Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Searching For Bobby Fisher

Searching For Bobby Fisher is one of my favorite movies of all time. For those of you unfamiliar, it's the story of a young chess genius and his parents as they discover what it means to be a gifted kid.

It's one of my favorite movies, but I hadn't thought about it for years--until Sunday. Sunday I was in a contemplative mood, and I was thinking about Caleb, and I found myself thinking about the kid in the movie. In one key scene, he loses a competition on purpose and then can't explain to his furious father why. When they explain it later to the mother, she is also irate, but not at the son. She's mad at the father for caring too much. She says, "He's a kid!" and gets the point across that chess is supposed to be for fun, and it's not a big deal, but childhood is a big deal and we shouldn't lose that in pushing our kids to excel at their talents.

Suddenly, I felt like the father in the movie. I know Caleb is capable of finishing third grae this year. He's already finished first and half of second, and we aren't even at Christmas yet. He has this incredible talent for learning, and also for all things language arts related. He is fascinated with science and cultures. He loves math.

But what about childhood?

I realized a better approach for me to take, instead of pushing him academically, would be to say, "Hey, we finished everything that's required. Let's do fun stuff." I am legally obligated to stil do five hours of school per day--but what Caleb does for fun counts as school. He pushes himself academically just fine. Why ruin that? Why not let him have fun and just take notes secretly on the side so I can still report to the teacher? Why not go forward with math, language arts, science, etc, but without the push--just let him pace himself to a great extent? And let him continue with his research (he's read the entire wikia on pikmin, homestarrunner, and is now working on Super Mario Bros., and in the process has learned about--and tried--animation, making computer games, writing scripts, designing, art, editing, illustrating, story structure, character, dialogue, etc.).

What's more important? Jumping through the hoops for the badges, or enjoying the journey? What's the badge good for, anyway, if you didn't like getting it?

Besides, it should be Caleb's badge (and therefore his work), not mine. Unlike some moms, I don't need him to have badges to validate myself. I have my own badges in this very area (I did, after all, skip kindergarten and then leap over 2 other grades, start college on a four year, full tuition scholarship at 16 and graduate summa cum laude in 3.5 years. Without breaking a sweat or ever feeling challenged, and while I was creating a curriculum and teaching in a junior high school, and with all of my professors after me to become their teaching/research assistants. I got the badges myself.)

The other "ah-ha!" moment I had this weekend dealt with the fact that people have been telling me for months now that "there's something wrong with Caleb." They identify right away that he's not your average six year old, so they interpret that as "something wrong." And I believed them.

The "ah-ha!" was that Caleb is profoundly gifted intellectually, but he's an average six year old socially, emotionally, developmentally, in his attention span, etc. It's the thing the kid's mom said: "He's a kid." Caleb talks like a ten year old and is the size of an 8 year old--but he's six. You see how people could come to the conclusion that "there's something wrong"?

Once, when I was a tween, I was given a piece of cake with a red sauce on top. I thought it was strawberry, and I love strawberry. You can imagine my disappointment when I tasted it and it was HORRID. Then my mother, who was with me, tasted her identical cake and said, "That is the most delicious raspberry topping!". It was awful strawberry because it was raspberry.

Caleb is like that. People look at him and expect him to behave like an 8 or 9 year old. So when he acts like a six year old, they're convinced something is wrong. In reality, there may be nothing "wrong" except the expectations.

A concrete example: Caleb can read on at least a third grade level in many ways. But he couldn't stay on task during his reading test. Part of this might be ADD, part fibro, and part most certainly is that average first graders are expected to read books with 5 word sentences, one sentence per page. Caleb can comprehend more than that, easily, but he doesn't necessarily Want to. Nobody would expect an average first grader to want to read a thousand words in one sitting. Just because Caleb can do that intellectually doesn't mean he can emotionally. Emotionally, he's six.

I listened at the door of his classroom at church, and heard kids fidgeting, talking out of turn, making comments that were off topic, etc. Caleb only said, "I'm crashed out of this," which his teacher thought was some kind of emtionally tragic expression of exclusion, but which was, in fact, Caleb's normal way of verbalizing, "I'm bored." He was mildly confused by (but accepting of) his teacher's reassurance that No, he wasn't. Being excluded, she meant. Allowed to not participate because of boredom, he heard. I suspect this is fairly typical of Caleb's interactions with the world. It's like Caleb speaks in literature, but doesn't realize it, and then it never occurs to him that maybe he wasn't understood. So he's puzzled and confused by interactions with people who expecte him to be average, and he responds in ways many six year old boys do.

Ironically, Caleb may never be acknowledged as profoundly gifted because verbal talents are not as highly regarded in our world as artistic, musical, athletic, scientific, and mathematical talents. In fact, many gifted and talented programs really are "advanced math and logic" programs. Most kids with profound verbal gifts just express it by reading a lot, writing (sometimes in the closet, so nobody knows), and talking well. Nobody looks at that and says, "Gifted!" They say, "Now you're required to read a thousand pages a month when everyone else is required to read 200." That's not really satisfying to a gifted kid any more than doing extra math worksheets is. Keeping busy is not the same thing as learning.

Part of the problem, I think, is that your average family can only deal with verbal talents that way. Musical and athletic talents you can take to teachers and coaches. Science and math talents get plopped in gifted and talented programs. But verbally gifted kids are expected to sit still and attend the young writer's conference once every two years. There are few programs in place to handle them. It has to do with that talent dynasty thing I wrote about last year--unless you have a writer in the family, the tools, lifestyle, processes, etc necessary for being a good writer must be learned fresh.

But with me and Tim pursuing creative things all day, Caleb thinks it's normal to spend hours working on a novel. He knows how editing works (he edited a whole chapter of my book for me--so well that I will use most of his changes!). He knows how to get past a writers' block, and how you structure your day around writing, and how reading and writing can interact, and how to use the computer in writing, how to get and develop ideas, etc. etc. etc.

But, in fact, being in a gifted and talented program is as much for a badge as for the learning. Our house is a gifted and talented lifestyle. Home school is perfect for Caleb.

I'm not saying Caleb doesn't have ADD. I'm not saying he doesn't have fibro. I'm just realizing now that those things don't define him. He is a complex interaction of his talents, his normalnesses, and his disabilities, just like the rest of us. Taking him to a psychiatrist who specializes in average ADD kids probably won't serve him as well as taking him to a specialist in gifted children, because I think that some (or many) of his "problems" are actually just things he will grow out of as he grows into his brain and his large stature and doesn't any longer have to deal with the disconnect between his advanced mind/body and his normal interests/ emotions/self-control. I sure would hate to medicate him because he's bored and doesn't know how to handle that feeling.

Intellectually advanced, developmentally normal, ADD, fibro, and all the other labels shouldn't be allowed to overshadow this one thing:

He's a kid.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insight. You just described my oldest child that just graduated from College. My youngest child who is in first grade but reading at a fourth grade level seems almost to be a clone of him. I wish I had understood these things 23 years ago, I probably would have done things differently. Now I have a second chance.