Tag Archives: Change

Who Are We?

2 Aug

Tomorrow is the one week anniversary of a sudden and unexpected death that has rocked the gifted community and has brought a deluge of memorial messages that the writers surely hope will assuage their own shock and grief, and comfort both Jim Webb’s family and all those who have benefited over the last 37 years from the work that he (and SENG) did to bring attention to the needs of gifted children and families. In addition, of course, there is the plethora of books that he published in the field, from the first days of Ohio Psychological Publishing (initial publisher—1982—of Guiding the Gifted Child) to the era of Great Potential Press.

As I have read those messages, I have been aware that the Jim Webb those writers describe is not the Jim Webb I met in 1981, nor the Jim Webb I knew during the approximately 20 years thereafter during which he and I and Elizabeth (Betty) Meckstroth discussed and sometimes attempted to write a second edition of Guiding. We never managed it because it turned out that she and I, by then both members of the Columbus Group, no longer were in agreement with what he wanted to say about giftedness. (When I was doing the writing part of Guiding, I found in his notes the statement that a gifted child was a child first and “gifted only secondarily.” so I called him up and explained that Betty and I did not agree with that statement. He acquiesced. The book’s theme became pretty much the opposite—giftedness, certainly extreme giftedness, is inborn.) Because our Guiding contract did not allow Jim to engage someone else to write the revision, the three of us finally gave up on revising it. After that his and my interactions dwindled to social events at various conferences, so I didn’t know him at all well in recent years.

But because I am among those in the gifted community who knew him “almost from the start,” I have been contacted to share for publication my thoughts about him and my feelings about his passing. I decided to write here instead. Of course, I was as shocked as anyone that he should leave the world so suddenly and so “young.” He was only 3 years older than I, so we are of the same “cohort” as it were. Too young, in other words! And I’m as aware as anyone of the enormous impact his work—his speaking and publishing, and the work of SENG—have had on the world’s understanding that the complex population of gifted kids, adults, elders and educators is of vital importance to humanity. I did post a couple of comments on the FB pages of others.

But the requests for comments, and the reading of what others have been posting in social media, got me to asking “who are we?”– we individual humans. The profile photo on my own personal Facebook page is not one anyone except my family would recognize as me—I was a blond, pigtailed child of eight at the time it was taken. Who I was then was an “annoying” kid (according to some of my teachers—and maybe my parents, and probably my older siblings). There was no such thing as a gifted, much less a highly gifted kid in my world at the time.

Back in the 70’s when Jane Piirto did her study of successful women writers, of which I was one by her study’s standards, as I was in the Directory of American Poets, and worked in the Poets in the Schools program, I actually claimed (because I believed) that I had “loved school.” I got good grades, after all. (psst: it’s called repression.)

It wasn’t until the conference in Nebraska to honor Leta Hollingworth (in 1989, seven years after the publication of Guiding!), when I heard Leta’s poem “The Lone Pine” in a documentary, that I confronted the very new truth that I had been a highly gifted child who loathed and despised school except for a very occasional teacher. (I think there were 5 or 6 between Kindergarten and college.) I could add that my teachers did not like me either, to put it sometimes mildly. I literally cried the whole second leg (Chicago to Albany) of my flight home from Nebraska and then wrote obsessively for six hours afterwards, uncovering a veritable dump truck load of painful memories. So it’s a tricky question.  Who was I before and after that conference?

I wrote a great deal about parenting gifted kids before I ever knew I had been one—though my husband’s extreme giftedness had been unmasked when our son was identified. My mother-in-law explained the shocking truth that the one year of elementary school he remembered—when he got to ride a trolley to a special school (a school he thought was for “difficult” kids) was actually a pilot program for the highly gifted. I remember all too well his horror that he hadn’t accomplished more as an adult—he was “only” a theatre director with a Ph.D. after all. Who was he before and after?

I interacted with Jim regularly for years. When SENG conferences began I spoke at them. But when a friend of mine who headed a national organization that had financially supported one of them took me to dinner at the conference and asked me about stories he had heard from other speakers about Jim lowering contracted speaker fees at the last minute with a threat to take them off the schedule if they didn’t sign the new contract, I told him that it hadn’t bothered me because I had just corrected the amount on the contract to the amount I’d been promised, initialed it, and signed. He asked me further questions, and I answered truthfully with whatever facts I knew. The organization never again supported SENG and I was never again asked to speak at Jim’s conferences.

I was born in 1942 and grew up in a world where most women stayed at home and few professions were open even to bright and accomplished women. And I spent some time (5 years) in higher education, where my male office mate, with precisely the same credentials as mine, made one fifth more than I in salary. I wasn’t happy about it, but it was “the way things were.” There was a huge power imbalance in our world, we knew it, and we pretty much put up with it. When Jim promoted Guiding as his book, Betty and I used to call each other “Et” and “Al,” which was the most common representation (when we got any) of our participation. Once I even saw myself listed as the author only of the “Open Letter” chapter, https://welcometothedeepend.com/an-open-letter-updated/ which I had copyrighted in my name so that I could use it elsewhere, as above and in Out of Sync https://www.rfwp.com/book/out-of-sync-essays-on-giftedness. But I long ago forgave him. The book gave me my work with the gifted, for which I am enduringly grateful.

In this era of “#Me, too” I’ve sometimes been bothered when men who have had long and successful careers, sometimes doing important work for the common good, can essentially lose everything when it is revealed that they previously used their power in ways that are now recognized as inappropriate, sometimes decades ago, at a time when the whole culture turned a blind eye to their behavior. Except for actual crimes (and even some crimes have statutes of limitation) I wonder, in spite of those who want to insist on truth, whether it is just or fair to judge a person for “who they were then,” when it is at least possible and maybe probable that they are not that person any more. I know, the culture needs to truly change, but still…

In the many comments I have read about Jim’s kindness, his caring, his deep friendships and unstinting emotional support, I recognize that these people, many of them friends and colleagues, knew a more recent and very different person than I ever did. I honor their experiences because it is very, very easy for me to remember myself treating other people when I was younger in a way that would pretty much horrify me now. I would not wish to be thought of as that person today! In a world where caring and kindness, inclusion, deep listening, and efforts to understand those who disagree with us or have less power than we do are getting vanishingly rare, and desperately needed, I remind myself that we never, genuinely never, fully know someone, perhaps even ourselves, the only one whose mind we inhabit. So today I mourn the Jim Webb those people are mourning.

And having survived some terrible losses myself, I send deep and heartfelt condolences to Janet and his family!

 

Celebrate Giftedness; Consider Success

18 May

New Zealand is choosing to celebrate giftedness in its annual Gifted Awareness Blog Tour, with the theme “Catalysts of Success.” So let me first celebrate celebration—remember this song? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GwjfUFyY6M

Unusual intelligence can feel like more of a burden than a gift, but it’s all in how we choose to see it. We who are gifted and we who care for and work with gifted kids, have a very great deal to be grateful for and it is really important for our own well-being to remember that. The song in the above link says “celebrate good times,” and what many people don’t realize is how very important it is to first notice, and then celebrate the good times. If we focus always on what is not working and our ferocious (and admittedly sometimes unsuccessful) efforts to get those things “fixed,” we can get into the habit of seeing only negatives—only bad times—and ignoring or taking for granted the good ones. It is hugely important to recognize and remember that giftedness itself provides us with vast and out-of-the-ordinary internal resources. Celebration is a truly important positive attitude. And a positive attitude not only leads to success, but can become itself the very definition of success.

So that brings me to the theme:  “catalysts of success.” The first essential for me here is to define success. There are plenty of people who define it in terms of achievement, usually achievement in terms of money, power and fame. I would never suggest that money, power and fame are not worth having, but I do suggest that they are not the definition of success. When I began writing (and publishing) novels and they did not immediately shoot to the top of the best seller lists, did not get lucrative movie deals, in fact did not make me a living that could even measure up to the salary of a first year teacher almost anywhere in the states, it would never have occurred to me to consider the fact that I was able to write them (writing was, after all, what I had wanted to do since childhood) as success. More than that, publishers were willing to publish them, and children and young adults were reading them and writing letters to tell me so. However tricky it was to raise a family on the modest income provided by two adult human beings “doing art” in the U.S., my husband and I were both doing what we loved most to do. When I look back on those times, I wish I had understood then how important gratitude and celebration were. And how grateful we both should have been, no matter the difficulties, that we were “gifted” with the ability and the opportunity to do what we loved, what fed our souls.

Now for the definition of “catalyst”:  An agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action. We all know that things are not ideal for gifted kids in the educational world no matter what country or continent we represent, so since change is inevitable, we can be certain that “significant change” in a positive direction is always to be desired. Whether you are one of the gifted population, a teacher, a parent, an administrator—any or all of the above—I could suggest a whole list of catalysts you can cultivate to help provoke and/or speed significant change. Effort, determination, purpose, intentions, goals, preparation, willingness, persistence. I am sure you can add a few more of your own. But for me (some of you may remember an article of mine called “In Praise of Pollyanna,” which can be found in my book “Out of Sync”: https://www.rfwp.com/book/out-of-sync-essays-on-giftedness ) Pollyanna’s focus on looking for things that made her glad is worth adopting. The single most important catalyst is gratitude. Well—that and celebration!

 

Deep and Deeper

13 Apr

“All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. This we know: Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web he does to himself.”–Chief Seattle

“When we try to pick out something by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”–John Muir

It has been an absurdly long time since I wrote something for this blog. But today it’s time. Last month I did a workshop for the Caroline D. Bradley Scholarship program’s annual seminar, sponsored by IEA, the Institute for Educational Advancement. The theme of this year’s seminar was “Intersections” and my workshop was titled “From Indra’s Net to the Internet: Intersections, Reality and Consciousness.”

To prepare for the seminar it was suggested that the attendees watch this TED Talk about “multipotentialites”:

https://www.ted.com/talks/emilie_wapnick_why_some_of_us_don_t_have_one_true_callingIf you don’t have time to watch the talk (though I highly recommend it), let me explain that Wapnick uses the term multipotentialite to describe a person who can’t relate to the idea of finding “one true calling.” If they commit to a job or a subject matter, as soon as they have learned or mastered it they need to move on to something else; there are always lots of other paths (interests) pulling them to explore. Many of “our kids” will recognize themselves in this talk.

Watching it, I realized that I am an “elder multipotentialite.” My 6th grade teacher told my mother that I would never amount to anything because I was interested in “too many things.” Miss Shreve deeply believed in the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none.” She was not, you may be sure, one of my favorite teachers! I am lucky, though. I’ve managed to have the best of both worlds. I do have one true calling, but it is writing, a calling so broad and varied that there is no limit to my ability to follow it for a lifetime and yet avoid boredom.

Most of you who read this blog came to it because you share, for your own reasons, my personal passion for serving the needs of super bright kids and adults. This blog and much of the rest of my nonfiction, along with much of my public speaking, has been about extraordinary intelligence, and what I’ve written and talked about on this subject is best known in the gifted community.

But many of you also know some of my fiction for kids and young adults. Certainly Welcome to the Ark and Flight of the Raven, along with my much earlier novel A Time to Fly Free, are specifically related to highly gifted individuals, but I write other kinds of children’s books as well. And my plays, most of them written in collaboration with Katherine Paterson—author, among many other award-winning novels, of Bridge to Terabithia—are meant to appeal to a broad audience of kids.

Most recently my interests and my life experience (some of which I’ve written about here) have led (or pushed) me in a new direction, the first book from that path being my book Change Your Story, Change Your Life. Some of you may have found it through my websites http://www.stephanietolan.com or www.storyhealer.com.

I expect more nonfiction writing will come from the spiritual perspective that the losses in my life forced me to discover and that the current chaos in the world we all share continues to test and expand.

The theme and title of this blog refer to the metaphorical “deep end” environment that mermaids (unable to survive long on dry land) need to survive longterm. But since I created the blog, the term has taken on a new meaning for me—has become, if you will, even deeper. I will not lose interest in the subject that led me to begin it (how could one get bored in the realm of the gifted mind—as broad a territory as writing itself?) but the new depths that interest me may not appeal to everyone. The title of my CDB workshop refers to both the mystical image of Indra’s net and the material world reality of the internet, two very different ways of perceiving intersections, the connectedness of all things. What I will be doing here in future is exploring both kinds of “deep.”

And meanwhile I’ve begun the intense work of writing the third book of the “Ark Trilogy,” Within the Dark. Because, of course, fiction is a fundamental part of my “one true calling.”

 

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. 

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

8 Feb

heart

An early Valentine’s Day post. This is a subject that I’ve been thinking about for years but seldom speak about and have never (as far as I can remember) written about. One reason it is hard to write and speak about love is that there are so many definitions of this single word and it is used to mean so very many things.

But let’s pretend we all know what we’re talking about here, and I’ll just go ahead; you can decide for yourself (as always) whether this post resonates with you or not. As they say in 12 step groups, “take what you like and leave the rest.”

I have begun to believe, after all these years talking about highly and profoundly gifted individuals, that love has pretty much everything to do with it. We speak of kids who have a “rage to learn,” of kids who have a “passion” (sometimes permanent, often ephemeral) for a subject or a project or a system or a field of study. We’ve seen kids “on fire” to explore something new, who are driven from within to understand, to investigate some mystery or other, who can’t bear to put down a book before they’ve finished it. What is it that we’re seeing? Love.

We’ve seen kids who are traumatized by news broadcasts that show images of man’s inhumanity to man, or to animals, or to the Earth itself. We often explain that trauma by saying they feel innately “connected” to humanity, other living beings, and their home planet. When kids become distraught over bullying or conflict on the playground, even when they themselves are not the target, or protest practices they consider unfair, we call it “empathy.” We could call that, too, love.

Parents have told me of children who “hate” a school subject nevertheless willingly putting time and effort into that subject, or children who make it through an entire school year with few complaints even when—as in the “awful” years—there was almost nothing new or challenging to learn, just because they “like” the teacher. Love, again. The best mentors we find for children with a passion for a subject are adults who share that same passion. The relationship that develops between subject, child and adult—love.

It is often said that as individuals, we cannot fully love another until we are able to love ourselves. Years ago my son said that I should give up the effort of trying to make anyone “feel sorry” for gifted kids, because people see them as having so much more going for them in life. And of course, in one way it is true—they have greater than average capacities that could lead them to the achievement and success so valued in our culture. But they’re also children, trying to figure out who they are in a world that makes it quite clear that whoever they are, they “don’t fit.” How do they learn to love themselves?

Highly gifted kids often suffer the whiplash that comes from systems that aren’t able or don’t wish to really challenge them to give their best, yet at the same time demand perfection in all things—“if you’re so bright, why can’t (or don’t) you…?” If they do shine when challenged, and rejoice in that (as is natural and only fair), they may be accused of arrogance, and if they don’t shine as they and others expect, they feel and may be treated like failures. And in cases where parents are overly invested in their children’s unusual or extreme gifts kids may feel they are loved not for who they are, but solely for what they do; that does not feel like love! A girl once told me that her parents were so insistent that she become a brilliant concert violinist (because she had the talent) that by the age of 15, she still had no idea what she loved to do, because she’d never been allowed the time to explore anything else.

We live in a world that doesn’t much like the word “gifted,” because it seems to mean that God or the Fates, or Life or the Universe has bestowed a gift on some minority of individuals, a gift that has been withheld from everybody else. The backlash is in the often heard (and often disputed) statement “All children are gifted.” I’ve argued against that statement myself, over and over again, usually by using an analogy: “all children have height, but not all children are tall.”

But my own belief about humanity is that every single child and every single adult has value, has a vital place in the world. As a fiction writer, I am aware that every character in a novel or even a vast, sprawling saga, is there for a reason and has a part to play in the story. And science has shown us that each human being is unique. Even among identical twins, there are no two identical human beings.

At the same time all of us belong to a larger oneness, the web of life, the interconnectedness of all things—all of us are, as some have said, “star stuff.” It is a paradox, this individuality and oneness.

It seems likely to me that every individual is born with the capacity for love of one kind or another, though the direction of that love is individual. My husband truly loved to do crossword puzzles. For me doing a crossword puzzle is about as enjoyable as sticking a needle in my eye. But both of us loved words and the stories they can create. We followed that love in different ways.

Consider a change in terminology. What we call “gifts,” could also be thought of as “loves.” Now imagine an education in which love really did have everything to do with it. Imagine, instead of categorizing and grouping children by their abilities, we were to purposely set out to help them find what it is they love and then to support that, even as we help them learn what else they’re likely to need on their life journey. What would that change? How would such a world look?

The symbol of Valentine’s Day is, of course, the heart. Gifted children are often expected (or even required) to “live in their heads,” and when we focus relentlessly on their intellects, we teach them to value that shard of who they truly are more than any other. The HeartMath Institute has shown that the human heart’s energy field is very much larger than the brain’s, and that learning to create coherence between brain and heart is beneficial not only to the individual, but to those around them. Far from competing, our heads and hearts work best together, energizing us and allowing access to ways of knowing and connecting seldom tapped or even recognized in education. It shouldn’t surprise us, by the way, that a standard method of creating heart-brain coherence is to focus on an image or memory that evokes love.

We could use 364 more days to focus on the heart, and to acknowledge what Love has to do with it!

Meantime, Happy Valentine’s Day!

If you wish to explore the findings of the HeartMath Institute further, you might start here: https://www.youtube.com/embed/QdneZ4fIIHE

 

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