“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” ~ TS Eliot
I disagree. I think there is a point where you go from having had incredible possibility…to being a has-been. I know plenty of adults who feel they never had the chance to reach their full potential. While I wouldn’t call them failures, I would say that their life accomplishments do not come close to matching their early potential. Perhaps we should say, “It’s never too early to discover what you might be.” We should be looking for kids with exceptional potential and finding ways to support them early on.
Here is an all too familiar scenario. A profoundly gifted child begins reading at age two and by kindergarten is reading high school level material. They are excited about math, science, and literature. They can’t wait to get to school and learn. Until they actually start school and find that no one is at their level. There is nothing to learn and not much to do. Pretty soon they are mind-numbingly bored. They start to misbehave. They are labeled a behavior problem. Their abilities are overshadowed by their behavior. From the very first year, the system begins to work against their natural genius.
I read a great article the other day, “The Boy Who Played with Fusion” by Tom Clynes for PopSci (http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2012-02/boy-who-played-fusion). Clynes tells the story of Taylor Wilson, a physics prodigy who had exceptional parental support through many phases of experimentation in his garage. Their outreach led to recognition and mentoring for Taylor by University of Nevada’s atomic physicist, Ronald Phaneu, and nuclear technician, Bill Brinsmead. These two professionals have helped Taylor build a fusion reactor in the basement of their labs at the tender age of thirteen. Taylor is now working on a bomb sniffing application for his reactor, which has caught the eye of the Department of Homeland Security.
On the flip side, Clynes also mentions David Hahn, another genius with a plan to build a nuclear reactor in his garage. The full story is told in Ken Silverstein’s Harper’s Magazine article, “Radioactive Boy Scout” (http://harpers.org/archive/1998/11/0059750). David started out much like Taylor, but once he began experimenting with dangerous materials, his parents forbid him to continue. He decided to proceed in secret, moving his operation to a storage shed and creating an alias which allowed him to begin buying radioactive materials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Hahn’s story didn’t end well…he was arrested and all of his materials were confiscated in a radioactive cleanup by a haz mat team.
Clynes’ article states that the difference between Taylor and Hahn is support. “Hahn, determined to achieve something extraordinary but discouraged by the adults in his life, pressed on without guidance or oversight—and with nearly catastrophic results. Taylor, just as determined but socially gifted, managed to gather into his orbit people who could help him achieve his dreams: the physics professor; the older nuclear prodigy; the eccentric technician; the entrepreneur couple who, instead of retiring, founded a school to nurture genius kids. There were several more, but none so significant as Tiffany and Kenneth, the parents who overcame their reflexive—and undeniably sensible—inclinations to keep their Icarus-like son on the ground. Instead they gave him the wings he sought and encouraged him to fly up to the sun and beyond, high enough to capture a star of his own” (Clynes, 2012).
There are extraordinary profoundly gifted children like Taylor and David in our communities and they need support. African American children, Latino children, girls, and twice exceptional children are most likely to be overlooked and underserved. Yet, they all need a team of mentors. I am continually surprised at how few politicians, government entities, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists are lobbying for educational reform; or at least providing funding for appropriate intellectual and creative support. Surely they must see that these kids hold enormous potential for producing the discoveries, inventions, and innovations needed in the world right now and into the future. How much collective brainpower and creativity is wasted every day? What future are we sacrificing with our short-sighted view of education?
Parents, caregivers, friends, teachers, and neighbors, it is up to us. We have to be the force that creates change. Don’t take no for an answer. Refuse to teach the same old way. Offer to mentor a kid who shares your passion. Create a new way of doing things. Support the parents who are struggling to meet their kid’s intense intellectual needs. Start a grass-roots movement. Donate to a fund. Find a need and fill it. We have to start somewhere and our kids can’t wait. We can’t afford to let them become has-beens.