Archive | Positivity RSS feed for this section

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 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.

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. 

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?

Revisiting A Wrinkle in Time 50 Years On…

3 Dec

Wrinkle-bigger

November 29 was a big day for birthdays of writers of massively successful books for kids.  Louisa May Alcott, C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle were all born on that day. But as loved as all these authors are, it’s Madeleine’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, that I am moved to talk about today. It was published fifty years ago—something I find not only hard, but quite annoying to believe—and has sold over 10 million copies.  Having been rejected by publisher after publisher, many of whom believed its foundational concepts of theoretical physics “too hard” for kids, it won the Newbery Medal in 1963.  

(If by some chance you or the gifted kids in your life haven’t read it, I urge you to head for your book store or library or ebook and remedy that oversight as soon as you reasonably can.) 

When I told my friend and sometimes collaborator Katherine Paterson, another Newbery medalist, that I had just reread the book, having had to get it from the library because my own copy has disappeared, she sent me a copy of this year’s anniversary edition, for which she wrote the introduction.  A brand new copy (with all sorts of lovely extras) now sits on my desk, with newly written blurbs on its back cover, such as this from Scott Westerfeld: “…Hers were the first books I read that mixed math and magic, the quest and the quantum.” 

I had read A Wrinkle in Time aloud to my son when he was six years old because he was in great need of meeting Charles Wallace Murry, the profoundly gifted, highly asysnchronous little boy who is the younger brother of Meg, the novel’s profoundly gifted protagonist.  My son needed to know that there were other kids who were as different as he was feeling in the first grade, and in pretty much the same way.  The profoundly gifted characters in this book—and the companion books that followed—Charles Wallace, Meg, and her friend Calvin O’Keefe, have given super bright children a sense of having peers and companions in the world for half a century. 

But it is not the giftedness of the young characters, or the anniversary year, or even the occasion of Madeleine’s birthday last week that motivates my writing about it here just now. It is the book’s plot. I reread it because I needed to be reminded of the particular evil the children struggle with once they tesseract to the planet Camazotz where they hope to rescue Mr. Murry, who has been imprisoned by IT, the planet’s all-powerful leader. The evil “shadow” that has fully engulfed Camazotz, and threatens other planets, including Earth, is uniformity.  IT is not so much a person as a singular consciousness that enforces absolute conformity of thought and action. The people of the planet, IT assures the children, are happy, content and safe because they are essentially identical.  There is no need for individual thought. 

Recently I posted “Are We Redefining the Wrong Word” in response to the conflict in the gifted field over what giftedness means and how the educational world should address it.  The effort to unite the field under the single banner of talent development has been presented as a more politically viable, more efficient, more fundable and less complicated method of holding a place for gifted children in the country’s educational system than continuing to contend with varied points of view and a multiplicity of approaches.  

When my husband read that post, he accused me of having become a raging radical when he wasn’t looking, and asked whether I was actually calling for the replacement of all the schools in the country with learning communities. “What would you do with the 80 or whatever percent of people who are okay with the current system?”   I reminded him I’ve always raged a bit.  I used to say I wanted schools to be bulldozed and the ground salted so they couldn’t grow up again.  (Put it down to OEs!)

But his point had sunk home.  I’ve been thinking a lot about Camazotz.  A Wrinkle in Time does not seem to me today quite as brilliant as it seemed when I read it originally.  But its evil is demonstrably evil, which is why I reread it in the first place, to support my own extreme distaste for age-grade, lockstep, factory schooling–way too much uniformity. 

The danger of uniformity of thought and the total dismissal of all other viewpoints seems a bigger threat than ever in today’s world.  One has only to think of our recent election and the hostilities that are still going on in its aftermath to see why some would find relief in everyone thinking the same way they do. People whose ultimate goals and intentions are much the same have come to think of one another as enemies thanks to a disagreement over how to achieve those goals and intentions.  The more I thought about Camazotz, the more IT-like my own wish to rid the world of factory schools began to sound. 

And then I encountered an interview with Barbara Marx Hubbard, whose new book Birth 2012 and Beyond considers what she calls humanity’s “Great Shift” to conscious evolution.  Her thoughts are just what I needed.  Many people who have commented on my “Redefining the Wrong Word” post in various venues have spoken of the need for and the supreme unlikelihood of a paradigm shift of sufficient magnitude to fundamentally change education.  Hubbard’s “conscious evolution” is a way forward.  

She suggests that allowing people to find something new to do or commit to in their own lives that can help with positive evolution, “is far better than if you ask people to do the same thing together” [italics mine].  She speaks of social synergy and explains how it differs from cooperation.  “Cooperation could be many different things, including ‘We’ll help you if you help us.’ Synergy happens when one group has a yearning to express something that another group feels the need for, and vice versa.  So you get to be uniquely more of who you are by joining than you do by remaining separate.  …That’s a big growing edge for human endeavor right there. When we come together in synergy, each person or group gets celebrated, amplified and empowered.” 

What if we could find ways for all the groups who care about and work for gifted kids (the kids themselves, parents, teachers, counselors, academics, theoreticians, pediatricians, school administrators and yes, politicians) involved in social synergy, working in their own individual way, but jointly focused on the best developmental future for the kids?

Pretty much everything on the planet is in the midst of massive change.  The time is past for top-down planning and the old hierarchies.  There is no single “IT” mind that can possibly have the answers to all the questions humanity needs to address.  We need to stop seeing different ideas as a threat and begin to look for what aspects of other points of view could support, supplement, or create new possibilities for our own.  There is no them and us in our need to support the growth and development of our children—WE are part of a fully interrelated whole, and it is our very differences that create the possibilities for positive evolution.  

And speaking of massive planetary change, how can any of us be satisfied with an educational paradigm designed quite purposefully to put limits on all the variety of developing minds with both the ability and the desire to push ahead into unexplored territory?  Almost everything that faces us these days is unexplored territory, whether we like it or not!  Instead of labeling these out-of-the-ordinary minds arrogant or elitist—or odd or broken, let’s invite them all into the conversation about possible ways to move forward.  Any for whom the past methods seem to provide what they need, let them stay with those.  Transition times are just that—times when the old and the new overlap.  But let us please quit kidding ourselves that past methods are “best methods” and acknowledge that we have barely begun to scratch the surface of possibilities. And let’s give young minds more respect than we have generally granted them before.  Let’s not just talk—let’s listen!  

There are other values in A Wrinkle in Time and the later books about the Murry family that may seem to be fantasy.  But who knows what real synergy could begin to show us?  There is a great deal more to mind than intellect and it could be time to quit limiting the rest of mind, too!  

Instead of what’s wrong with other thoughts and other ideas, let’s begin looking for what’s right with them.  Just as there is no one-size-fits-all method, there are none that are all brilliant or all worthless. Imagine that our lives depended on developing synergy.  They just might!

hands-earth

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.” 

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.