The lessons we teach our children

Tonight I saw an interesting article on slashdot, soliciting comments on how to teach a child prodigy. I read the responses with a surprising degree of nonchalance, given my feelings on the subject.

The spectre of childhood intelligence is one that's haunted me throughout my life—and yes, continues to do so today, but in ways I never expected as a child. It's not a question, or a mindset, or anything in between. It's not even easily described. It simply is.

It can be summed up by a set of deceptively simple questions that have held the capacity to upset my world for as long as I can remember: "What are we going to do with you?"
"What made you what you are?"
"What will you do with your gifts?"

I was an odd child. I never completely understood how much so until just a few years ago, when I asked to see my school's academic files on me. As I read, I found things written about me that I wouldn't have dared say about myself, and many other things that were left unsaid but were blatantly obvious. I had never seen an IQ number on myself before—it had always been kept from me—and I didn't quite know what to make of the number. It confirmed years of odd looks from people, coupled by confused looks on my own. Until then I had no concept of what "genius-level intellect" was. I envisioned it as something for remote and aloof mathematicians sitting on collegiate chairs and contemplating formulas incomprehensible to the rest of the human populace.

I had never connected it with me. But I'm normal!, my mind protested.

Then I thought again, and the answers became questions of their own.

Looking back, I must have been an incredible trial for my parents. They had been trying to have a second child for seven years, and my mother became pregnant right around the time that they began losing hope and were considering giving up. They expected, probably, their second daughter to have at least some vague similarities to their first. In retrospect, they could not have been more wrong—aside from our notorious stubbornness and unruly reddish-blond hair, we are completely and thoroughly different people. Neither of us are better or worse, but we are oriented in different directions.

From the stories and random anecdotes I've picked up, I was reading by age three. What few dim memories I have from before my seventh birthday tell me that I have been fascinated with the idea of language from the moment that I grasped what it was. By kindergarten I was reading fluently, years past my peers, and seemed to be gaining speed instead of losing it.

By second grade, it was a game to finish a day's worth of schoolwork in fifteen minutes, getting it all right in the process. It never occurred to me that I wasn't "like everyone else," but I look back and I realize that in my mind, something was changing. What I sensed was a detachment between myself and others, as though I was standing on a very small island with a moat around it whose width marched outward daily.

At the end of that year, my parents asked me if I would consider being double-promoted to fourth grade, in the tone of voice that told me that their minds had already been made up, and it was up to me to make it seem like I wanted to, and that I believed it was the best thing for me. I was not sure.

Years later, I learned that had my math skills been a bit higher I would have been triple-promoted.

I continued to excel at everything I could. I went from the addition and subtraction of second graders to the multiplication and division of fourth graders. To this day I still reflexively use my fingers when multiplying using sixes or sevens; a legacy from learning multiplication tables in a few weeks so as to be ready for the next school year.

At the end of the year, when it came time for standardized tests, I brought a book with me to read after finishing each test early. It was "Gone With The Wind." I read it to myself, lips moving silently to sound out Margaret Mitchell's phonetic spelling of words, written out to be pronounced as I would speak them with my Arkansas accent, and I recognized my love of language as going deeper, as the truest thing, that I had ever known.

In seventh grade I took the ACT and scored higher than most of the seniors at my school; high enough that I would have been admitted to just about any university, had I asked.

Socially, I was a child.

I worked my way through high school with spectacular grades while nursing an eating disorder that I hid from everyone I knew. I was a perfectionist college freshman at seventeen, barely able to drive but supposedly capable of handling the workload of an adult. It took me very little time to crack under the pressure; within a few months I was determined to drink my way through the alcohol-soaked party scene at my small college. I did, until a night that I drank too much, thankfully did nothing else that I would have regretted the next morning, and then woke up the next morning with no hangover and those same damned questions floating in my brain:

"What are we going to do with you?"
"What made you what you are?"
"What will you do with your gifts?"

I realized that the answers were:

"Pray you grow up."
"Your own sense of perfectionism, and things you had no control over."
"Nothing until you learn to truthfully and honestly live with them."

It wasn't the moment of clarity that some people speak about, but it was close. Somewhere in that span of time I admitted to myself that I wanted to put my books of literature away. That a combination of my own immaturity and my hatred of deconstructing works of art was bubbling over into my [seeming] lackluster performance at college. (I had a solid B average.)

I then met Jeff. Who, at the time, was just a friend. But he was someone completely different from myself, someone who was somewhat bemused at the world of art and literature and who found solace in the constants and predictability of engineering. We talked. We found similarities—more than we really knew what to deal with. I found what I had been looking for all my life—a connection to another human being, something that not only bridged the gulf I had always felt between myself and others, but made it seem like the gulf had never existed.

I learned something new from Jeff that I had not learned from any book, any collection of words, any repository of wisdom—I learned that there was someone else in this world willing to accept me for myself, not for what I knew sooner than I should have, or my test scores, or my "potential" (what an evil word!). But for who I was, for my admittedly-quirky sense of humor and worldview and quick temper and quietly sentimental heart—for even that lonely little child standing squarely behind her moat, looking out at the world and being too terrified to really jump in the water and swim out to where everyone else was.

I had stopped writing the previous year, and was unable to convince myself to begin again. I changed schools, changed majors. Desperately wanted to believe that I was doing the right thing. After many, many nights of anguished discussion and argument with Jeff I put myself in counseling.

I put myself in counseling to try to deal with years of things that should have been dealt with, many years previous. I spent a lot of time trying to unravel the guilt I had, with having this unwanted "gift" that I didn't know how to use or even to deal with properly. I tried to unravel the knots of parental expectations, to sort out what my parents had aspired for me to be, and what I actually wanted to be. For the first time, I admitted to another human being that I had battled an eating disorder for every day of my life since seventh grade.

I asked Jeff if he would love me if I wasn't perfect after all. I wasn't being facetious; I really wanted to know. I didn't cry when he said yes, although I wanted to. It was the first time I had found someone who had looked inside my carefully-crafted exterior and seen the pain and imperfections on the inside—and not walked away from me afterwards.

I learned what most kids learn when they are very very young—that we all make mistakes, and that when you're around the right people, they will love you for who you are, mistakes and twitchy parts and hangups and all. It is a more important lesson than books; more world-influencing than physics, chemistry, and everything else combined.

It is the first lesson we should teach our children, especially the "gifted" ones, so that they do not perceive their self-worth merely through the expression and utilization of whatever mental "gift" has been given to them. Because, after all, these children did not ask to be gifted; for many of them their precocious knowledge is a bitter and unwanted present. They spend most of their time using their knowledge as a crutch to cope with their differences, not learning how to cope with themselves.

Whatever they teach that child, I hope they start with those lessons first. I shudder to think of another person going through what I did, to learn relatively late in the game the things that I should have learned many years before, or never even learning those lessons at all. While that child's mind hungers for more knowledge, it also hungers for a center, a base, a still and quiet self that they can use as a basis to understand the knowledge they're seeking. Whoever that child is, I hope (s)he finds it. (S)he's going to need it.