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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Sadly, the “old” stuff isn’t out of date, as I so wish it were.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

 

 “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?

Are We Redefining the Wrong Word?

27 Nov

NAGC 2012

 As George Betts pointed out today or last night on FaceBook, this year’s convention of the National Association for Gifted Children was perhaps the most polarized, fiercely divided convention in recent years.  A year ago the organization’s president, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius gave an address that argued the need for the field to come together under the umbrella of a new and singular definition of giftedness, of a unified concept that could and should direct both educational programming and research—Talent Development.  It is unlikely that she had any idea before she gave that speech advocating unity that it would unleash a firestorm of controversy and develop over the following months a split just about as intense and fraught as the current split between America’s political parties. 

Oddly, my own experience of the convention was extremely positive overall.  Others who share my focus on the internal world of the gifted child, and on the fundamental developmental differences between the gifted and other children, had been stirred up by such an overt challenge to and dismissal of their perspective.  They showed up to any sessions that fit that perspective with an unusual level of passion.  I doubt that in the more than 25 years I’ve been attending and speaking at NAGC I’ve ever experienced more enthusiastic and responsive audiences. 

As usual, the Columbus Group gathered after the convention, to share with each other our experiences over the last year and consider what we as individuals and—now that we’re out in the open—as a group, can and should do going forward.  I arrived home wiped out and faced with only two days to get ready for Thanksgiving.  I’ve been home now for a week, and my mind has been seldom at rest as I’ve pondered my experiences in Denver. 

Patricia Gatto-Walden and I did a presentation this year, titled “What the Kids Want You to Know: It’s My Life.”  A group in the UK 20 years ago took the keynote of the World Conference (a speech focused on gifted education as a way to make the best use of each culture’s natural resource of bright kids to benefit their country) to the kids at summer camps for the gifted and asked for their feedback.  Taking a cue from them, we read aloud the shortened version of Paula’s speech that appeared in Compass Points to our Yunasa campers.  Expecting no more than a handful to show up, we invited anyone who wanted to respond to it to share their thoughts for an hour long session.  So many kids (nearly a third of the campers) were willing to give up regular camp activities for that hour, that we could barely fit them into the room we had available.  They spoke enthusiastically for the full hour and several of them asked afterward that we send them the full text of the Subotnik, Worrell and Olszewski-Kubilius monograph that had formed the foundation for Paula’s speech.  

Few of these kids knew anything about NAGC, and one of the first questions they had was, “Does this organization have kid members?”  

We said it does not.  Quite naturally, the kids thought this was outrageous—“How can it be for gifted kids, then?  Don’t they get it that we have pretty good ideas about what we need?  Do they think we don’t think about education during all the time we’re in school?”  

What shocked me was not their question, but that I had never asked it myself.  I’ve been aware, of course, that schools bring kids to NAGC, most often to perform, sometimes to serve as panel members in a session or two.  But kid members? I hadn’t considered it necessary.  

A Moment in the Wayback Machine 

From the time my five year old son had the “head-on collision” with school that led me to begin learning everything I could learn about gifted kids, I have thought that it isn’t really the existence of kids with unusual intelligence that creates a need for specialized “gifted education,” it’s the way education is structured in this country and in most of the rest of the world.  It’s a factory model created well over a hundred years ago and it has changed only slightly since. Children are treated pretty much as interchangeable cogs (or, with an emphasis on product, as “widgets.”) 

At the very first gifted conference I ever attended a speaker said, “If God had known what schools would be like, He wouldn’t have made kids the way he did.”  I thought it was a clever statement, but its full impact escaped me at the time.  After all, school was school!  I’d known what that meant since my October birthday allowed me to start kindergarten at age four in a system with a December cut-off date.  

In the 1980’s, when I had begun to write and speak about the needs of gifted kids, I said in several talks that if school were done differently, we wouldn’t need the designation “gifted kids.”  

People invariably argued with me, pointing out that gifted kids would still learn faster, more broadly, more deeply, and more connectedly than others and we’d still have to diagnose those learning differences.  I agreed that gifted kids wouldn’t vanish—but that if we found a way to individualize education to meet the needs of every student, doing the same for the gifted would be just part of the deal.  I kept remembering what my son said one year when I asked him after we’d moved—yet again!—whether the kids at his new Quaker school would tease him for wearing Kmart sneakers instead of the currently popular expensive brand.  “Mom!  Nobody teases anybody for being different in a school where everybody’s different!” 

The absolute joy of that school was that the children were treated as individuals.  Yes, they went to classes mostly based on age, but within those classes, probably because of their specifically Quaker focus on that of God in every person, each child was respected for being him or herself.  But it was a small school and “everybody knew” (including me) that the whole country’s public system just couldn’t afford to be run that way. 

When that school ran out of grade levels for my accelerated son, I briefly considered homeschooling, because we lived in Norfolk, VA, the only city in the USA where at that time homeschooling was legal. I’d been reading John Holt’s Growing Without Schooling and conversing with him by mail for a couple of years by then, loving his ideas and the freedom they provided for the kids. He didn’t focus on gifted kids–just kids.  A friend of mine had illegally homeschooled her son back in Ohio (which had necessitated “hiding” him in the house all day every day) and insisted that it was the only way to individualize sufficiently to truly meet the needs of an exceptionally gifted child.  But it was not in the cards for my family—I didn’t have the necessary patience and my extraverted son was horrified at the whole idea and refused even to consider it. 

What Do We Mean by Child? 

As I’ve thought about how the two sides in the current definition argument might possibly come together, it has occurred to me that maybe gifted isn’t the problem word.  The problem word is child.  Why does NAGC not have child members, when its stated mission is to serve children?  Because today children are still defined by the field of education not as young individual human beings with individual needs and minds and drives and lives, but as a class of beings in need of being taught by adults what they presumably will need to know when they become adults.  

There is an extent to which that definition makes sense, of course.  Children have a lot to learn and there’s a long period of dependency during which they need to be sheltered, touched and held and cared for, fed and dressed.  Human children need to interact with other humans (though not exclusively with adults) to learn language. Much of what they learn begins with observation and imitation. And of course there are all those tricky things like silverware to handle, stairs to navigate, windows not to fall out of, streets to cross. Plus there are reading, writing and arithmetic, which many of them will first be exposed to in school.  

But what we believe about children has changed. There was a time when a child was thought to be an empty vessel, waiting for adults to fill it up with information.  (Just last year I saw a YouTube about educational reform that actually still said this!)  Science long ago showed that belief to be in error.  Human children are learning creatures determined to explore and manipulate their environment, to test and try, to build and tear down, to question and experiment and interact with whatever other living creatures they encounter—all of which can be classed as “play” in the early years.  And today in any household with technology, they mostly find a way either to use that technology on their own or get someone to show them how. 

The sooner we put them in “school” where the primary activities are to sit still, be quiet, listen, wait for and then follow directions, answer questions “correctly,” and judge themselves in terms of how other children are doing at these tasks, the sooner we begin to limit their natural modes of learning. Instead of play that expands their experience and mastery, learning becomes what they do (or rather what they are directed to do) in school.  There is very little difference in what they are directed to do, one student to another, and little if any concern about individual interests or personal choice.  Natural learning gives way to coercion, solitary activity directed toward a predetermined goal, and a teacher’s external validation or criticism of their efforts. 

(One could ask oneself just what sort of adult life these “lessons” are designed to prepare them for.  Factories, yes.  But factories are either in other countries now or use a lot of robots.  Schools should not be in the business of programming human robots!) 

Meantime, as the Yunasa campers told us last summer, the adults don’t ask them what they need or listen to them when they express their needs anyway.  

And What Do We Mean by School? 

Like it or not, times have changed! How often have you heard one adult say to another, who is struggling with some aspect of current technology, “what you need is a ten year old.” When my now nine year old grandson was two, he was already more adept at using his father’s computer to find what he wanted to interact with on the internet than I was.  Now he scoffs at my efforts to learn something new on my “too smart” phone.  It isn’t only theory that tells us that learners can be teachers and teachers learners.  It is our everyday lives. And there is a tsunami of information available to and through the new technologies that kids are more adept at finding than many of us. 

It is long past time to give up schools or redefine them as learning communities, where it is not just age that creates groups, but interests (passions), knowledge, experience and needs.  In such learning communities there could be webs rather than boxes–language, math, history, geography, art, meant to be dealt with separately in small blocks of time–webs that could interweave what is known in service of creating something new, or helping the learner to grasp new information and move into and understand greater complexity.  And children need to have a voice in how such learning communities would or could operate; because children are unhampered by the structures and restrictions of prior experience; they lack our long memory of “how it has always been” that would hold them back from imagining how it could be.  

Our gifted kids, so very interested in learning, so passionate about exploration, could genuinely help to lead the way.  One of their major differences (at least until we squash it out of them with work sheets and grades and gold stars and tests, grade point averages, boundaries and limitations) is their rage to learn and understand, and to do something with meaning.  Those same kids who discovered at two how to find what they wanted on a computer screen, have ideas about how learning can happen, progress and change.  And how the technology so many of them love and the games so many of them play, could enhance learning for themselves and other kids. They could work with adults who are willing to collaborate on finding the best ways forward rather than determining and dictating those ways! 

Teachers who love their profession and have passion for their subject matter could, in learning communities, be freed to practice that profession instead of struggling to prepare a broad spectrum of kids in a narrow age range to succeed on standardized tests that really can’t measure either student learning or teacher competence. 

We can’t have what we can’t first envision.  And we are in a deep and dreadful rut.  I started a Face Book page (www.facebook.com/deependxgifted) last November in hopes that those who visited it could begin thinking in new ways and sharing their visions about how education could happen if we began over again without schools.  We didn’t get far.  FB pages aren’t that great for collaborative thinking—everything gets pushed down the page and disappears. But that doesn’t mean the discussion shouldn’t be taking place. 

We have to find a way to make things work better.  I would welcome the best ideas of the Talent Development folk, but I would want them to acknowledge the existence of kids whose inner experience of the world really is different from the beginning.    It isn’t just our field that’s in crisis and conflict.  Our whole world is at stake.  Pretty much really!  New thinking, new ideas and new partnerships are essential as everything continues to change at warp speed. Let us outsource factory schools to some other planet so that we don’t have to find ways to keep squeezing human children into boxes designed for widgets or robots.

I end all my talks with the following quotation, meant for every human, child or adult, because we need to know that we are not interchangeable!

“You are not accidental.  Existence needs you.  Without you something would be missing from existence, and no one could replace it.”  –Osho

Found this on A Space for Learning, 11-12-12

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.” 

What’s My Story? What’s Yours?

20 Apr

Back in 2005 when NAGC was in Louisville, I did a presentation for the Counseling and Guidance Division called “Change Your Story, Change Your Life,” which I later turned into an article that was published in The Gifted Education Communicator that can be read here.  The NAGC session focused on helping gifted kids to cope with the difficulties they face in dealing with their asynchrony, their lack of easy fit in the culture of childhood, by helping them to see themselves as the heroes of their own story.  It was gratifyingly well received.  People seemed to find the principles underlying the talk fairly easy to accept. 

When I talked about these principles among a large group of other writers of books for kids, many of them found the metaphor of story as comfortable as I do, and suggested that I should expand the article into a book.  So, over time, I did that.  The book is now available three ways–as a free downloadable PDF here, and as an actual book or Kindle through Amazon, here. (In addition, I created a Facebook page called Storyhealer.) The book takes what I call Story Principle into the larger territory of human life in general, and I’m aware that lots of people will not feel comfortable following me that far. 

So I’m not suggesting that everybody who is interested in The Deep End because of their connection with high range giftedness will also be interested in either the book or the StoryHealer Facebook page.  I mention it because throughout most of the last 30 years I’ve worn two hats–the novelist hat and the gifted consultant hat, switching back and forth between what felt like two different personas–occasionally making the connection more obvious, such as when I wrote Welcome to the Ark and Flight of the Raven, whose characters were based on profoundly gifted children I had worked with in my gifted persona.  But as an elder, it has become important to me to blend those personas with the rest of who I’ve become in my own life journey in order to be my authentic self.

As I deal with the whole subject of giftedness now, I look at it (as I look at life) through the lens of Story Principle.  Simply put, Story Principle says that the stories we tell as individuals and as a society, are the stories we live.  So they matter.  I am no longer comfortable with our culture’s focus on competition and achievement for the sake of achievement.  Our cultural story has, for a very long time, been based on some stories we have accepted as reality that are now being challenged in fundamental ways.  One is a mechanistic view of a “clockwork universe” destined to wind down, or a random expansion of mindless matter destined to sink back on itself and collapse.  Another is a tale of evolution as a competetive struggle for survival in which species self-interest dominates and only the strongest survive.  But leading edge evolutionary science is telling a new story in which the central theme is not “nature red in tooth and claw,” but nature as an interconnected web of cooperation and balance.  Rather than a struggle to the death, the new story frames life as a kind of dance. 

When I asked a huge NAGC audience during my mini-keynote at NAGC 2006 to raise their hands if they believed that the way things were going on the earth right then was fine and good and right, not a single hand went up.  And most people would agree that things have gotten considerably “worse” since then.  I think we as humans on planet Earth need to refocus on values that can support ourselves and each other and the life that sustains us all.  And I think that many, perhaps the majority, of our brightest kids are a step ahead of us, or at the very least, have the wherewithal to move us in new directions if they can escape the me-first materialism and the fatalistic negativity of the culture that surrounds them.  Surveys are showing that most Americans think their best times are over and that the future will be worse than the present.  That is not a story we can afford to go on telling–it is not a story to share with our children!

Einstein famously said (the t-shirts prove it so!) that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”  Our super bright children have amazing intellects and collect knowledge the way hoarders collect stuff.  But they have a power of imagination that all too often goes unappreciated, unsupported and untapped.  We can have nothing in our future that we cannot imagine.  Luckily, imagination has no limits.  So here’s one thing you can bet on about The Deep End.  The story told here will be one of possibility, of hope, and of radical trust that the children we are doing our best to support have what they need not just to survive as individuals, but to venture out to the leading edge of the web we’re all connected to and take us beyond our current expectations. 

So that’s my story.  If it’s yours, together we can share and embellish it here.  If yours is bleaker, darker, less hopeful, maybe you can begin–with a little help from your friends here–to change it.  That’s what is so wonderful about stories.  Once you know you’re involved in the telling, you know they can change.