Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Prodigy

Catana at Gifted and Grown has an interesting post on the new wunderkind Ainan Cawley.

I must admit the topic of giftedness and the treatment of those who fit the term always elicits both empathy and dread on my part. Empathy because I was one of those kids so labeled. Dread because acknowledging that always comes with the risk of sounding egotistical. That dread is, in and of itself, an interesting phenomenon, for it is not an irrational fear but a sort of post-prodigy stress disorder.

I was once the wunderkind, remarkable but unremarked. I was unfortunate enough to be born into a working class family that couldn't martial the resources necessary to give me a top-notch education. I had to rely instead on thrift store copies of Plato and college textbooks picked up at the latest garage sale in some neighborhood I could only dream of living in. Due in part to the semi-anonymity afforded me by my class, I was also fortunate enough not to end up in the media spotlight like Ainan. The attention I did receive, in the end, left me feeling like a freakish hybrid, part trained seal, part carnival sideshow exhibit.

That feeling hasn't quite left me even now. A friend once asked if it was weird for me to be an adult now and therefore no longer a prodigy. I didn't know what to say. Relieved is hardly an answer anyone would understand and not quite accurate at that. But how do I explain a childhood filled with nights when I fell to my knees, sobbing, begging what I hoped was a just and merciful G-d to make me normal? How do I manage a socially acceptable level of humility while explaining that the word that applies to adults like me is the dreaded "g" word? How can I even say the "g" word without cringing, waiting for the look that accuses me so eloquently of self-obsession?

Ironically, in a society consumed with self-marketing, selling a high IQ ranks alongside prostitution and dealing in illicit drugs in the respectability category. Maybe I should drag some potential "genius junkie" into a dark alley for a free peek at my WEIS III results (with promises of a future look at my Mensa invitation naturally). It sounds a bit bitter, I'm sure, but I've been pimped and there's no going back. So, I'll explain quantum physics or foreign policy for you if you'll give me a little to support my information habit.

Anyway, still trying to negotiate my own post-prodigy anxieties, I read stories like Ainan's and I want to cry. His parents obviously want to look out for his best interests, to ensure him the opportunity to fulfill his potential, but walking the streets of the prodigy district is no easy task. I wish him the best. As for this old "data whore," I'm going to bed.


Blogger Catana said...

Lost track of you for a while when you were so sick. Noticed all the referrals from your blog today, and had to come see. I'll probably link back to your post, but not today--too damned tired and distracted.

I feel that Ainan's father is walking a very thin line on exposing his child to the public. Luckily, he doesn't trot him out for the media--at least not that I'm aware of. But how is all the publicity and the blow-by-blow blogging about his development going to impact on him further down the line?

12:30 PM  
Anonymous ross k. said...

What old people all do is hang their hopes and failures on talented young people. Since high school, I've had annoying relatives continually bothering me with "Have you thought about..." and then a suggestion to do whatever they didn't do and should have. When they do this, they're really talking about themselves, but I'm supposed to shoulder it as if I'm the only one who can do anything about it. Other people can't change their lives, only I can, or something. I think, well Aunt Pat, if YOU want to go to law school, you go to law school. Be my guest. I don't want to go; that's why I haven't gone. If that's something you wanted to do, then become who you want to be and go.

They are going to make it nearly impossible for this child to function. The more exposure he gets now, the more he'll feel blocked from developing naturally by pressure and stress. Nothing will feel good enough to him. He might try himself into a nervous breakdown, or he might just quit trying. Either way, they're handing him responsibilities of leadership that he's not ready for. We hand power over to leaders willingly so that we don't have to choose, and then we can punish them with anger when they betray us. But leaders all fail us eventually. It's smarter to try and control the moment of failure at a time that isn't crucial. This kid might just end up acting out failure by self-destructing.

I was the victim of ambitious college-prep, and it crippled me for a while. Already I get to be the victim in this story...I have benefited from college-prep and college too, but understand that it was all sold to my parents, that they were exploited, and then I had to deal with it. It's very easy to get parents where they live; you go after their kids. So in high school they start selling all the parents college. It's easy, because it appeals to their vanity and pride and guilt. There's way more money in this racket than there is in vocational training, so they start stuffing it down everybody's throat. I was forced to go; there was no other option. So my junior and senior years of high school, I took all the AP classes and did everything right for those two years...and once I hit the tape, I never fully functioned in school again.

I thought, OK, I hit the tape, I'm done, I don't have to do this anymore for a while. I wanted a break, but I was forced to go straight on and finish college with no break. I never did as well again as I did those last two years of high school, because I didn't want to be there. I wanted to live normally in the world and work for a while and not have all this pressure on me. I wanted to see how other people lived, and that's what I didn't get to do. I didn't get to see WHY it was a good idea to go to school--that other people were working dead-end jobs and getting drunk on weekends and going absolutely nowhere with their lives. I was being protected from seeing all that and coming to the conclusion on my own. And more than that, my parents didn't WANT me to get a job while I was in school because they wanted to feel like super providers. The result is that I learned no self-reliance or responsibility for money or jobs, and my life was never balanced by something outside of school. This became self-defeating.

I know somebody who's still in that same spot, except she went on to grad school and got a PhD and is teaching now, and she doesn't want to be. She doesn't want any of it. But she didn't stop the train when she had the chance. And she's a time bomb. She has worse insomnia than I do, Meniere's syndrome, all kinds of health problems. Her whole life is nothing but stress because she's never lived without deadlines. She runs to drink and sex and comfort food for quick fixes, but they don't work, because she isn't facing the problems.

I got off the train. Once I got my degree, I decided no more school. And for some reason everybody HAS quit bugging me. I started living slower, getting off the clock and relaxing. I've just been playing in bands and working in warehouses, which I like. I don't have to compete with the people at these jobs and they're low-stress. You don't take them home; once you clock out, work is over for a day. I realize how seductive it is to have an easy out like that, not having to contend with my talent and education and what am I going to do with it, and not pushing myself. I think about that a lot. But it's another side of life that balances my perspective, and I should have gotten to see it at a much earlier age and didn't. I feel much more at ease socially, dealing with a lot of different people, than I ever did in school. And hey, the student loan payments have to come from somewhere, now that I've been saddled with all this fucking debt. This way I also get to shatter everybody else's expectations and establish some kind of relationship more on my terms, where it at least feels like I'm controlling the moment of failure. Now they are starting to figure out that I never wanted the star treatment I got all along. I want them to figure that out.

So being the good kid, the smart one who goes to a good school, etc., isn't always everything it's cracked up to be. Those kids usually don't want it, they're going through the motions because they don't feel like they have a choice, and it burns them out with stress and worry. The more parents hype kids, the more stressed they become from the pressure, and the more likely that they'll find some way to fail just so it will all stop. The institutionalizing of this process in high schools is churning out kids who are burned out and depleted before they ever get to college, because there are more expectations on them than they can possibly fulfill, and they're looking for a way out of it. Parents are giving kids stressors that aren't about the kids, they're about them, but they make the kids deal with it. The kids who bite down and say yes end up having more kids and doing the same to them, repeating their parents' lives. The kids who say no...

2:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Came across your post and comment and it was interesting food for thought for me at this particular juncture as I contemplate homeschooling for my child who has issues typical of gifted children. He's no prodigy, but a sensitive curious nature that I feel should be left to unfold at its own speed and without societal pressure.

As for Ainan, I don't know him/his family personally though he lives in my neighbourhood. But I feel sorry for him. Saw his father making him hold a rubrik cube and posing for a photo earlier today and Ainan had an do-I-have-to-do-this look on his face. I think his father, instead of spending all this energy churning out press release about his wunderkinder, should just pay more attention to the two younger children instead of leaving them to a maid who slaps them about and let them run bare-footed in the carpark. And you know, we've been in the same neighbourhood for the past four years, and the only time I've seen him smile was before all this publicity when he was a five-year-old.

To you, best wishes.

11:19 AM  

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