Wednesday, August 22, 2007

I Know and You're Stupid

Ass Kicking 101: Age Nine

This is a conversation about mixed up kids and how not enough is done to help them. I know. I was a truly mixed up kid.

I got my first serious beating at age nine (not counting Dad and any of the times he beat the shit out of me.) It was downtown at the Temple of Music and Art after choir practice. At nine I was in the Tucson Boys Chorus, working my way up towards the Touring group which I wouldn't make till I turned thirteen after a year spent living in Europe. I attended church regularly and was to all outward appearances a good boy. Boy were appearances wrong.

The problem with genius is simple. Genius plays by its own rules. Yet lives in the world with others. I tested out in the 160's both as a kid and then in my late teens on the adult tests. Certainly there are many people more adapt at solving intelligence tests than I am, but so far as relating to people who are "average", I didn't have a clue for a long, long time. Till I figured out how to put a stop to the bullying, people tended to beat the shit out of me because I was socially clumsy and freely volunteered my opinion that not only was I right, but everyone else was stupid for not seeing life my way. *laughs*

Time Magazine says:

Are We Failing Our Geniuses?

Any sensible culture would know what to do with Annalisee Brasil. The 14-year-old not only has the looks of a South American model but is also one of the brightest kids of her generation. When Annalisee was 3, her mother Angi Brasil noticed that she was stringing together word cards composed not simply into short phrases but into complete, grammatically correct sentences. After the girl turned 6, her mother took her for an IQ test. Annalisee found the exercises so easy that she played jokes on the testers--in one case she not only put blocks in the correct order but did it backward too. Angi doesn't want her daughter's IQ published, but it is comfortably above 145, placing the girl in the top 0.1% of the population.

The system failed Annalisee, but could any system be designed to accommodate her rare gifts? Actually, it would have been fairly simple (and virtually cost-free) to let her skip grades, but the lack of awareness about the benefits of grade skipping is emblematic of a larger problem: our education system has little idea how to cultivate its most promising students. Since well before the Bush Administration began using the impossibly sunny term "no child left behind," those who write education policy in the U.S. have worried most about kids at the bottom, stragglers of impoverished means or IQs. But surprisingly, gifted students drop out at the same rates as nongifted kids--about 5% of both populations leave school early. Later in life, according to the scholarly Handbook of Gifted Education, up to one-fifth of dropouts test in the gifted range. Earlier this year, Patrick Gonzales of the U.S. Department of Education presented a paper showing that the highest-achieving students in six other countries, including Japan, Hungary and Singapore, scored significantly higher in math than their bright U.S. counterparts, who scored about the same as the Estonians. Which all suggests we may be squandering a national resource: our best young minds.

To some extent, complacency is built into the system. American schools spend more than $8 billion a year educating the mentally retarded. Spending on the gifted isn't even tabulated in some states, but by the most generous calculation, we spend no more than $800 million on gifted programs. But it can't make sense to spend 10 times as much to try to bring low-achieving students to mere proficiency as we do to nurture those with the greatest potential.

We take for granted that those with IQs at least three standard deviations below the mean (those who score 55 or lower on IQ tests) require "special" education. But students with IQs that are at least three standard deviations above the mean (145 or higher) often have just as much trouble interacting with average kids and learning at an average pace. Shouldn't we do something special for them as well? True, these are IQs at the extremes. Of the 62 million school-age kids in the U.S., only about 62,000 have IQs above 145. (A similar number have IQs below 55.) That's a small number, but they appear in every demographic, in every community. What to do with them? Squandered potential is always unfortunate, but presumably it is these powerful young minds that, if nourished, could one day cure leukemia or stop global warming or become the next James Joyce--or at least J.K. Rowling.

What's needed is a new model for gifted education, an urgent sense that prodigious intellectual talents are a threatened resource. That's the idea behind the Davidson Academy of Nevada, in Reno, which was founded by a wealthy couple, Janice and Robert Davidson, but chartered by the state legislature as a public, tuition-free school. The academy will begin its second year Aug. 27, and while it will have just 45 students, they are 45 of the nation's smartest children. They are kids from age 11 to 16 who are taking classes at least three years beyond their grade level (and in some cases much more.

[In the past] when we were a little less sensitive to snobbery, it wasn't as difficult for high-ability kids to skip grades. But since at least the mid-1980s, schools have often forced gifted students to stay in age-assigned grades--even though a 160-IQ kid trying to learn at the pace of average, 100-IQ kids is akin to an average girl trying to learn at the pace of a retarded girl with an IQ of 40. [jwe: Emphasis added.]

We tend to assume that the highly gifted will eventually find their way--they're smart, right? The misapprehension that genius simply emerges unbidden is related to our mixed feelings about intelligence: we know Alex Rodriguez had to practice to become a great baseball player, and we don't think of special schools for gymnasts or tennis prodigies as élitist--a charge already leveled against the Davidson Academy. But giftedness on the playing field and giftedness in, say, a lab aren't so different. As Columbia education professor Abraham Tannenbaum has written, "Giftedness requires social context that enables it." Like a muscle, raw intelligence can't build if it's not exercised.

ULTIMATELY THE ACADEMY'S MOST important gift to its students is social, not academic. One of the main reasons Jan and Bob Davidson founded the school was to provide a nurturing social setting for the highly gifted. Through another project of theirs, the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, each year the Davidsons assist 1,200 highly gifted students around the U.S. who need help persuading their schools to let them skip a grade or who want to meet other kids like them. Often the kids are wasting away in average classes, something that drives Bob Davidson crazy: "I mean, that's criminal to send a kid [who already reads well] to kindergarten ... Somebody should go to jail for that! That is emotional torture!"

In seventh grade I was reading at post-graduate level; spelling at second grade level. They told me I HAD to learn to spell. I told them, "No, I don't. There's going to be a machine that will spell for me." They told me I was a dreamer and a fool. *waves to Google* And before Google, generations of spell-checkers going back fifteen years. *smiles sweetly*

Dad forgot to pick me up on time so I waited. And waited. And waited. Eventually two older kids, teenagers, showed up down in South Tucson where we rehearsed. After questioning me for a bit, they started to hit me. I was different, that's what mattered. My answers were off; I knew too damn much for a freaking nine-year-old and didn't yet know how to hide it. (Sometimes I still don't.) So they hit me. First a little, then a lot. Didn't matter what I said. Didn't matter what I knew. Only mattered that they were bigger and stronger. They beat on me with fists, boots, belt buckles, rocks, whatever was handy, for close to forever. Had me cornered all the way upstairs back where no one could hear me scream. It got dark as they kept it up. Eventually I wore out their fists on my head and they left.

Dad got there several hours later. I was huddled under a lamp post, waiting. Bloody. Not crying.

Lots of super smart kids made it through childhood without major trauma. I didn't. Hell, in my personal top ten incidents, this doesn't even make the cut so please, no "I'm so sorry you went through this." Shit happens and this is what happened to me long long time ago and I'm only telling you to make vivid a point. Other people have had much worse shit happen recently. I haven't talked at all about being sexualized at age seven several weeks apart by two different people, losing my virginity at twelve in Europe, or learning close and personal about real violence at thirteen and fourteen. All the while pretending to the world to be a "good boy" going to church, and making it into the Touring Group of the Boys Choir. Not to mention having Dad beat me up now and then.

My point is simple. Smart kids are going to act. They don't give a flip for the rules. Rules are for the Stupid people, simply more bullshit for the Smart people to work around with no true meaning other than "Don't Get Caught."

The more one tells a smart kid "don't do this" or "you shouldn't", the more likely you are to get a rebel simply because you're dealing with a teenager who isn't going to put up with being told what not to do. On the other hand if you can identify and engage the smart kid EARLY, then you have a very good chance of avoiding much, even most of the anti-social behavior. Smart people want to be around other smart people. Eventually, as Time suggests, the truly smart ones may indeed figure it out on their own. Maybe. Perhaps. Or they might end up fucking their life up beyond repair, witness my attempted suicide four years ago this past spring.

I'm 48 years old and only now am finally coming into my own. Seems there are two kinds of genius, thank the Gods and fuck everyone (Mr. Earl, I'm talking to you, you FUCK!) who said I was unrealized potential. It isn't that I haven't made contributions to society along the way; I have. But I've also left a trail of real damage behind me. We know how to grow a super-athlete. What kind of return on investment could we get if we'd stop leaving our smartest kids to suffer their way through their adolescence and instead give them some guidance and the opportunity to learn with other smart kids and smart adults -- not to mention not having the shit kicked out of them?