Slang Smarts

How standard words and ideas attached to "giftedness" fall short

Genius, egghead, Poindexter. Precocious, prodigy, off the charts--the slang for intelligence is dismissive. We think these words mean the same thing to everyone. But there actually is a genius at our house, and terminology is meaningless in the face of his reality.

This genius is our son, second of two kids. By standard measurements, he is off the charts, having taken the SAT at age twelve, scoring higher than both my spouse and me--both honors graduates with two degrees each. In fact, on one test this boy scored in the top .3 percentile of high-achieving kids his age. He also taught himself to read at age four, and he figured out how to draw depth on his own. Recently, he used "eschewed" in a sentence, correctly. However, the sentence was about cartoons, and I kind of think he learned "eschewed" from a paperback science fiction novel.

We're not bragging and we're not asking for sympathy. But we feel the story of a "genius" kid's life is not fully understood, that the "egghead" connotations are just as limiting as any other stereotype. In fact, we don't use the word "genius" in our house, and we don't say "gifted." This is in part because our school district doesn't use "gifted" for its advanced or accelerated programs, and also because this kid of ours has a sister who is a perfectly wonderful person and a great student, with strong gifts (social, communicative, athletic) that our son will have to struggle for. As educational researcher and reformer Howard Gardner has pointed out, these two kids demonstrate the many definitions of "intelligence."

The four-year-old who could read--anything, not just Little Golden Books--was a cute parlor trick for a while, but then we were warned that self-taught readers will go through life thinking everything should come so easily. As a grade-schooler, he would watch Olympics or Oscar award shows on TV with us, and whimper that he would never qualify for such a thing. This expectation of instant perfection may be why bike-riding was such a painful (and unnecessary) emotional hurdle; well beyond age nine, he couldn't get the balance right. While we feared for his socializing because he couldn't ride, he was more interested in making up stories while he rode (instead of watching for traffic).

He was highly sensitive to touch, sounds, and color, and as an infant was too easily stimulated. (He rarely slept longer than a half-hour.) Back when he was learning to say his words right, he talked about "patterens." He saw and drew contours and 3-D depth with precision. He got much better at spelling than his sister, three years older. He noticed musical sequences repeating themselves. He proved to have a near-photographic memory, happily memorizing everything from Garfield jokes to Shel Silverstein poems.

These are credits to his gifts, but back on the debit side he wasn't interested in chess, couldn't be drawn to a piano, and was deathly afraid of dogs. Sports were drudgery--but we're not a very athletic family. New interests became obsessions, and he couldn't let them go. One abiding interest was video games, but he didn't dare play them. He would avidly study "tips" magazines, then counsel his friends while they played the games. He could be so persistent that a bedtime chat would be continued, early the next morning, as his first waking thoughts.

He proved to have a powerful imagination, almost frightening in its range and depth. It can pay off wonderfully in a love of word play--currently he's into Lewis Carroll, Ira Gershwin lyrics, Shakespearean insults and Walt Kelly's famous Pogo cartoons. He is also thirty-six single-spaced pages into a novel that he plans to be one of a seven-book series. But the imagination can also be a barrier to growth. When he started school, he couldn't get responses from other kids with his imaginative flights, and he was absolutely clueless about how to make friends, or why they were necessary. We finally realized that the dog issue came from his imagining that they could understand his words. He has always escaped through books, which many kids do, of course. But even in third grade, he would brazenly whip out a long "chapter book" to occupy himself while his teacher urged the class to understand "6 X 7," or to form a nice cursive "G." To this day, his handwriting and printing are atrocious, nearly illegible.

As he grew, we began to suspect some measurable truth had to emerge about these quirks. In fourth grade, his teacher was sure he had attention deficit disorder. She was firm enough in her convictions that we got the school to formally request a battery of tests, which meant that our insurance coverage would pay for it. And those tests showed a high estimated IQ (to be honest, we forget the number), some mild anxiety, no ADD, and a basic diagnosis of boredom.

His boredom, without a visible antidote, was for many years a puzzle. What would occupy him? Whom would he play with, and what would they play? Why is that stack of library books unread? Why won't he try out that microscope? Now, as a junior-high student, boredom is more often a benefit at home and an obstacle at school. He has more assignments due more often, and when he does do them on time (we're working on this) or to a teacher's specifications, they are fine. He will admit he talks too much in just about every class, and he has started to realize he needs to study once in a while.

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