I Was Raised by a Gifted Child
The father of a gifted child explains the vital importance of gifted programs in our public schools. Losing then, he says, would be tragic for not only for the children, but for the nation. Tweet
Ending gifted programs would be a national tragedy, and calamity for innumerable children and their families.
One morning when my daughter was three-and-a-half, she took a book from her mother's hands and began reading aloud.
And by third grade, she was reading Stephen Hawking on black holes and time warps, and trying to explain it to her friends.
Jessie’s curiosity — like that of most gifted children — was an unpredictable force that did not develop evenly.
Special programs for gifted students have long been under attack as elitist, but never with more vehemence than since the rise of the woke progressives. Indeed, because blacks and Hispanics tend to be underrepresented in such programs, the very idea of “gifted” is now widely denounced as the embodiment of white supremacy (an especially odd charge, since whites are also usually underrepresented compared to heavily overrepresented Asians).
The elimination or weakening of gifted programs would be a national tragedy, and a calamity for innumerable children and their families.
The elimination or weakening of gifted programs would be a national tragedy
My strong defense of such programs, however, is not just a policy preference. It is based on personal experience.
One morning, when my daughter Jessie was three and a half, it became crystal clear that my wife and I had an unusually smart kid on our hands. We were on a plane returning from a visit to grandparents in Florida, when Jessie took a book out of her mother’s hands — All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten— and began reading it out loud.
Now 35, Jessie has been a research physicist at IBM since completing her PhD at Caltech at 23.
The journey from that plane ride to IBM was short and swift but not always smooth. It would probably have been impossible without the benefits she received from participating in school-based and after-school gifted programs.
By the third grade, in the Fairfax County, Virginia, gifted program, Jessie was reading Stephen Hawking on black holes and time warps, and trying to explain the Pythagorean Theorem to her friends. At twelve, she took a physics course at the University of Virginia in lieu of eighth-grade science, skipped high school, and after a freshman year in a program for gifted girls at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, she entered Bryn Mawr College as a fourteen-year-old sophomore, graduating at 17. A few months after enrolling at Bryn Mawr, Jessie was featured in a special edition of Philadelphia Magazine devoted to “The 76 Smartest Philadelphians,” and the year after she arrived at IBM she was named to Forbes Magazine’s “30 Under 30 Innovators in Science & Innovation.”
By now, you are probably asking the question my wife and I have heard over and over: “So, where did she come from?”
Our short answer is that intelligence often skips generations; our long answer … doesn’t exist.
This is not the place (and I am not the person) to explore nature v. nurture — a controversy often referred to in the literature on giftedness as aptitude v. attitude. Extensive as this literature is, it is generally useless to a parent trying to teach chess to a third grader who has to stay up late reading chess books in order to stay a step or two ahead his pupil. (A Russian master from whom she took a few lessons condescendingly allowed, “she’s pretty good for a girl.”)
And who could have ever figured out how a toddler had one day just suddenly started reading adult books? Guessing she may have been keeping this ability secret for a while so we would keep reading to her, after the Florida trip I proposed a bargain: I’d sit with her while she read out loud if she’d stop and ask about any word she couldn’t pronounce or didn’t understand.
One night she was reading about the black plague in the Middle Ages (!), and I could see she was approaching a word she wouldn’t know, contagious. But she pronounced it correctly and kept going. “Jessie,” I interrupted, “you agreed to stop and ask about a word you didn’t understand.” Pointing to contagious, I asked what it meant. With no hesitation she replied, “spreadful.” I kept quiet after that, a useful lesson I should have learned better.
For example, by the fourth grade, Jessie had become a voracious reader of adult fantasy books, especially Robert Jordan’s monumental multi-volume series, The Wheel of Time, which she read and re-read … and re-read. I didn’t mind her reading fantasy, but I did mind the continuous re-reading instead of moving on, and I let her know — to absolutely no effect.
Fast-forward to her first day in Prof. Julian Noble’s introductory physics class at the University of Virginia. When Prof. Noble asked if anyone could define parsec, Jessie’s hand shot up — the only one among the 150 or so students. “A very, very large measure of distance in space,” she said, correctly.
Dumbfounded, her mother and I asked after class, “Jessie, how did you know that?”
“From Robert Jordan,” she said with a twinkle.
As usual, she knew her own mind and what to do with it better than we did.
However, Jessie’s curiosity — like that of most gifted children — was an unpredictable force that did not develop evenly. For all her reading skill, we worried that she did not learn the multiplication tables any faster than her peers.
In fact, we learned of her mathematical precociousness almost by accident. The summer after the fourth grade she asked to enroll in a local summer camp with quasi-academic activities. Soon one of the counselors called and explained excitedly that he had given the kids gradually harder exercises in order to evaluate their level, and Jessie had placed halfway through Algebra 1.
There is no adequate training manual for parents on how to deal with a gifted child. Jessie benefitted from going to college early; others equally talented might not. But there is one thing I always enthusiastically emphasize: giftedness must be given the opportunity to flourish –which, as she was growing up, can require switching classes, teachers, and even schools. Gifted programs — of the sort progressives are now trying to destroy with clamors for “equity” — should not only be defended; they should be demanded.
Jessie spent two summers at the exemplary summer programs offered around the country by the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins. (See the superb New Yorker article, “Nerd Camp.”) Her CTY summers as well as attendance at similar programs had a profound and long-lasting effect that had nothing to do with academics. Because of her attendance in gifted programs, she learned early and often that she was not always the brightest person in the room — a welcome bit of humility often lacking among the gifted. It allowed her to avoid the shock smart students often experience when this knowledge eventually hits them.
Her experience in gifted programs also confirmed for her the one lesson that I, her decidedly non-gifted father, consistently tried to drum into her over the years: smart is good, but it’s not the most important quality to develop. Character is.
“Character,” I remember preaching one day when she was about 8 or 9, “is like money in the bank. You can draw on it when times are tough.”
“But why,” she replied, “do I always have to make deposits. Why can I never make withdrawals?”
Trust me, as Science Program Manager at the joint MIT-IBM Watson Artificial Intelligence Lab in Cambridge, Jessie is still making regular deposits.