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 “The flowers and the candles are for protection.”

18 Nov

flowers-candlesI myself was protected last weekend by being out of touch with television and the social media at the NAGC convention in Phoenix.  I was lucky enough to see not a single image from Paris until I got home on Sunday night, by which time memorials had sprung up at every site of the violence.

The title of this post will be readily recognized as a quotation from a video interview that went viral—with more than 14 million views on social media. In case you haven’t seen it, a father and his very young son were being interviewed in Paris at one of the sites where those lost in a bombing on Friday were being memorialized with banks of flowers and hundreds of candles.  The boy was very much afraid of the “mean people with guns.”

“We have flowers,” his father told him. The boy began to protest about the effects of mere flowers, but the father assured him that they were protection. Flowers and candles. The boy looked for a time at the banks of flowers and candles, and gradually his face relaxed. “For protection,” he repeated. When the interviewer asked if that idea made him feel better, he nodded. “I feel better,” he said.

In a powerful way, that father was right. The purpose of the terrorists is to spread fear, and at first, for that child, as for so many others, they had succeeded in their mission. The little boy wanted to move to a new home, a place safe from mean people with guns. “Paris is our home,” his father told him, and said that there are mean people everywhere. But in telling him that the flowers were protection, he showed his son the absolute truth that there are many people—vastly more than the paltry number of terrorists on this planet—who care.

Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) said that his mother told him when he was a child and upset (as so many sensitive kids are) about news from some disaster, that instead of paying attention to the disaster, he should “watch the people who come to help—there are always people who come to help.”

A great many of the children we work with and care about are deeply empathic, feeling the pain of others, and easily overwhelmed by news of man’s inhumanity to man, of images of what “mean people” do in the world. How do we help them (and ourselves) deal with the chaos we see around us? Far more dangerous to a child than the possibility of a terrorist attack is an ingrained fear of other humans and a world of random violence. How do we protect them from the terror that is being purposely unleashed in our world today by people who themselves are terrorized by what they perceive to be massive world powers ranged against them?

By seeing, really seeing, under, over, past and around the images of death and destruction that the media insist on pouring into the atmosphere of this interconnected world.  By focusing on the vast majority—on the helpers, on those who bring candles and flowers.  We can think of every candle as “the light of truth” and every flower as a symbol not just of love and caring, but of the beauty of life itself.

When fear is being ratcheted up around the world not just by the terrorists and their guns and bombs, but by the news media that continually push those images on us, warning us that this sort of horror could happen anywhere at any time we can focus differently, and use our very good minds to support us. The numbers are on our side!

There’s an Allstate ad that says, “Man-eating sharks live in every ocean, but we still swim. Lightning strikes somewhere in the world, but we still play in the rain. So many things can happen. However, bad things in life can’t stop us from making our lives good. People live for good…”

While we tend to think of insurance companies intentionally frightening us to get us to buy their product, consider for a moment the principle on which that industry was created in the first place—that there is more “daily life” than catastrophe.

At this time in the history of the world our countries still respond to guns with guns, to bombs with bombs, to killing with killing.  But that father, pointing his son’s attention toward the flowers and candles, was giving him more protection than any gun or bomb ever could, by showing him that there are more people who care than who kill.  More people who help than harm.  He is giving his son faith in the deep, natural tendency of humans to help each other, and softening his fear.  It is fear the terrorists want, fear that becomes a deadly viral infection if we can’t look away from the killing and focus on the caring.

When parents ask me how to protect their super sensitive children in a chaotic world, I tell them to focus their own and their children’s attention on what there is to be grateful for, to notice every sign of life, of love, of caring. The more we look for it, the more we see. We need to know that what we pay attention to expands in our world. Yesterday in an article written long before these most recent attacks, I encountered a quotation attributed to Plato:  “Even the God of War is no match for love.”

Notice the flowers and the candles.

No Less Than the Trees and the Stars

7 May

In the more than thirty years I have written and spoken about the needs of gifted children and adults, I have shared a lot of my personal life. But after the last piece I wrote for this blog (December 2012) that life began to disintegrate, as did my ability to turn it into anything that would seem helpful to other people. Between April and July of 2013 I lost my husband of 49 years and the oldest two of our four sons.

Shell-shocked, I withdrew from the world except for a few obligations: Yunasa, the Institute for Educational Advancement’s camp for highly gifted kids and speaking as a member of the Columbus Group about Asynchronous Development at the World Council’s Conference in Louisville.

At that conference the argument between those (like the Columbus Group) who focus on giftedness as a developmental process innate to out-of-the-ordinary individuals (the child-centered view) and those who perceive giftedness as achievement leading to success, fame, fortune or eminence (achievement that is at least theoretically possible to anyone willing and able to work hard enough to beat out the competition and collect the rewards) suddenly seemed both especially virulent and especially ludicrous.

As I drove the eight hours home from Louisville, the positions within that argument and my whole history of writing and speaking about the gifted began a kind of slow dance in my mind and heart with the three lives in my family that had just ended. Something fundamental in my way of looking at the culture within which we live, was changing—had changed. It has been many months since then, but it feels as if I may have grasped enough of the change now to share it—I’m still a writer, after all, and this is what I do.

Always before, as I thought and wrote about the needs of gifted children and adults, I envisioned, as maybe most of us do, life stretching out from birth to something akin to infinity. Never mind that all of us claim to know the certainty of death. We tend to be woefully unprepared for its visitation. It shocks us with the cessation of a process we cannot somehow grasp as “finished.” We are left picking up shattered fragments of some picture that there just wasn’t time to complete, trying to decide what its meaning can have been now that it is over—there are no more choices to be made, nothing to add, no new turning or opportunity to watch for. What meaning was there, and how much of that meaning had to do with racking up awards or recognition, financial success or lack of it, children to carry on a name or a family vision? Consider these three lives:

Life Number One

When we were married in 1964 my husband was a professor of theatre with three sons, ages 2, 3 and 4. He was in the process of completing his doctorate and we expected to build a nice, secure future in academia. Six years later, when the structure of the academic world began to constrain his creativity, he left college teaching for the uncertainties and risk of work in the professional theatre. It was amidst those uncertainties that our son, the fourth Tolan male, was born. Over time, through plenty of ups and downs, my husband became well known in the regional theatre world as a director, manager, producer and idea person, and he went on teaching from time to time. Actors tended to love working with him. Though he eventually retired from both directing and teaching, the young actors he had worked with in his early years still regularly appear—as senior citizens now, of course—in television, film and theatre. At his memorial service many people (both actors and former students) told of how his faith in them, his ability to spot, encourage and trust innate talent, and his passion for sharing his love of theatre had helped to shape their careers.

Life Number Two

The first born son was a clear example from early childhood of the gifted, hard-working, disciplined and organized achiever. With a clear view of what he wanted in life, he moved steadily and successfully through his many years of education, took on the financial burden of a superior medical school, studied abroad, and became an eminent pediatric infectious disease specialist, researcher and educator, widely known and steadily published in the major journals. He was brilliant, but also caring enough to give his cell phone number to the families of his patients and to his colleagues alike. His much sought-after advice was available 24/7. When he suffered a sudden cardiac arrest in July at the age of 52, he was working at three hospitals and well on his way to being nationally recognized as one of the clear leaders in his field. The often repeated message delivered at his memorial was that it would take many individual doctors now to fill the gap his death had left in his field.

Life Number Three

The second son (age 51 when he succumbed to esophageal cancer in April) was a caring “people person,” who seemed, from earliest childhood, “allergic” to competition. Always available to lend a hand to someone in need, or to rescue an animal and provide it a home, he majored in Religious Studies and Political Science at Indiana University. While working in food service during high school, he had discovered a love for cooking, and after college (following his father’s example of daring to follow a dream that did not guarantee either financial or job security) opened a restaurant—a time he often said was the happiest in his life, cooking good food for hungry and appreciative people. After an economic downturn that resulted in his restaurant’s closing, though he found a variety of ways to be of service, he never managed to get a handle on worldly success, let alone fame or fortune. A cousin, however, once called him the kindest person she had ever met. In the varied work he did over his lifetime he was loved and admired by the people whose lives he touched.

What would the argument about innate gifts vs. worldly accomplishment have to say about these three lives? All three showed the sort of asynchronous development typical of the gifted in the Columbus Group frame of reference. But which of them would the world have recognized as gifted? And which of them would claim the term for themselves?

I ask now, what, finally, does it matter? Life matters. Individuals, in all their complexity, matter.

As for whether a person, looking back on his life, would consider himself a “success,” no one else could possibly know. For everyone life is a series of peaks and valleys. What looks like a valley of failure from the outside might be felt as one of life’s greatest successes once survived and moved through. And some of the peaks of success as viewed from the outside might have felt barren and meaningless once achieved. Achieving “success” must finally have to do with the individual’s own goals, wishes, dreams, visions and passions.

I recently sent a message to Scott Barry Kaufman, author of UnGifted (a book with two subtitles: “Intelligence Redefined” and “The Truth about Talent, Practice, Creativity, and the Many Paths to Greatness”) to congratulate him on the book and tell him that I think his definition of intelligence, is the best and most inclusive I’ve ever seen. But that second subtitle takes me back to the cultural worldview that 2013 shattered for me irrevocably. “Paths to Greatness.” Hiding there is that cultural sense that an individual’s worth has to do with finding a path to recognizable achievement: greatness. It is not just that we think of ourselves as “human doings” rather than “human beings,” it is that we want or expect ourselves and those we care about to do something others would recognize as “great.”

We’ve all heard the saying that life is a journey, not a destination. And yet how many of us live each day of our own lives as if that were true, looking for meaning and joy in the steps of the journey, open to our own loves and passions, trusting that whatever someone else may say of us, however someone else judges us, we both know and value who we are in ourselves?

And which way of looking at life are we sharing with the children we live or work with?

When Guiding the Gifted Child was published way back in 1982, it included the poem “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann. (I don’t remember for sure, but suspect it was Betty Meckstroth’s idea to include it.) A bit of that poem is what I want to share here: “You are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”

If we are to have something truly worthwhile to offer children, it seems to me it needs to be not just child-centered (yes, we need to see them as who they are, not who we expect them to be or become), but life-centered. We humans have vast individual differences, which is, arguably, how we have survived on this planet as long we have. As I said at the end of my cheetah piece all those years ago, life here operates on the principle of bio-diversity. Every difference has a place. Every life has meaning. Every life.

Will it be a meaning the children themselves will be able to recognize and value? Are we supporting them in that? Do we even know how to support them in that?

I suspect it has to start with the assurance that each of them has a right to be here, has a value to the larger story of humanity on Earth, no matter how like or unlike others they feel they are, whether they feel they fit or not, and no matter how long or short their time here may be. They surely need to see themselves as the hero of their own story. They have an innate right to make their own meaning of it, starting with who they are and what they love. What they do with that should grow from it, not be imposed from outside, or chosen to provide some external proof of their worth.

What can any other success or label, fame or fortune offer? If their story should end tomorrow, what will it have meant?

Off the Charts On Its Way!

11 Dec

OTCFCBreaking news!  I have been reliably informed that Off the Charts, Asynchrony and the Gifted Child  will begin shipping today.  

Those of you who have already ordered your copies will have them soon—those of you who haven’t, can order them now, secure in the knowledge that they will show up soon.  They can be ordered at www.rfwp.com 

In case you missed earlier descriptions, this book—19 chapters from 14 authors—covers the phenomenon of asynchronous development in the gifted (there’s a chapter about asynchrony in adults and one about the asynchronous family) from many perspectives.  In the twenty years since the Columbus Group brought the term asynchronous development into the field as a definition of giftedness from the inside, many people have written about it, many of them considering asynchrony primarily as the uneven development often seen in gifted children, or the “many ages” of gifted kids.  But it is much more complex than that.  It has to do with a fully outside-the-norm mode of experiencing life–a different quality of awareness.  The gifted are not just different from those in the center of the proverbial bell curve—they are different from each other and may even, as they develop, become extremely different from earlier versions of themselves. 

I’m one of the editors of this book (the primary editor is Christine Neville), as well as the author of two chapters and co-author of one with Michael Piechowski (another of the editors), and I have to say that it is one of the most important books you’ll encounter if you want to gain a greater understanding of the beingness of gifted individuals, and how that beingness (in interaction with their learning and living environments) affects their ability and motivation to achieve.  

Even firm supporters of the talent development approach to educating the gifted need to understand the complexity of experience that lies behind the unusual specific abilities we call talents if they are to support and encourage their development.  Giftedness and talent may not be precisely the same thing, but they are often inextricably combined.

Off the Charts! — Book Debut

13 Nov

Twenty years ago the field of gifted education was beginning to define giftedness very specifically as achievement—as doing rather than being.  One of the leaders in the nation’s gifted community was claiming at that time that schools “created” giftedness and that children who were not achieving academically were clearly not gifted (and therefore should not be taking up the limited numbers of “seats” in gifted programs).  Dismayed by the narrowness and external focus of this definition, a group of us whose experience with the gifted had shown us that unusual intelligence was an internal aspect of the child, apparent well before the start of school, gathered to discuss how we might help to refocus attention on this way of understanding the gifted population.

Out of our meeting in Columbus, Ohio in the summer of 1991 came the definition of giftedness as asynchronous development that was quickly recognized and adopted by many teachers, parents and counselors throughout the country and around the globe.  A phenomenological view of unusual intelligence, it provided a way of comprehending both the potential for extraordinary achievement and the struggles the gifted face in being out of sync both internally and with the expectations of the broader culture.

Last year at the national conference of the National Association for Gifted Children (just a few months more than 20 years after that first Columbus Group meeting) the suggestion was made in the presidential address that the field of gifted education should unify its disparate viewpoints by adopting Talent Development, with its clear attention to the issue of extraordinary achievement, as the single driver of both this field’s educational programming and its research.   So it was that members of the Columbus Group, that has continued to meet throughout these two decades, decided it was an important time to put out a book to remind the field of the critical “other side” (the inside) of giftedness, which is part of the gifted individual’s experience whether in or out of school, whether achieving in the eyes of the world at any given moment or not! 

So, we’re thrilled that the book (conceived only a year ago, and with chapters from 14 experts on the needs of gifted and highly gifted individuals) is to be available online from Royal Fireworks Press (http://rfwp.com) as of today (though at 1pm EST it wasn’t yet up on the website).  Dedicated to the memory of Annemarie Roeper, the book includes her last writing about the population of children to whom she devoted her life. 

We had hoped to have the actual books at NAGC this week, but weather (a modest incursion of Hurricane Sandy on its way to devastating the North East) intervened and stopped electricity to the presses.  

Prepublication discount!  The list price of the book is $30 but for online orders this week (through November 18th) the price is $25. 

Included in the book are chapters on the historical foundations of the definition, methods of identification, characteristics of asynchronous development, understanding individual needs, gifted adults, counseling, parenting and family issues, and educational options from a group of authors, each of whom has decades of experience working with, researching, and writing about “off the charts” kids and families.  

On a personal note:  the other thing that happened last year at NAGC that particularly motivated me when the idea for the book was being considered occurred at my presentation for the Counseling and Guidance network called “The Asynchronous Cheetah.”  (My cheetah metaphor was developed originally for a keynote at the Hollingworth Conference for the Highly Gifted in 1992—the same year the first article about asynchronous development was published in Understanding Our Gifted.)  When I mentioned the Columbus Group during that presentation, an attendee raised her hand and informed me that when she had been doing some research on asynchronous development for her graduate degree in gifted education, her professor had informed her that the Columbus Group didn’t exist.  “It’s a fiction,” he told her. 

Laughing at that representation, I explained that not only was the Columbus Group not a fiction, but it had actually met the evening before in the conference hotel. 

It’s quite true that I’m a fiction writer, and I’m really fond of fiction and the fundamental truths that are often explored in the pages of a novel.  But I prefer not to think of myself as fictional.  So–for those who may be interested in the Columbus Group’s “true story” and the reason a leading figure in gifted education could make the assumption that it wasn’t real (as a group, we have flown quite purposely under the radar all these years) I wrote an introductory chapter giving the “true story” of that 1991 meeting and the definition that grew out of it.  So if you’ve ever tried to find out more than what could be gleaned from the usual citation of the “unpublished transcript” of that meeting, you can learn why you couldn’t.  There are hours of audio tape from that meeting, but no plans to publish the transcript!

Tomorrow I’ll be off to Denver for NAGC 2012 and hope to see some of you there.

Strands of Light

2 Nov
Hurricane Sandy

It has been a long time since I have had the time, combined with a strong need, to write something for The Deep End.  This week provided both, when the fury of Sandy-the-Super-Storm shut down a surprising amount of what passes for normal on our continent.  Yes, lots of us –most of us—were outside the storm path, but given the importance to our country of the Northeast coastal states, there has been something of an enforced pause.  Many people who meant to fly somewhere ended up somewhere else, or not flying at all.  The power grid that we so fully depend on proved once again to be fragile in the face of wind and water, and the edges of our country that looked one way on Google Earth one day looked very different the next.  It isn’t a disruption that can be ignored.

“What passes for normal.”  It’s a phrase that the storm washed up in my mind the way it washed boats onto railroad tracks and shoved cars into a tangle in lower Manhattan parking garages. As a person who now looks for what there is to be grateful for in any given situation, I am still hugely challenged by the Big Bad Events that are occurring with apparently greater and greater frequency on our planet.  One can, of course, be grateful that any one of those events hasn’t happened to us personally (not only did the storm pass us by, but our kids and grandkids in New Jersey and NYC came through it okay).  Still that doesn’t feel enough in the face of images of people who very much are NOT okay. 

In the thirty-plus years I’ve been paying particular attention to extremely bright kids, one of the things that I’ve noticed and written about is their tendency to question what passes for normal, often because what passes for normal (the expectation about who they should be and how they should function for instance) doesn’t work for them.  But that isn’t the only reason they question it.  They notice that what passes for normal doesn’t work for others, either. 

One of the reasons super bright kids are at risk for an early experience of existential depression is that they’re able to conceptualize how the world ought to be, and are aware, from their own observation or the daily news stories, of how far from that ideal it really is.  They may see that adults—the people who “run the world”—either somehow don’t notice the gap between ideal and real, or don’t care enough or aren’t smart enough to fix it.  That can be really scary.  From global issues of war, poverty, hunger, environmental destruction, animal cruelty to unfairness in the classroom and bullying on the playground, these are all, to one degree or another, considered normal and the kids are aware of and upset by that. 

When far away catastrophes happen, child psychologists are often quoted in the media, advising parents to assure frightened or upset children that those bombs or that earthquake or those wildfires won’t come near them, won’t take their houses or their loved ones or their pets.  But even very, very young highly gifted kids are not frightened and upset solely about themselves!  They are upset for those these catastrophes really are happening to. Many of these children feel connected to the other beings in the world, from people to animals and plants.  They seem from the beginning to “get it” that when one strand of the web of life is stretched or broken, the whole web is affected.

For this reason I have often called these children the “necessary other,” the individuals in our species who are able to perceive in new ways, invent new possibilities, demand changes in what isn’t working, because they see and feel what isn’t working.

But the other night, when I was lying awake worrying about how the city of New York and the northeastern states faced with such immense destruction were going to be able to make things work again, an image came into my mind of strands of light reaching from person to person all across the country, gathering in all those places affected by the storm and providing more light and warmth in that cold darkness.  Some strands were very, very thin, no more substantial than spider webs, some were larger and brighter.  But there were a great many of them–millions

It came to me quite clearly that human beings are social animals by their very nature.  When we see images of other beings in pain, we have an innate impulse to reach out, to help, to share resources.  The images that come to us from the devastation of something as massive as that storm are not just images of destruction, they are also images of people helping each other.  Some of those helpers are workers who have chosen to be the first responders to trauma, but many—probably most, many of whom don’t get on camera—are just people who see a need and choose to help. 

Maybe it isn’t so much that these super-sensitive kids are “other,” but that they develop those deeply human impulses early and powerfully, and insist on expressing them.  As with the other over-excitabilities, their empathy is aroused by a smaller stimulus and affects them more deeply over longer periods of time than is true of other kids, or even of many adults. 

During the cold war when there was a great deal of fear in this country about a possible nuclear war with Russia, it was discovered that children’s fears could be alleviated a bit if they saw their parents or caregivers taking some kind of action, however small, in favor of cooperation and peace.  This is a time to do whatever we can to show that we are “doing something” to help the people whose lives have been devastated.  For some of us it can be contributing money to relief agencies, or helping to organize fund-raisers.  Kids can help with any and all of this and get a sense of empowerment. 

But there are other ways of “doing something” as well.  One way is to reframe the whole story for our children.  We can point out all the examples of people helping people.  We can assure them that even though what passes for normal among humans may have flaws and compromises, this species they belong to has a deep impulse to cooperate, to share, to care!  When a strand of the web is broken there is always a rush to repair it.  Not every single individual may be willing to put another’s needs first even when catastrophe occurs.  But many do, and the light of their willingness to help, like a single candle in a big, dark room, pushes back the shadows a bit.  Every “strand of light,” of caring, that reaches from one person to another is real and has an effect, even if we can’t always see it.  As The Little Prince tells us, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” 

Pondering the Olympics Yet Again…

5 Aug

Every time the Olympics come around (winter or summer) I am thrown into contemplation about the difference in cultural acceptance between finding and nurturing children whose innate attributes show them to be potential athletic superstars, and finding and nurturing children whose innate attributes show them to be potential superstars of the mind.  The whole world seems to understand and accept the need for these physically adept kids to have unusual coaching, to be withdrawn from “normal expectations of childhood activities” in order to focus on and develop their gifts, and to find some way to support their passions.  Everybody seems clear that you have to “set the bar high” to encourage growth and improved performance, and that the child himself or herself needs real inner drive and passion to flourish in such a work-focused atmosphere.

This is not, of course, to say that the path from discovery to Olympic superstardom (or otherwise) is easy, for kids or coaches or parents.  There are emotional prices to be paid all the way around.  When we watch a youngster (or occasionally an adult) devastated at getting a silver (only second in the world?) as if they have failed, a twinge of annoyance may accompany the compassion.  But we understand the cultural pressure to be “the best,” and its emotional effect.  And we celebrate the moments when an excited newcomer says what a thrill it is to be at the Olympics at all, or a driven competitor dances with real joy at winning a bronze.

With every Olympics, as I listen to the stories about how these young or adult athletes are models for younger kids, who watch their heroes breathlessly, imagining their own future possibilities, developing their own passions and sense of personal power, I long for that same story to be told for and about our brilliant kids.  NBC focused a moment last night on two kids from North Carolina (the state I live in) who traveled all the way to London to watch Michael Phelps go for more gold.  The story celebrated the effect of role-modeling.  And I got a little wistful.

But this year, fresh from the week of our most recent Camp Yunasa, I find myself processing this all a little differently.  Yunasa is the Lakota word for balance, and we created the camp for highly to profoundly gifted kids in a quite purposeful way to focus on “wholeness.”  There is a spiritual focus that pays attention not just to the unusual gifts these kids bring into their lives, but also to the meaning they can find in being and developing who they are.

photo by Nicholas Farrell

Like most camps, Yunasa wants the kids to have fun, and like most camps specifically for gifted kids, one of the most important things campers get out of it is the opportunity to hang out with their “tribe,” to make friends with kids who get them, enjoy many of the same things, laugh (amazingly enough!) at their jokes. Yunasa is known for group hugs! 

photo by Nicholas Farrell

But we structure the experience carefully around five attributes of individual life: mind, body, spirit, emotions and social self and ask the kids to consider the need to give some attention to all of these.

My own hope is that our campers–particularly those who come back year after year–will become mindful of the meaning of their own gifts and passions, resilient in the face of the world’s lack of understanding, and resistant to a cultural message that defines the value of a human life in terms of competition and winning.

The contrast with the Olympics could not be clearer to me this year.  The absolute focus on competing and winning is inevitable in these games.  Add the national pride issue–which country wins the most medals–and for the first time I’m feeling also a little grateful that the spirit of the Olympics is not readily transferrable to nurturing our brightest minds.

Ideally, in service to the competition, individual passion and effort and skill are celebrated in these games.  And teamwork, too.  What I would love to see is the best of the spirit of discovering gifts, nurturing passion, effort, skill and cooperation that is exhibited in the training of Olympic champions provided also for young unusual minds–along with real celebration of those gifts!  But I would also want for our mermaids/cheetahs a focus on the importance of the whole self and the meaning of that self in the tapestry of life.

Schools are to Creativity… (Part 2)

16 Jul

…as zoos are to wildness.

I got to visit cheetahs NOT on exhibit at Melbourne zoo–thanks to Jo Freitag

Sometimes in order to see things clearly one has to peel back layers of feeling. My philosophy is that we can’t do anything wrong (as we’re doing the best we can at any given moment) but that we may be able to do things better, and feelings can help us do that by pointing to what isn’t working as well as it could.  Today’s post goes on from the feeling response I wrote yesterday.  Different readers will respond differently, depending on their own feeling layers, of course.

“…As zoos are to wildness.”  That is a critical part of the sentence!  I am not against zoos.  In fact, I spent part of my life wanting to be a zookeeper.  I had our family read aloud the works of Gerald Durrell, whose life, other than writing, was devoted early on to gathering animals for zoos and then to creating an important zoo of his own.  One of the greatest synchronicities of our son’s life happened during his college semester in London when, looking into a bookstore window, he thought he recognized the reflection of the man standing behind him.  He turned and asked the man if he was Gerald Durrell.  When the man said he was, our son enthusiastically shared how important Durrell’s books had been to his childhood.  Durrell invited him to the zoo run by his Wildlife Conservation Trust, and of course he went!

As with schools, there are zoos and zoos.  Fewer and fewer of them are places of imprisonment for their charges or focused solely on putting animals on exhibit for the entertainment of their paying customers. Many do important conservation research.  And there is for the most part a serious effort to provide as natural a habitat for the animals as possible.  Nevertheless, the task of maintaining wildness is difficult to achieve with some species and impossible with many others!

Just so with highly creative kids.  Creativity itself is about not following directions, about finding new ways to do things, new ways to approach things, new ways to put things together or “reconcile the disparate.”  It is an individual thing.  An institution whose job is to educate all kids cannot function without requirements, directions, methods and–yes–coercion.

One of the most difficult half hours of my life was the first time I was asked as a visiting author to interact with a kindergarten class.   I’d written mostly young adult novels at that point and normally visited upper elementary or middle school classes, where I started by getting the kids excited about an idea.  I had literally never been in a room with more than 20 five year olds before that day.  I made the mistake of starting by getting the kids turned on.  Five year olds, of course, pretty much don’t need turning on–chaos ensued. And I never managed to restore even a semblance of order.

Creativity and institutions of any kind don’t go together easily.  At best there may be an uneasy alliance.  Institutions need patterns that creative people break.  Over and over again the “creative genius” who founds an organization of any kind–a company, a school, a theatre company–is replaced once that organization is up and running by someone whose particular skills are suited to  guiding and maintaining rather than inventing.  And it isn’t always that the founder is thrown out–some leave when they discover that keeping the organization running bores them silly and that making things new all the time can be disruptive and threatening to others.  Creativity often looks like destruction, when old forms have to be taken apart to make way for the new.

When that sixth grade teacher who was the nemesis of my life told my mother that I’d never amount to anything because I was “interested in too many things,” she was thinking along conventional lines:  “jack of all trades, master of none.”  The greatest joy of being a writer, of course, is that I get to keep writing different sorts of stories, doing different kinds of research, inventing whole new people and worlds.  One of the things that made me craziest in school was the schedule–same classes same day of the week, week after week after week.  As an adult I would not be able to do a job that involves constant repetition.

So this is the second half of what I wish to say about creativity in schools.  We can’t support it perfectly, but we can keep working to do better. Some schools and some teachers have more success than others in making room for creative kids, but much of the support the kids need may have to come from the fact that–unlike zoo animals–they get to leave the building at the end of the school day.

What I wrote during school was mostly written in the classes I didn’t like under the guise of taking careful notes (the notes my teachers thought accounted for my good grades.)  But most of my writing as a kid was done in trees, under bushes, at home in my room–outside of school and not at anyone’s request.

It is possible for a creative kid to survive even the most coercive school environment with a little help from outside–parents, other kids, adult mentors or just enough time and space to dream, and materials for playing, experiencing and inventing on their own.

But kids whose creativity can be submerged by doing really well at following directions, by a culture that is uncomfortable with rebels, or by a need to protect themselves from the hostile forces often ranged against them, do get hurt.  There is no life without pain; I’m not suggesting there should be.  But often these kids get hurt more deeply, more often and more permanently than necessary.  Coercion can inspire creativity as the creative kid finds ways to rebel against it or work around it.  But coercion can grind down and destroy as well.  These kids need to hear from adults that resistance is not necessarily a sign of poor character!

“If I had it to do all over again” (something every single parent can say at some point), I would put supporting creativity way higher up on my list of priorities for any kid who has, in addition to a really fine, really capable intellect, a passionate imagination and a drive toward novelty.  It was the nourishing of imagination that Einstein was talking about when he advocated reading fairy tales as a way to create future scientists.  When he said that creativity was more important than knowledge, it wasn’t that he was dissing knowledge.  But stuffing kids’ minds full of the knowledge we think they should have doesn’t make room for what is likely to be needed in a world we can’t predict that will be the world of their adulthood.

I prefer to look for positive possibilities.  If some kids can nourish their imaginations with computer games (like the paper version of Dungeons and Dragons that briefly took over my son’s life) I say there is hope in that.  But I also hope that anyone who can affect classrooms anywhere will keep in mind the need to provide some open spaces for the growing of imagination.  And I would remind parents to value and trust it as Einstein did.