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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

 

Stepping into a New World

14 Oct

Those (possibly very few reading here) who know tarot will recognize the “Zero” card in traditional decks as The Fool.  The image for this card usually includes someone about to step off the cliff of the known world into empty air—carrying or wearing a pack.  He is shown as care free and smiling.  We consider it inherently foolish to step off solid high ground, oblivious to the fall that clearly seems so certain.  But there may be something other than foolishness involved.  There is an aphorism that says, “when you must move forward beyond the edge of the cliff one of two things will happen—firm support will appear under your feet, or you will sprout wings and fly. 

Stepping off the very edge of the known world takes radical trust.  Not just trust, but the ability to trust in trust itself.  When the solid ground you’ve been standing on begins to shake and crumble beneath your feet, it may be wise rather than foolish to grab a few tools and step off.

I think about this new world thing today because I just returned from the OAGC fall conference in Ohio where I gave a keynote on Monday about the definition of giftedness as asynchronous development that was contributed to the field by the Columbus Group (yes, in Columbus on Columbus Day!)  At that conference there were inevitably many people acutely aware of tremors in the ground beneath their feet. 

In my small sessions for teachers questions were raised about how those dedicated to “doing no harm” to their gifted asynchronous students (or any others in their classes, for that matter) can be effective in a system that allows little breathing room and punishes teachers if their students do poorly on the tests that have come to rule the academic calendar.  We spoke of good, even great, teachers leaving the field because of massive frustration.  “It should not be this way,” we agreed.  I reminded them that some states are beginning to change draconian testing policies and suggested that when things get bad enough, even massive systems have to change, a bit at a time.  Finally, I found myself telling them to do whatever they can manage, and keep up their own spirits and their willingness to stick with it by finding at least one thing to be grateful for in every school day.  Then I apologized for having only the tool to give them that Bernie Siegel offers to cancer patients facing uncertain outcomes.  Has teaching come to this?  But I don’t apologize for the tool, because it is a very powerful one.

New forms arise out of chaos, but it takes courage to hold on through the chaos.  What we pay attention to expands in our experience, so it is important to focus on what works, no matter what else is going on around that. 

For myself, what I noticed to be grateful for in the very large gathering at OAGC (as well as back in March at the NJ state conference) was the strongest sense of a shift in consciousness I have ever felt in such gatherings in this country.  There is a growing awareness that our old way of thinking about “mind” as referring solely to rational thought within a rational/material world, is insufficient.  No matter how good it is, the rational mind cannot predict what the world our children will face as adults will look like, what they will need to know, or what skills they will need to have to find a place in that world.  As the pace of change continues to accelerate, educational patterns based on ideas about the human mind from decades, even centuries ago, will fail.

I put up a slide asking the conference attendees to consider their own definition or “sense” of what mind is, using at first these three images:

braincogswispy

The first represents, of course, the traditional scientific belief that mind originates and resides in the physical brain, the second symbolizes the mechanistic cogwheels of intellectual/rational/logical  thought, and the third a kind of nebulous, wispy not quite physical “something,” hard to pin down or “understand.”

Then I added a fourth image from painter Alex Gray:

        energy body

This one acknowledges an energy basis of both mind and body.

The feel of a very big room full of educators, when offered these images, is more open these days.  There seems to be a growing willingness to consider new ideas about what mind, what consciousness, may be. 

This is deeply heartening to me, because the ground we’ve been standing on all these centuries (while we have been developing, using and relying on our quite splendid rational minds to understand and analyze and tame the material world) is demonstrably crumbling beneath our feet.  Materialism, with its emphasis on separation, on particles rather than waves, leaves out something absolutely essential—what might be called the “heart” of humanity.

Here is a slide I have used in several talks to try to help broaden the concept of what mind consists of:

 Aspects of Mind/Consciousness

Awareness                           Perception                     Emotion/Feeling

Intellect                                Imagination                    Memory

Will                                       Intuition                          Compassion                

Only a few of these aspects are addressed in most school curricula.  We need to consider the world our children might help create if we began to recognize and value more of what can be called the non-rational aspects of our consciousness.  The rational mind, focusing on analyzing, separating, labeling, categorizing and creating hierarchies, has brought us to where we are today, disconnected from each other and from the nature that supports us.  We see the effects of this disconnection all around us and in every evening news broadcast.

The Columbus Group focuses not solely on intellect and achievement, but on the “whole child” in the education and raising of gifted kids.  It is essential that we also begin to recognize “whole mind,” the “whole being” as we look to the human future.  According to Jack Kornfield Sanskrit has only a single word for “mind” and “heart.”  Imagine the difference it would make if we could heal the separation we now see between these two aspects of ourselves!  It shouldn’t be such a huge stretch now that the field of neurocardiology is showing that the heart both receives and processes information. 

The members of the Columbus Group who went to New Zealand in April for our Symposium on Asynchronous Development all felt something personally transforming happened there.  That symposium began with an indigenous ceremony specifically recognizing the connectedness of all peoples, all beings, all aspects of our universe.  Such a different way of beginning an educational gathering surely had a part to play in this noticeable sense of transformation. 

For me this week it was a lovely synchronicity that October 12th is not only Columbus Day, but is called Indigenous Peoples Day in some places.  The old world (that had long been inhabited when Columbus set sail to “discover” it) possessed valuable—non-rational—tools of consciousness most of Europe had forgotten, tools that are likely to be useful or even necessary for taking our own next step as the ground continues to shake beneath us all. 

Raising Exotics

11 Jul

Long, long ago (1988 to be exact) I wrote a piece I called “Giftedness–Nature or Nurture?” It was not an academic piece attempting to answer this old question.  It was a gardening metaphor that I hoped would assure parents that the task they faced raising highly gifted kids was as tricky as it felt, but possible.  It was written in first person plural because I, too, was a parent facing uncertainties.

As written originally, I don’t recommend it!  But when I was talking recently to a parent fairly new to dealing with her more than usually unusual PG child, I thought this pre-cheetah, pre-mermaid metaphor might at least help her not only recognize but accept the challenges and begin to trust herself to meet them.  So here’s an update for just that purpose:

When we have a baby it’s like being given a flower seed that it’s our job to grow. Determined to be responsible gardeners, we start by doing the normal and absolutely necessary things. We plant it. We water it.  As it first sticks its white-and-soon-green self up through the ground, it looks pretty much like any other brand new seedling.  Maybe this gardening thing won’t be too hard, we think–after all the world is full of other people doing it.

But when the young plant begins to put out real leaves, they look nothing at all like the leaves of the plants people around us are growing.  Our seed didn’t come pre-labeled in a package that included an explanation of its needs. Full sun? Partial shade? Acid or alkaline soil? Lots of water or hardly any? Sand or loam? The gardening books and the gardening sites online don’t seem to show the specific sort of plant we’re dealing with.  Our seed, we eventually learn, is an “exotic.”

We can’t tell at this early stage whether it’s going to be 4-6 inches high (good for a garden border) or 24 inches high with an absolute need for a fence or stake to lean against. Is its blossom going to appear early or will it bloom only after several growing seasons?  Will the flowers be so large and spectacular that the stem will bend over from their weight, or will it have tens or hundreds of tiny flowerets clustered around the stem so that no single one stands out? We begin to realize we’re going to have to be ready for anything.

What pests are likely to damage it? Is that wasp buzzing around it going to lay eggs that will sap its strength or disfigure it, or is the wasp only going to pollinate the flowers? And how do we tell before it’s too late?

Mostly, as the plant grows we do what we can and hope that we’re doing it right, or at least not too badly wrong, second-guessing ourselves at every turn. What we want is expert help, so we visit garden clubs devoted to raising exotics; we read blogs written by experienced exotic garden specialists.  None of our efforts turn out to be quite as comforting as we’d hoped.   Exotics must absolutely have shade one expert says.  But our plant seems to be constantly leaning out for sun.  Browning leaves, a leading blog tells us, mean we’re giving it too much water–either that or we’re giving it too little.  Which is it? we ask in frustration.  And how do we tell?

“Everybody knows” of course, that exotics are sensitive and particular and must be treated with extreme care and given precisely what they need, or they will be irreparably damaged, their blooms stunted or perhaps destroyed in the bud.  There was, of course, that exotic seed that got dumped in a parking lot and ignored and somehow managed to find a crack in the pavement and bloom anyway.  That one gets coverage on the nightly news, but many passionately committed gardeners rush in to remind us that it was a one in a million miracle and we should not be lured into letting down our guard.

But here’s something all gardeners can be sure of.  Each individual seed comes with the whole blueprint, the whole plan, and all the “design capacity” necessary to become what it is meant to be.  As important as nurture is, nature is considerably more resilient than we may believe.

Yes, it’s a particular challenge to raise an exotic.  But close observation, common sense, and some basic gardening instincts are amazingly useful.  It’s fine to check out the exotic gardening clubs and the expert blogs and listen carefully.  Much of what can be learned that way will be helpful.  But if your plant leans toward the sun, no matter how many others (even the experts) claim shade is essential, go with sun.  If, after a time in full sun, the plant begins to wilt–don’t be too frightened to transplant to a slightly shadier location.  Watch and listen, and trust yourself.  And don’t forget that plant blooming in the crack.  Miracle, maybe.  But in some ways every seed is a miracle.

“…a Man’s Reach Should Exceed His Grasp…”

20 May

How many of us were told at some point in our lives that we were not living up to our potential

I was.  I was a high achiever in school—mostly A’s, a fantastic (probably intuitive) ability to take tests.  But my potential?  Suppose I got a 98 on a test.  “What happened there?” my father would ask.  Once, the Director of Studies at my high school wrote a note on my report card about the B+ I got in a demanding, college-level biology class.  “For a person of Stephanie’s potential,” her note said, “a B+ is not an acceptable grade.”  There was in my world the idea that there were only two alternatives:  A (better yet A+) and F; perfection or failure.  

It has taken many decades (and some costly therapy) to extricate myself from that mindset.  As Linus, in the Peanuts cartoon, says, “There is no heavier burden than a great potential.” 

Just in the last few weeks, during all this conversation in the “gifted realm” about achievement and eminence (an old conversation that has only taken on this recent intensity because of an effort to make it holy writ instead of a conversation), I have come to see the charge of not living up to one’s potential as a toxin.  These days we worry about toxins in our food, about dangerous drugs, about tainted air and water, but we freely dispense the toxic judgment of unfulfilled potential to ourselves and our children (most especially those labeled as in some way more full of “potential” than others). 

Eleven years ago in an online seminar I was conducting, a mother expressed concern that if her child chose to follow some deep current interest, he might not reach the top of his field.  That was her goal for that child—to reach the top of his field.  I have talked about the cages schools create for cheetahs—think of what a narrow goal it is, what a tight and limited pathway such a goal creates for any person, let alone any child.  How could he even be sure the goal had been attained—isn’t it pretty much always a matter of opinion?  (I can’t help thinking of Edison and Tesla for instance.)  And if he could somehow prove he had reached the top, how long could he stay there?

This toxin is often put out with the best of intentions.  Whether it’s a teacher with a bright student who doesn’t turn in homework, a mother worried that a child isn’t getting the support necessary to develop her unusual intelligence, a politician concerned that we are losing the productivity of our finest minds, or a father furious over his son’s laziness or passion for video games, people seem to think that living up to one’s potential is a good and necessary thing, perhaps the only road to success. 

Here’s the thing.  None of us lives up to our potential!  We all use only bits and pieces of our minds.  Even if we were to leave out the distinction between mind and brain, we know that the potential of the human brain is vastly complex and no matter how fervently we study it, its capacities continually astonish us.  

Savants have been the source of many surprises, of course.  From “Rain Man’s” ability to instantly tell how many toothpicks spilled out of a box, to Leslie Lemke’s ability to play full length classical piano pieces after a single hearing, to Stephen Wiltshire’s ability to fly over a cityscape and then draw what he’s seen in excruciating detail and perfect scale, the things savants can do confound us and send us searching for explanations of how certain brain deficits might result in extreme surpluses of one kind or another.  Still, the very fact that any human can do these things means that such a potential exists (one way or another) in the human brain. 

There are a great many mental capacities that most of us would consider “impossible” that are not only possible to some individuals but may be available to anyone open to experiencing them.  There are people who are able to read with their hands rather than their eyes, for instance.  I first encountered this phenomenon in a woman with extreme intuitive capacities, who was also dyslexic.  So difficult had reading been for her as a child that she was driven to find an alternative to using her vision in order to access the information on a written page.  She discovered that she could “download” what was on the page by running her hands over it.  

I know of at least two people who have conducted experiments to test for this ability with young children, who report that this is not a rare phenomenon—just one that our current theories of brain and mind can’t explain.  The younger the child (therefore the less caught in our ideas of what is and is not possible) the more likely that child is to be able to acquire information from a printed page this way—both photographs and words.  Says one of those experimenters, “We could probably all do this, but nobody ever told us we can, so we have never tried.”  The other has found that some adults can do it as well, but with considerably greater difficulty.  (I can’t, of course, give you citations from peer-reviewed scientific journals for these experiments—they are not the sorts of experiments scientific journals are interested in publishing.  At least not yet.) 

It has been suggested that the more we study the brain the less we understand consciousness.   

You don’t have to be willing to allow nonrational mysteries like reading with the hands into your own world view to be aware of the extraordinary reach of human mental processing.  We can recognize the kids we’re calling mermaids here by the “impossible” things they do within the range of the rational.  What kind of brain/mind does it take for a six month old to begin speaking in full (if short and perhaps not perfectly pronounced) sentences?  Most child-development experts would say that couldn’t be done because a child of that age does not have a brain developed enough to begin using verbal language.  But there are children who do it.  Forty years ago parents did not think of teaching their infants sign language so that they could communicate before developing the ability to speak.  But the success of this (now not at  all uncommon) practice has shown us that infant brain/minds are far more attuned to and able to process language than previously thought. 

Julian Stanley famously said that the “mathematically precocious” kids he brought into SMPY could learn algebra in from 0 to 15 hrs.  Zero hours?  Really?  Yes.  There are children who seem to come with algebra “pre-loaded” into their mental systems.  Just as there are those who seem almost to “recognize” languages that no one in their world uses, so that they can learn or teach themselves those languages with lightning speed.  How is this possible?  The very easy answer is that we don’t know.  The list goes on and on.  The abilities shown by prodigies are very little different from savant capacities, though the prodigy does not have countervailing deficits. 

Finally, of course, there is the problem of “multi-potentiality.”  Being able to do many things doesn’t necessarily mean we will or even should do them all.  A person with vast, varied, complex and extraordinary capacities may not want to follow some of them.  And if she does have a passion for all of them, may find it hard to choose a direction in life.  Under the pressure of their diversity she might take a side trail that leads away from any of them, or she could bounce from one to the other and piece together a patchwork of a life path that looks nothing like success from the outside.  And then there’s the impact of life itself.  It can be very, very tough.  There is no way to know how much of “recognized intellectual potential” might have to go into just figuring out how to survive.  

And finally, where do the concepts of personal fulfillment, joy, peace, happiness or the ability to come to the end of one’s life free from the misery of a long trail of regrets come into this conversation?  Let’s just get over this potential thing.  Potential is unlimited.  A single human life is not.