A Genius in the House

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.  

With Charles in private school in second grade, the Wynns sighed with relief. But the private school remedy would not prove palliative. From the start, the dramatic difference in socioeconomic status made the Wynns uncomfortable. Says Pam, "We are not of the same economic class as the other families. We don't have the same values--these families had huge birthday parties where kids brought $100 gifts. Charles came home on spring break that year and the first thing he said when he walked in the door was, 'Mom, where are we going for spring break?' I said, 'What do you mean?' and he said, 'So and so is going to Cancun. So and so is going to China. Where are we going?' I said, 'Well honey, maybe we'll go to the Science Museum, or take day trips,' and he just burst into tears. It was a hard two years. Things got very difficult."

Not only were the Wynn's disturbed by the dearth of socioeconomic and ethnic diversity among the students at the school; they also discovered that the instruction Charles was receiving was in no way superior to the education public school had provided--no change of structure, no truly innovative methods. Charles began to look depressed. When the Wynns questioned Charles's teacher about how he was doing in school, she repeatedly assured them that everything was fine. Pam and Phillip weren't sure what to do to help their son, so they simply held on until the end of the year. Although they were disappointed about Charles's experience at the school, they decided to try, for one more year, to make the private-school environment work. Summer came as a welcome relief for Charles, who began to look like his old happy self soon after school was out.

During Charles's second year of private school, his problems "fitting in" got much worse. His classmates picked up where they'd left off the previous year with a card-carrying hate club against Charles and another new girl. The other kids in the school had been together since preschool, and they considered Charles and the girl "outsiders." In addition to excluding and mocking him, Charles's classmates stole his jacket and backpack more than once. While gifted children often try to conceal their abilities so they don't "stick out," Charles did not. Yet, the taunts of his classmates did gnaw at him. The corker for Charles was the day a girl-- carrying out a club requirement--teased him about his missing winter coat. He lost his temper and struck the girl. School officials were disturbed by Charles's aggression, and they asked Pam and Phillip to take him to a psychologist--which they did. After meeting with Charles, the psychologist soon learned about the ongoing bullying to which he was being subjected, and determined that the school, not Charles, needed help--the psychologist reported this conclusion to everyone involved, including school administrators. Now Pam wondered why she'd ever agreed to send Charles to the private school in the first place, and why she hadn't realized sooner how bad things were for him there. She questioned why she'd believed the teacher's assurances that all was well when her son's unhappiness was unmistakable. She wished she'd relied on her own intuition rather than putting so much trust in the opinions of school staff. "No one knows Charles like we do, except for Charles himself," Pam says.

It is common for gifted children to encounter more hurdles than other children in the area of social development. What is the peer group for a gifted child? Is it the child's age mates? Or kids of similar intellect? Gifted children tend to need several different groups to relate to for different purposes. According to Meghan Bittersweet, an educational consultant, "These kids don't fit no matter what. We need more acceptance that they are different and acknowledgement that it's okay. They are different and that's what you focus on." Says Betty Johnson, treasurer of the Minnesota Council for the Gifted and Talented, and editor of that organization's newsletter, "People seem to want to feel sorry for them. Just like a physically handicapped kid is not his/her wheelchair, a gifted kid is not his/her intelligence, either."

After deciding that Charles would not attend private school in fourth grade, Pam and Phillip found themselves back at square one, searching for answers. They would have to begin evaluating program options all over again. Pam began to wonder if they'd ever find a workable learning environment for Charles--and if she'd ever have a life of her own.  

While Pam and Phillip were making plans for Charles to return to the public schools, Pam ran across an article in the newspaper about Bernadette Green, who'd been awarded "Teacher of the Year" around that time. Pam, who was very impressed with Green, describes how she got her son into Green's class: "I went to the school and literally begged them to put Charles in her class. I was absolutely determined to get Charles in Green's class, and as it turned out, she was the perfect teacher for him. She treated him with respect, and she enjoyed his intellectual prowess. For her, it was fun [to have him in class], rather than threatening. She tried to offer him more challenges as often as she could. She saw his ability as a good thing. She was able to recognize each student for whatever gifts he or she had. She was wonderful--very creative and dynamic. She gave him freedom. She encouraged him to take whatever they were doing a bit farther. She was supportive of his intellect. It was her attitude more than anything else. She genuinely enjoyed Charles. That was so different." While Charles completed the fourth grade, Pam worked in Green's classroom once a week doing whatever tasks she was assigned.

That year, Charles was also in a "pull-out" program for gifted kids that made school more interesting for him. Charles met another special mentor that year--Anne Bartel, a math specialist for the Minneapolis School District who then worked at Willard two days a week. Bartel went out of her way to help Charles by bringing specialists to the school to test him, and by helping to determine what the optimal learning environments were for him. After working with him for a few months, Bartel confessed her concern that Charles would need even more stimulation in the coming years, in order to keep his mind engaged. She had found that Charles could do things in math that he had not yet been taught. He could be given a bit of information and then keep extrapolating just as he'd done when Pam had taught him to play the piano. Bartel recommended that Pam and Phillip talk to the staff at a Minneapolis high school and try Charles half-days in high school and half-days at Willard. He would take his math and science classes at the high school and be with kids his own age part of the day, for lunch, recess, English, and the pull-out gifted program.

"We visited and decided on the Suma Tech Magnet Program at North Community High School," says Pam. "It has been incredible. Mike Minnema [a chemistry teacher from North and also a former Teacher of the Year] came to Willard to interview Charles because we were trying to decide if he should go to middle school, or straight to high school. We decided that because he could do it academically at high school, he should go to North. They felt that junior high would be a nightmare because he'd be so close in age to the kids that he'd just end up getting picked on again." There was concern about how Charles would make the transition in math since he'd received formal math instruction only through the fourth grade level. He would be moving directly from multiplication and division to algebra. Bartel volunteered to tutor Charles in his home once a week throughout the summer which eased the transition for him.

Charles's entrance to North High School was relatively smooth. Pam recalls, "He was a novelty of sorts. At ten years old, he was a threat to no one. The North High students were wonderful. At thirteen, he's now a junior. He could have graduated this year, but we felt he needed a little more time to mature. He didn't agree with this decision. He was dead-set against it. [If he hadn't been accelerated] he would have been in the eighth grade. That hasn't been easy, because developmentally, in some ways, he's just thirteen." While most junior-high-aged kids are just learning to go from class to class, have a locker, and manage in a larger school environment--gradually taking on increased responsibility--Charles went straight from fourth to ninth grade. "He has told us that was the hardest part about going to high school," says Pam. "It wasn't the academics, but rather getting to know all of his teachers and figuring out what they wanted from him." If there was something that didn't work about this arrangement, that was it, although Charles now says he wouldn't have done it any differently. Charles still struggles to turn his papers in on time, and he, like many gifted children, hates paperwork; it bores him. "[Paperwork] can be a nightmare to a child like that," explains Pam. "One day, I picked up a friend to have coffee while Charles was in class at Augsburg. She looked at me as he was getting out of the car to go to his world history class and said, 'What's it like having a kid this age going to college?' As he was running in front of the car, I rolled down the window and yelled, 'Charles, you forgot your books! You forgot your pencils!' I turned to my friend and said, 'That's what it's like. He can do the intellectual work, but he's still the kid who leaves his lunch at home. He's like an adult and a kid at the same time.'"  

At the urging of Paul Mitchell, Charles's high-school counselor, Charles attended Augsburg, through the Post-secondary Education Program last year, in addition to attending North High. Paul has been a cheerleader for Charles all along and provided enormous support for the family.

Minnema, too, was a true advocate for Charles and helped with his parents' various concerns, such as what Charles should do during the lunch period. For two years, Minnema had Charles come to his classroom to eat his lunch and play chess with a friend (he always carries a portable chess set in his backpack). Now, at thirteen, Charles is more confident. He knows the ropes at North and he has lunch in the cafeteria with his friends.

Despite the many difficulties related to accelerating Charles's learning, he has benefited immensely from being clustered with others of like ability. It is estimated that one-fourth to one-half of gifted kids' regular classroom time is spent waiting for others to "catch up." Researchers have also found them to be excruciatingly sensitive, giving them a rich, though turbulent, inner life and a vast emotional range. They experience everything--emotions, sensual pleasures, imagination, movement, and a curious drive to learn--in a heightened way. Their composure and self-assurance may mask deep feelings of insecurity. If their intellect gives them special abilities, it also gives them idealism, self-doubt, perceptiveness, moral imperatives, and the need to be understood, accepted, and loved. Their energy and high activity level is often mistaken for attention deficit disorder (ADD), but there is a significant difference. Gifted children love movement while children with ADD may simply be out of control and not enjoy it at all. Boredom, supersensitivity, and mismatched learning style are daily challenges for these kids, often resulting in behavior problems and/or depression. To make matters worse, our educational system, and the majority of teachers in traditional school settings, tend to function with a concrete sequential bent while gifted children are more likely to be abstract and random.

Obviously, in her quest to help her son overcome these challenges, Pam's own fulfillment has been somewhat compromised. Many days have consisted of driving Charles to his various programs, meeting with teachers and advisors, and planning for his future. In addition, she has volunteered weekly in his schools since he was in kindergarten. Despite Charles's constantly changing schedule, Pam is flexible and tries to keep her own writing work central in her life. "I did a lot of writing in coffee shops at Augsburg last year and I'll do it again next year." Pam and Phillip have found that much of what they've done to help Charles over the years is to find things "that work for a while." Their difficulties, it seems, come in spurts, usually when they're in transition. Now they're anticipating Charles going to college in a year--as a fifteen-year-old. During the 1998-'99 school year he'll attend Augsburg. After that, everything is up in the air. Remarkably, Charles already knows that he wants to go into theoretical physics. Says Pam, "He's heard from Brown, Tufts, Georgetown, Duke, Harvard, and others. We're getting lots of letters saying, 'We received your PSAT scores and we're interested in you. Come and visit.' This is another transition time for us--more upheaval."

And once again, the perceptions--and misperceptions--of others can take a toll. "One problem is that people don't see this as being hard," Pam explains. "They think, 'How can having a brilliant child be hard? So I don't talk about this to most people. There's that sort of isolation. . . . There are places I could go for more support but I feel like I already give so much of myself in raising Charles. I'm not willing to use more of my time to go to a support group. I occasionally find a friend to talk to about it." Pam and Phillip have found that most of their support comes from each other.  

As the 1997-'98 school year closed, Charles was living out his bliss as a normal, though gifted, teen. Even in the midst of evaluating colleges and entertaining thoughts of moving in a year, Charles was very happy and showed a great sense of humor. His mother wryly reports that Charles "recently learned that Phillip and I aren't perfect." This summer he volunteered at the Science Museum of Minnesota as a mentor at a robotics exhibit. It meant, of course, more driving for Pam, but it was also another important learning experience for Charles who is already quite good at teaching other kids. Pam and Phillip have always tried to keep him challenged while trying to keep his life "normal." They know that eventually he'll have to go out into the real world where he won't be a prodigy. They want him to be prepared.

While most gifted and talented children do not fall into the highest intelligence range as Charles does, they share similar struggles. Problems among even the more typical gifted and talented students can be significant and troubling. If not addressed, gifted students may experience underachievement, emotional and psychological problems, and rarely, suicide. Some of the typical learning methods for the gifted can be transferred to students at all performance levels, to increase their motivation. Bittersweet believes that we ought to be investigating what our system does to shut down natural incentives to learn and figure out how to make learning inviting for all kids. Says Bittersweet, "Our culture puts people in boxes. This is not helpful for anybody. More than anything, we need more flexibility in our system." We could do more, for instance, to nurture creativity in all children. Instead, many districts have cut back art, music, and theater programs due to budget constraints and public pressure to teach the basics. And, most children are overprogrammed while creativity requires solitude; thus, we aren't nurturing the development of creativity in many children.

Pam and Phillip have always worked to protect Charles's rich interior life and his intrinsic motivation. According to Pam, it's not uncommon to find her son lying on his bunk bed, his head hanging upside down, while he "just thinks." When Pam asks him if he's bored, he answers, "No, I'm only bored when someone forces me to do something I don't want to do." Typical of children who are gifted or talented, Charles spends a good deal of time alone. While solitude may not seem so appealing or come so naturally for "average" kids, enjoyment of time alone can be developed by all people. Experts on creativity insist that it's essential.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, creativity expert and professor at the University of Chicago, has written several important books about his discoveries. In his work, he shows the importance of people experiencing deep enjoyment of concentration, or "flow," which leads to the development of persistence, and in turn, brings about the development of higher-level skills. When Csikszentmihalyi was a student at the University of Chicago, his advisor, Jacob Getzels, advised him that creativity is not problem solving at all. Rather, it is problem finding. Flow, crucial for creativity, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is becoming so involved in your work that you literally lose track of time and the work ceases to be work. It is taking on learning challenges because you have learned to enjoy the process instead of just working for an end goal.

Lose track of time Charles does. When he's immersed in a project, he hates to take breaks and often forgets about food until his mother, who likes to prevent him from getting headaches, reminds him to eat. But, how many children in our educational system are given enough freedom--and large blocks of time--to explore their idiosyncratic interests? All children--adults too--need such freedom in order to use an inquiry approach and discover their most deeply rooted interests and then get lost in their work. There are an infinite number of ways that our educational system could be changed in pursuit of this goal, but first, it must become a priority. Says Johnson, "We must make a long-standing commitment to change the system. Everybody has to move together. It's a bit like trying to turn the Titanic." While many of the learning methods for the gifted, such as smaller class sizes, can be generalized to changes for all kids, there are distinct differences. Acceleration of any kind, for instance, would be damaging to kids who aren't highly capable. And while mainstreaming is beneficial to many children with special needs, being clustered with other children of similar ability is crucial for the gifted.

Charles's curiosity is still alive, that's certain. Several times each week, Pam or Phillip take him to the Barnes and Noble Bookstore near them. Charles sits on the floor and reads science fiction for two or three hours while Phillip reads, or Pam sits in the coffee shop. He rarely asks to buy a book. He is happy so long as his mother and father agree to keep bringing him back.  

Mary Junge, M.A., is a writer from Eden Prairie, a frequent contributor to Minnesota Parent, and the mother of three sons. This article is an outgrowth of research sparked by her gifted son's difficulties in school.

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