A Genius in the House

Schools often lack appropriate programs for them. Teachers sometimes resent them. Parents must scramble to keep up with their intellectual needs--or face the increased risk of childhood frustration and depression. Welcome to the world of the "gifted."

When Charles Wynn was very small, his parents, Pam and Phillip, did not think of him as gifted--despite their friends' many comments about his precocity. He was an only child and they had no one with whom to compare him. As an infant, Charles had been so alert that his doctor had advised Pam to sleep whenever he slept. Says Pam, "He never slept the way most babies do. It wasn't that he cried a lot. It was as if he didn't want to miss anything." As he grew, he was early with nearly every developmental milestone. He walked at nine months and could count to ten just after his first birthday. The only thing Charles didn't do early, with the exception of counting, was talk. In fact, Pam was so concerned about his delayed speech that she consulted her pediatrician, who assured her that she had nothing to worry about. The doctor was right: when Charles finally did start talking, he did so in complete sentences--practically overnight.

By the time Charles entered preschool, his parents had discovered he was different than other children. They just didn't know how different. For two years at the park-based program where he attended preschool, Charles managed to follow along. It wasn't until kindergarten that he began getting into trouble with his teacher, whom he occasionally corrected. By now, Charles was reading the encyclopedia. With his nearly photographic memory, he became incensed when adults gave out incorrect information, as he had discovered teachers sometimes did. The first time Pam was called in to discuss a problem was after Charles had stood up in front of the class and announced, "You're wrong," to his teacher. Being critical, evaluative, and quick to spot inconsistencies is typical of gifted children. Add to that the highly developed moral/ethical sense of the gifted, and Charles's behavior might have been predicted if he'd been identified as gifted and if his teachers had been educated about giftedness. But to his teacher, Charles's behavior seemed like sheer rudeness.

That year, Pam took it upon herself to try to teach Charles to be tactful--even when others (and especially adults who tended to get defensive) were wrong. By now Pam and Phillip understood that Charles was exceptionally bright and they began searching, in earnest, for answers to his learning needs.

From the start, Charles had lived in an environment where his parents valued curiosity. The Wynns' house, in Northeast Minneapolis, is wall-to-wall books. Says Pam, "We're curious people. If we're talking and something comes up that we don't know the answer to, we go and look it up." Pam herself is a frequently published poet who also teaches creative writing. Phillip, in addition to working in administration for Family and Children's Services, is a scholarly writer and a medieval historian. Charles's godparents, too, were a source of inspiration. Terry LePage and Scott Rychnovsky, both gifted chemists, were like family to Charles while they were living in Minneapolis. Most Saturday nights the two families got together, ordered pizza, and played cards. Terry and Scott had been similar to Charles when they were kids, so they identified with him while soothing and reassuring his parents. They are now living in California, but they still advise Pam and Phillip via telephone. Both are on the faculty as chemists at the University of California at Irvine. Circumstances rarely nurture high potential, but in this way, Charles was blessed without being pushed.

In first grade, Charles attended Hall Montessori, a public school in Minneapolis. At the time, Hall had a pull-out program for gifted and talented children. The program served Charles well. Nevertheless, before the year was out, Charles's teacher had advised Pam and Phillip to look into finding a private school for their son. She feared that Charles might not thrive if he continued at Hall, pointing out, "He's way beyond anything we can offer him." In retrospect, Pam believes that " . . . while the teacher was well meaning, and I have a lot of respect for her, this was probably the worst advice we were ever given. I think that she didn't know what else to suggest." Pam and Phillip didn't understand yet that they'd only begun what was to be a long and strenuous journey to help their only son meet his potential and grow up healthy. While many other parents they knew simply put their children on the school bus and left the teaching up to the professionals, Pam and Phillip began evaluating every aspect of Charles's education.

They looked into nearby private schools. Tuition, not counting transportation, was then $9,000 yearly at the school of their choice. Full scholarships, they were told, weren't available. Despite the prohibitive cost weighed against their moderate income, Pam and Phillip went ahead and paid the $60 fee to have Charles tested at the school. When school officials saw his high scores, they came back to the family with an offer of a full scholarship--through high school. Pam and Phillip were pleased, even though they would still have to pay the $1,000 bus fees, the cost of uniforms, and other fees for various supplies. They were not opposed to making sacrifices if it would make things right for their child.

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