ideas and to evaluate them, or to learn how to come up with and best express their own important thoughts and judgments. No challenge.

In a blog post entitled “The Right to Struggle,” The Gifted Development Center’s Dr. Linda Silverman poses the situation as a matter of civil rights. “How are egalitarian beliefs served by teaching a student what he or she already knows? Effort is kindled when students wrestle with new concepts—when they have to struggle to learn. Gifted education specialist, Carol Morreale, said that when we give gifted students the same work as all the other students, we deprive them of the right to struggle to learn.” [italics mine]  http://www.gifteddevelopment.com/blogs/bobbie-and-lindas-blog/right-struggle

This lack of challenge or “struggle” is clearly shown in the answer a profoundly gifted teenage girl gave in 2012 when Patty Gatto-Walden and I asked Yunasa campers to respond to a speech made by the then President of NAGC, advocating a move away from the idea that “giftedness” is an innate difference.

“…I started ninth grade when I was twelve—and … there was another girl a couple months older than me who was also starting the ninth grade…the main difference between us is that she was working really, really hard to maintain good grades at the ninth grade level at age 12. She was having a real struggle, she was constantly having to do homework, she had to put a ton of effort in. Whereas, I was sitting in all my classes daydreaming because I still wasn’t being challenged—because the way traditional curriculum is taught doesn’t hold my attention, so I always thought there was an extreme difference between [us]. …seeing this girl’s experience compared to mine when we were the same age in the same grade, …I didn’t really understand much about giftedness, but even at that point I thought, ‘This doesn’t really seem like the same situation!’” (Gatto-Walden & Tolan, 2012 presentation at NAGC)

None of this will surprise parents of highly gifted children or the teachers who understand and work with them to provide either acceleration or intense levels of enrichment (or both) to give them worthwhile learning experiences in school. They need to encounter real challenge.

But today I want to take this idea of the value of challenge in a different, and maybe new-to-most readers, direction.

Bear with me. When I was a child we kids were sent out in good weather to “play outside” and told to be sure to come home by dinner time, or when the streetlights came on. My husband’s and my boys (the next generation kids) were also allowed to go out and play on their own. It was what kids did! They rode bikes or roller skated, played games, invented games, pogo-sticked, walked to parks, libraries, playgrounds. In my case the kids on my block explored the shores of Lake Michigan, across the street from my house. Kids without adults, just being kids.

But something changed in 1979 when our youngest had just turned seven. Six year old Etan Patz, walking the two blocks to his school bus stop in New York City by himself for the first time, disappeared. What followed across this country was the launching of the missing children movement, the practice of putting the faces of missing children on milk cartons, and the idea that all children must be taught about “stranger danger.” Even though we lived in a pleasant residential neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio I remember following the official advice to get our son “dog tags” to wear with his name, address and phone number. Of course, he knew that information himself and could perfectly well find his way home on his own, but news broadcasts reminded parents steadily that “something might happen” to children to keep them from being able to do that. That “something” that loomed over all of us was whatever had happened to Etan Patz. Eventually, of course, the world learned that he had been murdered by a mentally ill neighbor.

But something fundamental had changed in our culture. Over time parents came to think that whenever their children were outside their homes “unsupervised” by an adult they were actually in danger of being hurt or killed by a stranger. Though some (or many) parents knew how rare such events really were, they were still plagued by a fear that such an “almost-never-happens” catastrophe might happen to their child. And it would have been their fault…

Now, closing in on four decades later, parental fear has grown and spread from the possibility of kidnapping or murder to a huge variety of unpleasant experiences that children “need” to be protected from. The media (social and otherwise) bring us a steady diet of warnings, and examples of dangers children may face on a daily basis. And given that highly and profoundly gifted children are often unusually sensitive and different enough to be frequently bullied, they may seem to be especially vulnerable.

It is this constantly growing fear that has created the phenomenon known as the “helicopter parent.” The image this term conjures may seem extreme enough that most parents don’t see themselves this way, but it can be hard to avoid some of the over-protectiveness it suggests. That over-protectiveness has spread beyond individual parents to our society itself, so that neighbors and even strangers have been known to contact police to report children going to a park, a library, even sometimes on their way home by themselves, without an adult to watch over them. It is in response to this level of concern that the “free range children” movement was started to bring childhood at least a little closer to what it was when I was growing up. But the phenomenon of helicopter parenting does not appear to be greatly affected by this press for greater freedom. Usually starting when children are quite small, over-protection continues these days into high school and college.

Recently, my grandson (who starts high school this fall) was talking to my son about where he might like to go for college. Son told grandson that out of state tuition for his first choice university was wildly expensive. “That’s okay,” grandson said, “you and Mom can just rent an apartment there and I can take a gap year and live in the apartment so I can become a state resident.” There followed, of course, a brief and realistic financial discussion!

When I learned of this conversation, I pointed out that I’ve been hearing about helicopter parents who rent an apartment for themselves in the town or city where their child goes to school (in some cases may even buy a house!) so they can live close enough to help their son or daughter choose classes, to feed them, do their laundry, meet all their professors, and arrange regular conferences with any who fail to give the child acceptable grades, etc. My son just shook his head. “In this family we are all looking forward to the time this kid goes off on his own!”

So when I was recently talking to a young woman whose job it is to counsel students who are having difficulty adjusting to college (of which there are apparently an ever-increasing number), I asked if this issue of parents taking up residence in the same town was something this particular school had to deal with. “Not just in the same town! There are mothers who move in with their kids—sometimes even in the kid’s dorm room.” It was in that startling conversation that I first heard the new term, snow-plow parent. “These parents don’t just hover over their kids,” she said. “They go in front of them in everything they do to make sure the kid doesn’t encounter any obstacles of any kind. It’s practically an epidemic!”

These conversations got me to thinking about the whole issue of learning and challenge. For a number of years employers have been reporting that young men and women newly out of college (or even prestigious and challenging graduate programs) seem unable or unwilling to take responsibility and make decisions for themselves. When given a task typical of the job they’ve been hired for they need far more support in figuring out how to do it than earlier generations did. “They want and expect—in fact need—someone to lead them by the hand, tell them what to do and how to do it, and then keep an eye on them to be sure it gets done.” I’d like to think this doesn’t apply to highly or profoundly gifted kids, but given some of the top schools these young people graduated from, one wonders.

So I decided to write this blog in order to ask  parents the question “What, if anything, might you change in your parenting methods and strategies if you treated your children’s need for life challenges the same way you treat their need for intellectual challenges–as a valuable, even necessary aspect of their development as human beings?”

Years ago I gave a talk at NAGC called “The Problem of Pain,” which was later published in the CAG Newsletter in California and is included in my 2016 book Out of Sync. [https://www.rfwp.com/book/out-of-sync-essays-on-giftedness] The piece provides what I call a “Nifty Tool Kit” for helping one’s child cope with pain. It is difficult for any of us to watch our children suffer physical, emotional or psychological pain. We tend to want more than anything just to take it away. Fix it. Find a way to keep it from recurring. But no one gets through life without pain. Reaching adulthood without developing any strategies for coping with it is not a benefit.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating pain. I’m not a believer in the adage “no pain no gain.” There are many ways to learn important life lessons from positive experiences. And by life challenges, I don’t mean only those that bring pain. It is a challenge to choose a major, a challenge to fulfill an obligation one may have undertaken without fully understanding the work involved, a challenge to walk away from a relationship that is forcing one to camouflage one’s real self, and a challenge to stand up for oneself when one has been judged unfairly. And it is, of course, a challenge to begin accepting responsibility for one’s actions and choices. Those are all part of learning to be a fully functioning adult. And here’s one that highly to profoundly gifted adolescents often struggle with—a challenge to discover not just what one can do, but what gives one joy in the doing.

Life—for everyone—includes difficult challenges like loss, grief, loneliness, uncertainty, disappointment, mistakes and bad choices. If their parents constantly rush in to “fix” any uncomfortable situation, or remove any and every obstacle children or adolescents might encounter, how do they develop the kinds of coping strategies that will be essential in the rest of their lives? We insist that children need to learn at or near the top of their cognitive capacity so they’ll have the intellectual tools they’ll need to reach their potential. It’s equally important to let them stretch themselves to contend with the difficulties they encounter in their personal lives.

Parenting is difficult and scary, and parenting out of sync kids is no walk in the park. We don’t have “owner’s manuals.” We do the best we can. I’m certainly not suggesting you abandon your child in the face of difficult life experiences! I’m suggesting only that you consider that question I asked earlier:

“What, if anything, might you change in your parenting methods and strategies if you treated your children’s need for life challenges the same way you treat their need for intellectual challenges–as a valuable, even necessary aspect of their development as human beings?”

Mind’s Diversity

4 Jun

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.  We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”–Albert Einstein

In the midst of the current world chaos when people encounter the word “diversity” what probably comes to mind first is what might be called obvious diversity—race, religion, ethnic origin, culture, citizenship, gender, economic status. What I am writing about today is less noticeable and for some perhaps rather more controversial—I think of it as diversity within mind.

I don’t mean the differences between gifted and more typical minds, between left and right brain dominance, between math/science and humanities preferences, or even Dabrowski’s OEs. There is much to be said about all of these, and of course much has been written about all of them in the gifted literature.

What is less discussed in that literature, less discussed in the academic community, except obliquely, is the fact that the human mind has two primary modes of operation. They could be called ways of accessing information or even ways of knowing. These two entirely different modes are Intellect and Intuition. The first is the aspect of mind measured by most intelligence tests—intellect. It is the dwelling place of reason, logic, rationality. It is generally thought of as a specifically human attribute, the mental capacity that allows us to learn, explore reality, understand, share ideas and knowledge, create, and invent. When some people use the term mind what they mean is just this—intellect. If they think about intuition, they consider it to be some vague and unreliable something that, if it exists at all, is akin to what in animals we label instinct, a lesser kind of consciousness that might occasionally surprise us when the phone rings and without seeing the caller I.D. we have a “hunch” about who is trying to reach us.

In spite of Einstein’s words, above, intuition is not most generally a serious focus of attention when considering the unusual or extreme intelligence of gifted individuals. While intellect is rational, many refer to intuition, therefore, as irrational, and dismiss it on those grounds. I far prefer the term nonrational, which acknowledges its difference without dismissing its genuine value. A couple of years ago when I was in a FaceBook group created to discuss giftedness, any mention of the kinds of unusual awareness that are available to us through intuition was met with hostility and ridicule. I probably posted the Einstein quotation before I left the group, tired of the futile attempt to broaden the conversation to include the aspect of mind that allows direct knowing. Yet in a kind of linguistic U-turn, in earlier times to say that someone was “gifted,” or had “the gift,” actually meant that the person had highly developed and powerful intuition, sometimes known as second sight, sixth sense, or psychic ability.

Interestingly, speaking to a diverse audience about mind and giftedness when I ask people to raise their hands if they have ever experienced an accurate, intuitive “hit,” a majority raise their hands. For some this sort of direct knowing is frequent and common enough to be relied upon, for others their intuitive experience was a one time, goose-bump-raising, highly memorable event.

I’m among those who argue that intuition is a valuable and basic aspect of the mind, every bit as worthy of being recognized and developed as intellect. For those who distrust it or disbelieve in its existence, I would remind them of a time (I’m old enough to remember it) when elementary school children in this country (especially in Catholic schools, but elsewhere, too) were discouraged or even punished for using their left hands instead of their right. Handedness was not yet understood as an innate aspect of the individual’s brain structure. As we learned more about the brain, we realized that being left handed—or ambidextrous—is not only natural to some, but is associated with some unique and worthwhile attributes.

In the Myers-Briggs inventory of types, one of the variables (N) stands for intuition, the method of taking in information that is opposed on the scale to sensing (S). Those who prefer Sensing on the N-S continuum look for information that is concrete, can be accessed through the senses, and includes details and facts. Those who prefer Intuition are more likely to get hunches and trust them, and to perceive underlying structures and patterns and make assumptions based on those. Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines intuition as “…the immediate knowing or learning of something without the conscious use of reasoning; instantaneous apperception.”

Both N and S are natural capacities that may be more or less developed, more or less used, according to nature, but nurture is involved as well. When we do not respect or allow intuitive ways of knowing, we may do as much to shut it down in those whose natural capacities are closer to N on the continuum than S, as forcing the exclusive use of the right hand distorted for many the attributes of left-handedness. Those who have been told (or believe) that intuition either doesn’t exist or is vague and unreliable, are much less likely to develop and use it than those in whom its presence is acknowledged, supported, valued.

As we are more and more inundated with information, more and more challenged to keep up with the constant flow of new information on almost every topic imaginable, it’s likely that we are going to find it more and more critical for the individual to acknowledge and gain access to that “other” way of knowing that is entirely outside the realm of reason, rationality, logic and intellect. We need to have a way of sorting through the deluge to limit our intake, to get accurate hunches about just what pieces of information in that stream we most need in any given situation or any given moment. When we do get such hunches we need to respect them rather than dismissing them automatically, even though they may be given to us in a “still, small voice” easily over-ridden by the loud and confident intellect. As we begin to trust them, they begin to work for us more and more often, more and more accurately.

One of my colleagues is affectionately known as “Nancy Drew” because she’s able to find information other people can’t. She is led to that information intuitively. Though she reads incredibly fast, she is often able simply to go directly to the right shelf, the right box, the right file drawer in the midst of an archive that might take another person weeks or months to sort through in a more rational, methodical way. She trusts her methods, and seeing her results lets the rest of us trust them, too. Books she needs have even been known to fall off the shelf to get her attention.

I knew that my Myers-Briggs results showed me to be far out on the N side of the N-S continuum, but I didn’t realize that many psychics refer to themselves as Intuitives. So I often said, “I don’t have a psychic bone in my body.” Then several professional psychics told me I was one of them. Thanks to my strict, rational-materialist upbringing and education, I dismissed their suggestions. Then one of them told me that while I could learn to access my intuitive nature, people with highly capable intellects (“the gifted”) are among those most difficult to teach to do that. I was lucky, though. I’m a fiction writer and have made much of my living with my imagination.

Once, while doing research for my novel Welcome to the Ark, I went to hear the grandson of Edgar Cayce speak, and he quoted his grandfather, saying “Imagination is the doorway to intuition.” Imagination and intuition are not the same thing, since intuition is a way of knowing and imagination is a way of exploring (or creating) possibilities. Imagination allows us to escape from the tyranny of what is already known, from facts previously established, and from the “real world” to explore new territory. In that new territory intuition may then encounter its truth.

Einstein famously said (in a 1929 interview in The Saturday Evening Post) “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Much of what Einstein gave to the world came from a combination of imagination and his own thorough grounding in what was already known or theorized and the extraordinary intellect that let him devise ways to test and share his sudden insights. But it certainly was the free flight of imagination that allowed him to make intuitive leaps to entirely new ground. He also famously said that to encourage children to become scientists one should nourish them with fairy tales.

Intellect feels safer. One can follow its trail from fact to fact, from source to source, from concept to concept, thought to thought, reflection to reflection. The accomplishments of intellect can be traced, diagrammed, understood—unlike the “Eureka!” moment, when, like a kaleidoscope turning, an entirely new pattern suddenly emerges in what feels like a magical way that could not have been predicted or understood by analyzing the trail.

While it’s true that some people are intuitive super stars, able to tune in to information, “vibrations,” others cannot sense, that is no more of an excuse not to train ourselves to use this aspect of mind than it would be to say that no one other than the profoundly gifted should work to develop their intellect. I have been working at developing my own long-neglected intuition for a number of years now (over the often strenuous objections of my rational mind), and I’ve come to believe that it is essential for the future of humanity, not only to accept intuition’s apparently magical existence, but to respect what it can give us that reason cannot. Some of its aspects can seem “paranormal” and unsettling, since we have no way to really understand them. But I remind myself regularly that we don’t actually understand intellect either. Consciousness itself is still one of the great mysteries.

Personally, I’m not sure I would want to hand the task of helping children develop their intuition over to our schools, since they are overburdened as it is. But—as I’ve said often before, I think it amounts to educational malpractice not to tell kids that it exists, that it is a powerful natural aspect of mind, and that it can be developed. And schools can certainly do far more than most do now to help children value imagination, use it, practice it, and most of all respect it. Respect for imagination both allows and encourages the opening of that door to other ways of knowing.

Meantime, there are many people who are intuitive masters already engaged in teaching people how to access, develop, and use this aspect of mind. There are many books and workbooks for this, some designed for adults, some for children. Parents may have to be the ones to find the resources for this, but from my own childhood experience, I can confidently say that telling children that their moments of direct knowing are dangerous, unreliable, and should not be accepted or used, is like forcing left-handed kids to use only their right—a kind of purposeful crippling. It is only when we respect and encourage the development and best use of  the whole mind, both intellect and intuition, that we access humanity’s highest intelligence. Edgar Cayce said imagination is the doorway to intuition; I would add that intuition is the doorway to the infinite.

 

On the Lighter Side

12 Feb

It’s been said that laughter is the best medicine. And right now we need as much of it as we can get.

So—this post is not a serious post about the world, or even about the needs of highly to profoundly gifted folks. It is a post to go with a “cover reveal” for the third book about the homeschooling Applewhites and their visiting “bad kid,” Jake Semple.

Back in 2002 I published the first one—Surviving the Applewhites. I had written it precisely because laughter is medicine, and the book of mine that had come out two weeks after 9/11 (Flight of the Raven—sequel to Welcome to the Ark) was set in a terrorist compound. I had therefore had to spend a year of my life while writing it, living in the minds of terrorists, and I really, truly needed to lighten up.

While laughter might be medicinal, funny books seldom win major literary awards, so it was a surprise to many that it won a Newbery Honor in 2003. After 29 years of writing for kids and young adults, I had become an “overnight success.” 

Meantime, I had also become a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Educational Advancement (IEA) and helped to create Yunasa, a camp for highly gifted kids, where I have worked every summer since. My son RJ, whom some of you may remember from the Open Letter in Guiding the Gifted Child (1982) told me I should write a sequel, and that in it the Applewhites should start a camp. Though I wasn’t eager to write a sequel (sequels are tricky and writing humor even trickier), my editor also encouraged me, so I did. Applewhites at Wit’s End, dedicated to the Yunasa campers, and including the disclaimer that “any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental,” came out ten years after the first book.

That, I thought, was that. Done! And then RJ (most of you know how persistent and sometimes maddening highly gifted offspring can be) said I should write a third, because it wouldn’t be “a series” until there were three books! I said no. My editor pushed a bit. I said no.

And then it dawned on me that it might be fun to do if RJ, who is a very funny guy and a very good writer, would collaborate. I hesitantly suggested this first to my editor and then to him. She said yes, he said yes, and I was actually at Yunasa when I got the word that we had a contract for the third book. Great! I thought. Now all we have to do is get an idea. And write it. A few weeks later RJ took care of the first part. And we began.

Long story short, it is done. Brett Helquist has created a splendid cover (as he did for Wit’s End and the new paperback of Surviving) and Applewhites Coast to Coast will be available from HarperCollins in the fall of 2017. One of my favorite parts about the whole project was when our editor said she couldn’t tell which one of us wrote what. Yay! (For some of it, we aren’t even quite sure.) This is the sort of thing that makes all those years of parenting not just worth it, but an amazing, splendid, delightful gift!applewhitescoast_final-s

And as I was posting this, I encountered a really great quote, from Bobby Sands, an Irish activist (1954-1981): “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”

The Body of Humanity

9 Feb

Those of you who already know my writing know that I am fond of metaphors. So ever since I wrote the last post here, in answer to the questions parents were asking about how to help their children cope with the current political situation, I’ve been trying out metaphors in my mind.

This morning I settled on one. Many years ago I faced, on a personal level, an experience that changed the direction of my life and my spiritual priorities ever after. It came from something quite ordinary—a trip to my doctor for a sinus infection. Since I got those infections all the time, it was just business as usual until my doctor, feeling to see if I also had swollen glands, said “Uh-oh.”

A week or two later that “uh-oh” became a cancer diagnosis. Leaping ahead in time, I assure you that my treatment was successful and I’m fine today. But the pathway from there to here became radically different from the pathway I had been on. The “shock and awe” of the experience led to a confrontation with the meaning of life as a deeply spiritual investigation that would have been unlikely in any other way. It was very far outside my previous intellectual approach to such philosophical questions.

Not long after the diagnosis I encountered Dabrowski and began a correspondence with Michael Piechowski, his principal translator, who introduced me to Peace Pilgrim—a “moral exemplar” whose spiritual development had reached the highest level (Level Five) in Dabrowski’s theory of human developmental potential. I began to read all I could find by her and about her and found this quotation, which I have used often since:  “Your lower self sees you as the center of the universe. Your higher self sees you as a cell in the body of humanity.” The metaphor spoke volumes with a simple image and a few words.

In the U.S., and in the world, the Presidential election of 2016 (as apparently ordinary as a sinus infection) turned into a “shock and awe” experience as intense on the political level as my diagnosis was for me personally. It has essentially changed our nation’s path. November 8th/9th shook our complacency like that “Uh-Oh” and presaged something new, totally unexpected, and—for a numerical majority of Americans—extremely scary. In response there has been a sudden, intense marshalling of forces unlike anything (or at least on a scale unlike anything) we’ve seen before.

There has been a lot of rhetoric about all this that casts the “other” as the enemy, but for me that language is uncomfortable. I am all too aware that the words and images we use carry energy, and just now there is an extraordinary level of hostile energy circulating in our shared space, so without wishing to downplay the seriousness of the current situation, I would rather avoid adding to it if at all possible. We’re all human beings coping with circumstances that are new to all of us.

Considering Peace Pilgrim’s metaphor of the “body of humanity,” each of us represents a single cell in that body. We are not identical, and our differences are essential to its structure and function. I’ve been thinking about how cancer makes its destructive way in the body.

Every cell of our physical being focuses on getting what it needs to function, to thrive, to reproduce—in its own favor, and because of interdependency, at the same time in favor of the health of the whole organism. From time to time our bodies produce cancer cells that flourish briefly, but for the most part are dealt with by our immune system before they cause harm to the body’s structure and integrity. What makes cancer cells different is that they begin to act not as part of the whole, but as the “center of the universe,” for themselves alone. They gobble up nutrition, they reproduce, they take over whatever organ has been their origin and then begin to invade the rest of the body, continuing to expand.

cancer-cells

A dividing lung cancer cell. Credit: National Institutes of Health

Biologically, this strategy over time is a losing one. If the malfunctioning cells continue their expansion and takeover for too long, they kill the body that gave them birth and nourished their ascendancy. We can see that the cancer cell’s strategy is a malfunction in an organizational pattern that normally serves us well—that is, each cell acting for its own immediate survival, taking what it needs to fulfill its function, reproducing at an appropriate level to keep the larger system flexible, adaptable and working. Medical researchers are constantly looking for the reasons cancer cell malfunction occurs, in order to prevent the destruction it leads to, but the immediate need of the body once the cancer is detected is to stop the proliferation and growth, or to remove the offending cells from the system.

We all seem to be pointing fingers just now, blaming the “selfishness” of individuals who put their own needs first, when in fact, as with cancer, it isn’t that initial desire of each cell to get what it needs that has caused the threat to the system as a whole, but the distortion of cells taking more of the body’s resources than they need, expanding out of control, and interfering with the structures and functions of other cells, organs and systems.

For me, I’m thinking that the sudden sharp turn we’ve taken should not be seen as a war started by one “side” or another, drawing battle lines between them, but as a problem in the entire body system that has been there all along, but that we have failed to fully recognize as life-threatening.

Instead of seeing our differences as essential to the functioning of humanity, we have chosen to use the labels “us” and “them” and to compete with each other. Human beings have been doing this for most of recorded history and have managed not to destroy humanity in the process (though we’ve arguably come close from time to time). But there are vastly more of us now and we are interconnected in new ways that could (and often do) lead to greater levels of relationship and cooperation. But the same larger numbers and greater interconnectedness highlights and even concentrates our differences in new ways, too—creating more obvious divisions and greater, more intense competition and hostility.

We can’t deny right now that we are a “sick” society. The sickness is in our faces every day, so much so that it can be difficult to focus on the ordinary requirements of our personal lives, other than defensively—against “others” who would either force us to accept differences that scare us, or take away from us what we so obviously need.

So what do we do about it? The good news is that we are already past the initial “shock” stage of the diagnosis, and our immune system is beginning to function. We have seen its initial stirrings in the protests—the ones that have shown the massive level of resistance needed to combat intense danger to the system, without violence, protests that show an understanding that we are more than individual cells fighting each other. We are all part of a body that requires cooperation and interdependence. There is a greater value at stake than just “us” and “them.” We are a living, breathing system of individuals that make up the singular human species on a planet of interconnected living systems. 

We have seen humanity’s immune system responding, among people who say that we need to listen to each other across our differences, to at least try to find common threads that can benefit more than just one kind of cell, one organ, one structure.

To make this metaphor work as well as I would like it to, I have to go beyond the most common current medical approaches to cancer (radiation and chemotherapy), and into broader ways of restoring health to the body as a whole. Let us imagine using ordinary medical approaches to remove the most immediate danger from the proliferating cells [resistance], but also focusing on a deeper awareness that the body has its own innate intelligence that tends toward wholeness. That intelligence is supported by the incredible diversity of the cells of the body. We need to stop our age-old efforts to make people fit into some box with others “just like them,” and instead celebrate the gifts our differences have given us.

Yes, we have an instinct to cluster and protect—but we also have an instinct to reach out to others, even different others. In times of massive tragedy, people come out to help, and when they do there are always stories that show what appear to be miraculous synchronicities that suggest an unseen order evolving out of chaos. It’s a matter of changing focus.

I suggested in my last blog post that parents find local and immediate ways to involve their children in volunteer efforts to provide help for others–not just others like themselves, but any others whose suffering they may be able to alleviate in some way. We can also stand up and say we will not acquiesce to a system based on the cancer cell’s strategy of putting self ahead of the whole, because that is ultimately a death blow to the whole.

And here’s the hard part—we need to avoid the hatred, hostility, aggression, plus the utter and sole self-interest that is the tactic of the cancer we are addressing. Every individual person who can come to see the self not as the center of the universe, but as a cell in the body of humanity, contributes to the health of that body.

It’s possible to use this cultural shock to re-examine our own paths and so contribute to the shift in direction that can come from it. My cancer led me to a wholly different way of being in the world, and so was a blessing in a (very convincing) disguise. May this time in our history be the same.

Image

When the Going Gets Tough…

20 Nov

golden-ruleI would advise anyone feeling fear or desperation after this election to consider two contrasting works of art. One, this painting by Norman Rockwell that became the cover of an issue of Life Magazine in 1961, takes only a moment to consider. It beautifully illustrates humanity’s diversity with the reminder of the Golden Rule that, in one expression or another, is found in most of the World’s religions. Almost all of us learned the rule as children. But this image of the diversity of humanity frightens a significant portion of our population, even as it seems an obvious and positive truth to others of us.

The other work of art (film art) takes a commitment of a little more than two hours. It is “All the Way,” a movie made in 2016 about Lyndon Baines Johnson during a year in the life of our country, between the assassination of JFK in November 1963 and his own election in November of 1964. The movie (which synchronistically arrived in my mail box from Netflix yesterday) tells the tough story of the early civil rights movement and the political struggle to begin healing the racial divide that was built into this country’s foundation by the original political compromise that allowed slavery to stand. The Golden Rule did not figure in the way LBJ went about his mission to pass JFK’s Civil Rights bill! Johnson considered politics to be warfare, and he treated it (and his opponents and friends) accordingly. That form of warfare is how the Civil Rights Act was made law, and how the Voting Rights Act came into being.

I watched that movie this morning and it gave me the sense that anyone can surprise us, there is always hope, and the values that mean the most to some of us are not (and probably never will be) accepted by others of us. We can’t sit back, do nothing, and assume that they will be upheld inevitably. 

Immediately after the election I, like many of you, was in deep grief and mourning for the image in the Rockwell painting, the image of America that I believed was actually, step by step, becoming reality. That first day (11/9 in our way of representing dates, 9/11 in much of the rest of the world’s way) I was asked to write something to help parents of gifted children cope with the fear (and hatred) this election seemed to have unleashed. And I had to say I couldn’t do it. Not yet. Not while I was still trying to cope myself.

I’ve had eleven days now, roller coaster days that included a beautiful, love-and-light-filled candle-light vigil in Brooklyn and a “protest march” in Manhattan where I carried a sign that said “Feed the Good Wolf” (if you don’t recognize it, you can check out what my sign meant here: http://www.sapphyr.net/natam/two-wolves.htm ). There were also some sleepless nights where fear and negative imaginings took over. But watching the movie reminded me of who I am and what I know. And brought me, finally, to my keyboard.

I remember that year of 1963-64 very, very well, but had not realized how important those memories are. Of  that year and all the others I’ve lived.

Because I know the power of the stories we tell, and their effects on the lives we experience, I don’t buy into the cultural story that I am “elderly.” But I am an elder—a grandmother, both biologically and in the way indigenous people view “the Grandmothers.” I have lived through a lot. 

I was born into a world where Anne Frank was in a concentration camp, not long after America entered what became its last “good war”–a war that ended with the use of the atomic bomb on two cities. That choice changed our concept of war ever after. I was a child in an America where women had few “career” options and were expected to have an entire life of raising children and being a “helpmeet” to a man. I saw the newspaper images of black men hanging from trees at a time when lynching, the night time riding out of the KKK, firebombing, and burning crosses were “just how it was” in the American South. And I remember the marches and the fire hoses and the dogs. I remember the Life Magazine that came into my mail box with a cover photograph of the massacre at My Lai (an image I can never erase from my mind), and the night one of our sons thought a war movie on television was “the news” because his whole life had been lived during the war in Viet Nam.

And here is what I know. That our country now truly is less dreadful than it was. I was a privileged Midwestern white girl who never knew a single black child in all my growing up years, who knew diversity only as white Catholic or Protestant or Jew. And yet I deeply believe in the current existence of an America that shows the full range of diversity we see in the Rockwell painting, with the addition (which Rockwell did not include), of the LGBT community. I remember all too well my years in a university theatre department where most of the gay guys were married, in an effort to stay safe and hidden, and Lesbian women were “lucky” to be allowed to live together, viewed by society as “spinsters” who just hadn’t been able to find a husband.

We and our children must not lose heart! More people did NOT vote for this president (and what he vocally proclaimed he stood for) than did. And more people do NOT support his most heinous language, behavior and apparent intentions than celebrate them. Yes, it is true that we seem to be entering dangerous times, when darkness appears to be falling around us, threatening to blot out the light. But darkness has always been part of our lives. And light is a force. The only way darkness can conquer light is for light to quench itself. In human terms, quenching our light means giving up, hiding out, failing to stand up for the human values we believe in, letting fear rule us, and choosing hatred. 

In the midst of the sabre-rattling of the Cold War, Phil Donahue brought an audience of teenagers to his talk show, and one of the questions he asked them was how many of them expected a nuclear war during their lifetime. Almost all of them raised their hands. Some researchers found at that time that the children least anxious about the possibility of nuclear war were those in whose lives parents or other adults of importance to them were taking some kind of action against war. It didn’t have to be a very big thing—writing or calling their congressional representatives, marching in anti-war protests, communicating with colleagues in Iron Curtain countries. Children needed to see adults they depended upon doing something to protect them from their worst fears.

That was when I wrote Pride of the Peacock, about a child terrified of nuclear war, and Katherine Paterson and I created a poster with the signatures of many of the writers, illustrators, editors, agents, and others involved in creating literature for children in this country, vowing to always speak out against the first strike use of nuclear weapons that was our nation’s official policy. We took that poster with us to a bilateral symposium on children’s literature and art in the Soviet Union and let the makers of children’s literature there sign it as well. And we gave that poster away to schools and libraries to post where children could see that we did not agree with our country’s policy.

So when you wonder what you can do now, do something. Show your children that this representative democracy is a government of the people, by the people and for the people, and if the politicians in Washington (and their constituents who voted them into office) do not understand that and think they can take us back into the darkness of our history, we will not stand idly and quietly by. We do not have to join the hate speech, must not treat those who supported the president-elect the way some of them treat those they dislike and fear. It helps to remember that hatred almost always arises out of fear. If we can conquer our own fear and stand for the light, showing that example to our children, we can help them (and ourselves) through this dark time. Yes, it is a dark time. We need to hold onto what light we can.

Some of us (myself included) have to avoid the news just now because our sensitivities make us vulnerable to despair. We cannot afford despair. Kindle the light inside and keep it burning any way you can, standing as an example to the younger generation. Don’t freak about fascism and Nazi Germany or slavery and the KKK, or the worst of our country’s history–stand with the statement “never again!” Trust that we can—and will–move in a better direction even if it takes time and seems to be going the wrong way. Have courage, take heart, speak out. Donate what you can to those who need resources to carry on, and help your children find a cause to volunteer for or raise money for that will help themselves or someone else who is in danger of becoming a victim of the darkness.

We’ve made it through dark times before. That knowledge is what being a Grandmother gives me.  We can do it again. We will do it again. Each step, no matter how small, takes us forward, and however gradually, upward. And think of that FB meme I’ve seen a lot lately: “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.” Remember this: seeds are designed to germinate in darkness!

Uniqueness

19 May

Sometimes (maybe in some ways always) this blog gets personal even though I write it as an advocate. But today it becomes very personal. So skip it if that bothers you.

Today I write as a highly gifted, highly creative, highly sensitive kid currently living inside the body of a grandmother. Please understand that I am writing to the highly gifted kids in you adults who are reading here, as well as the highly gifted kids in your lives for whom you are advocates. Two days ago I went to see the new movie “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” based on the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar, a profoundly mathematically gifted young Hindu man who gave the world mathematical formulas that are still, 100 years after his death at age 32, helping scientists to understand the universe we live in.

I happened to be alone in the theater when I saw it (though it was sold out when I tried to go on Sunday) and I had to sit in my seat all the way through the very long credits before getting up to leave because I didn’t want to be seen crying in the lobby. Since then I’ve read various reviews of the mpatel-ironsovie by film critics and mathematicians and they grump about various aspects of the movie, from Dev Patel being thin and gorgeous (well, truth be told, that’s my word—the words the reviewer used meant close to the same thing) when the real young man was chubby, to inaccuracies in the back story, to the fact that Jeremy Irons, who plays Ramanujan’s mentor, is “too old” for the part. This last is explained by the fact that it took 10 years to get funding for the film because it was clear that it wasn’t going to be mainstream and popular. Well, duh! It is about a young man who was one of the world’s most exceptional minds.

There are various reasons I cried at the end—the most obvious of which is that Ramanujan, though finally having had his mind and his work accepted, dies in the end. But more than that is the same reason I cried in “The Imitation Game” (about Turing) when the brilliant young woman tells Turing how much having found an intellectual equal means to her. Both movies show vividly how the world treats the profoundly gifted whose ideas, thoughts, and behaviors are very much outside of “the norms.”

The highly creative and highly sensitive parts of me are easily triggered. I live stories I encounter that touch on human emotional realities, and I feel them deeply. I always have. I cried on and off for two whole weeks after reading The Yearling when I was nine. I have not (and will not, it seems) outgrow that. It can be a challenge sometimes to live that way.

Also, recently, I posted on FB that I’ve been re-watching the first season of HBO’s dramatic series, “The Newsroom,” by Aaron Sorkin while riding my stationary bike. I suggested that everyone disturbed by the current political climate in this country might want to see those early episodes, where Sorkin pretty much predicted the state we’re in today and showed us how we were on our way to getting here. Today, again, watching the fifth episode, I found myself in tears. Emotional overexcitability causes that, plus the frustration of feeling myself (like the main characters in the show) far outside of popular culture and all too aware of and pained by the current chaos.

It is mostly for these reasons that I have become so great an advocate for finding a way to meet the spiritual needs of our gifted kids, for understanding that their hearts are in as great need of understanding and support as their heads. This is perhaps the greatest asynchrony of all, the need our cheetahs and mermaids/mermen have for heart-felt meaning in their lives. For some this is a need answered by religion. For many others it is a need almost totally unrecognized. As Viktor Frankl said, in Man’s Search for Meaning, if one has a “why” to live, one can bear with almost any “how.”

Neither “spirituality” nor “meaning” are mentioned in “The Newsroom,” but they are actually the driving force (presented as morality and ethics) behind the series itself. There is an emphasis on caring, on humanity, on connection, on—as the Dalai Lama would say—kindness. However short we humans fall in meeting our best intentions in these areas, the effort is essential.

As for “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” here is what Preston Wilder, reviewing it for the Cyprus Mail, said that captures what moved me the most about this movie:  “The film works best as a moral/mystical debate – process vs. intuition, Man vs. God. GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons) is the Cambridge professor who becomes Ramanujan’s mentor – and Hardy is a proud atheist (though it may be more accurate to say, as his protégé puts it, that ‘you do believe in God, you just don’t think He likes you’), trusting only in science. ‘It’s the only truth I know; it’s my church,’ he declares – but the film contrasts his insistence on supplying proofs for everything with Ramanujan’s trust in fully-formed truths emerging intuitively, and it also opens with Bertrand Russell’s dictum that ‘Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth but supreme beauty’. Maths is an artform (our hero says his equations are ‘like a painting’), possessed of beauty and quasi-mystical origins. ‘How do you know?’ asks a bewildered prof when Ramanujan solves a problem out of thin air. ‘I don’t know,’ comes the reply; ‘I just do’. Richard Dawkins [the “militant atheist”] can’t be very happy with this movie.”

For Ramanujan, a Hindu, his religion is the vessel for meaning, and for Hardy meaning comes through mathematics itself. But even Hardy’s atheism and insistence on proofs must finally allow for both mystery and meaning in the workings of Ramanujan’s extraordinary mind.

There are plenty of reviews out there about this movie with plenty of quibbles. But I wish all those people who suggest that the very idea of giftedness is elitist, that “all children are gifted” or that extraordinary contributions to human knowledge could be made by nearly anyone who “practices” 10,000 hours or more and has plenty of grit, would see it. Ramanujan had an inborn, unique–and let us remember that the meaning of unique is not just “different” but “one of a kind”–mind with a unique passion. There is deep, if deeply mysterious meaning in humanity’s infinite variety-within-oneness, in our individual differences.

Out of Sync

21 Mar

Announcement, announcement!OOS (Imagine a flourish of trumpets!)

On March 3, 2016, my new book, Out of Sync, Essays on Giftedness came out from Royal Fireworks Press, the publisher that brought the Columbus Group’s book Off the Charts to the world. Here is the link where you can check it out (and also buy it):  http://www.rfwp.com/book/out-of-sync-essays-on-giftedness

This book is both new and old, because it’s a collection of my writings that have been published over more than three decades. Many, though not all of these pieces have been available for a number of years on my website, www.stephanietolan.com . Consequently, some of you will have read some of them already. That’s the “old” part. The new part consists of an introduction to each piece that provides a personal and cultural context.

My journey as a parent led from my husband’s and my concerns about our son’s schooling to concerns about American education, the definition and meaning of giftedness itself, the complexities of human intelligence and the reaches of the human mind, as well as how the differences we call giftedness affect one’s whole life trajectory. These are some of the subjects I’ve written about over thirty-plus years as my life and focus changed, in essays that are included in this book.

Unusually bright children are “out of sync” developmentally from birth, and will remain out of sync in one way or another throughout their lives, but they will only be children for a short time (one that can seem long in the midst of it, but like the blink of an eye at its conclusion). So in this eye blink from my perspective (1982 to the present) many parents who found my work helpful when coping with giftedness in their children (and themselves) have taken a journey from worrying about play dates for their kids to helping them choose graduate schools, or plan weddings. And yes, some are now becoming grandparents to a whole new generation of out of sync kids.

Sadly, the “old” stuff isn’t out of date, as I so wish it were. The same issues keep coming up. I see daily on social media questions from parents just beginning this journey that are exactly the same as the ones I faced and then worked (and wrote) to help answer. Last spring at a state gifted conference, I asked the audience of teachers and parents how many of them had read “Is It a Cheetah?”—my single most well-known piece, and the one I’ve been told has had the most success convincing educators that there really is a need to provide different nourishment for the different beings in their care. Only a few hands in that audience were raised, and it occurred to me that a new generation of parents and teachers is embarking on this journey who haven’t found the “old stuff” that can continue to provide a helpful guide to the obstacles out there, and some useful answers to the same old questions.

So that’s why this book—now one can get the pieces that readers have told me were the most helpful to them in one slim volume. (And BTW, the feet in those out of sync socks on the cover are my own!) Yes, I’m still out of sync, too.

Repeat:  http://www.rfwp.com/book/out-of-sync-essays-on-giftedness