Slang Smarts

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.

Ironically, the college-entrance SAT has helped to clarify this barely teenaged person for us. Though it seems pretentious for ten- to twelve-year-olds to be taking such a test, it is the primary tool of a project called the Midwest Talent Search, headquartered at Northwestern University. Serving several Midwestern states, the MTS is a voluntary research and advocacy program; some Twin Cities schools participate while others don't. Teachers recommend that kids take the test, but there's no real pressure to do so. Once the scores are in, the kids get reams of advice tailored to their skills: summer or after-school programs in their area, correspondence or online learning alternatives, suggested personal learning curricula right up through high school. Kids scoring at the very top--458 this year from a pool of about 25,000--are invited to the Northwestern campus in Evanston, Illinois. The awards ceremony itself is a little comical, in that preadolescents file up on stage to get medals around their necks like they were Olympians or Phi Beta Kappas.

But kids with academic or imaginative gifts do need consistant opportunities to work on talents and passions. A few teachers have taken extra steps to inspire our kid, and they are warmly appreciated--in stark contrast to the ones who dismissed him as both a student and a person. Our school system recently started a more organized accelerated learning program, and it does allow junior-high students to test into higher-grade courses. There's no "tracking" of kids as groups except for math, but the administration seems willing to deal with gifted learners case by case. (My spouse and I lean toward tracking, which we know is controversial and can be unnecessarily exclusive. One of us was tracked and the other wasn't; the one who wasn't regrets it. )

Whatever the schools do for them, these kids need to be responsible on their own terms, too. Gifted kids should honestly recognize their gifts and not be too blasé about using them. Our son took a qualifying exam for a special math class, finished early without checking his answers, and got the only perfect score in several years. He has since gotten a few embarrassing grades in that class, not because he was bored but because he actually needed to make an effort and didn't. By the same token, he will effuse at length about the progress he is making in a computer adventure game. He has his own passions, many of them age-appropriate for a boy who is absolutely "average" when it comes to emotional development. Now, at thirteen, he has friends who both understand and challenge him. They are fun kids to be with.

One of these friends also got a special medal in the MTS competition, because he scored 770 on the SAT math test. This friend's father is more ambitious for his son than we are, but he recently said, "What matters right now for my son is that he just hang out--that he gets to enjoy himself." It was encouraging to hear this, because a high score on anything shouldn't cause anxiety. The psychologist who helped us prove our son did not have ADD explained to him that "sometimes in the years to come you will not want to do some assignments. And you should not worry too much about expecting straight A's. You will be more healthy if you choose to follow your most important interests as deeply as you can."

Since the doctor said this, we have been more tolerant of our son's feelings, deadlines, and interests. He seems to be a pretty happy kid; he can be a very funny person, and we encourage mock sarcasm around the house. Along with other families in this boat, we have been contacted by a research group at Johns Hopkins University. They want our kid to explain "how comfortable you are with your high intellectual ability." They want to know who in the family pushes harder to make him study math, science, languages, etc. But we want them to ask other questions of our son, as well: How many jokes do you hear in a day? When was the last time you were tickled? Is your ideal role model Jim Henson, Beverly Cleary, or Bill Gates? Would you rather go to a museum or design one? From our perspective, intelligence is not something you have, but something you use.  

Peter Simonson is a Minneapolis writer. This is his first contribution to Minnesota Parent.

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