At 5, Jack is already smarter than I am. How do you give a kid a normal childhood, when his brain is so advanced?
One sunny afternoon this past February, I found myself waiting with my 5-year-old son, Jack, and his friend Oliver outside a lecture hall at Stanford University. We were there to hear about the structure of viruses from one Stephen Harrison, Ph.D. Over the many years my husband and I struggled to conceive a child, I allowed myself plenty of parenting fantasies, but taking a 5-year-old to the 41st Annual Linus Pauling Lecture was not one of them.
Graduate students streamed by us clutching coffee cups. “Finish up,” I chirped to the boys, who were stuffing their mouths with oatmeal cookie. The absurdity of the situation kicked my voice up an octave. “Now, who has to go potty?”
Like a lot of first-timers, my husband, Brian, and I went into parenthood with a plan. Ours was to give Jack an unhurried childhood (though Jack is not his real name). Both teachers, we distrusted the amped-up achievement culture in affluent communities like ours, with its tendency toward high-pressure schools, anxious parents and stressed-out kids. Yes to mud pies and bubbles, we vowed; no to flashcards and Brainy Baby preschools. What mattered was letting Jack figure out what he liked and helping him do that. “I don’t care if he ends up a surfer living out of the back of his van,” Brian said.
It quickly became clear that what Jack liked — no, loved — was academics.
At 2 he refused to leave the library until he had arranged all the giant magnetic letters, upper- and lowercase, in alphabetical order. I practically had to drag him to the playground. At 3 he became obsessed with an educational website called Starfall.com. I doled out computer time sparingly, ambivalent about this new development, until I realized he was teaching himself to read. The year he was 4 we watched him devour every book he could find about U.S. and world geography and after that, astronomy. He still slept in Pull-Ups but could tell you all about black holes, spiral galaxies, red hypergiants and brown dwarves.
People often asked how we “got” him to do these things. I’d smile and shrug, but the question made me uncomfortable. We weren’t pushing him. He was pushing us. Daily, Brian and I exchanged incredulous looks over Jack’s head: Did you hear what he just said? Where did he learn that? A family member put it succinctly. “You know he’s the kind of kid who’s going to go to college at 13, don’t you?” We didn’t know. Or else we kind of did, but to admit that went against every egalitarian bone in our bodies. Jack was smart, we told ourselves, but so were a lot of people. He was also just a kid, and what kids needed was time and space to play.
Play-based preschool was a no-brainer, and the one we found felt like Shangri-La to us, with its wooden toys, huge sand pit, and vast green yard to explore. It was perfect, except that Jack hated it. At pickup, I’d find him pacing alone under the trees, talking to himself, dark circles under his eyes. The hippie kindergarten, with its emphasis on yoga and meditation, was no better. After a few months, Jack curled himself into a naked ball, wouldn’t get dressed for school. He developed insomnia and an array of nervous tics. Our funny, upbeat boy was fading before our eyes. “When are they going to teach me something I don’t already know?” he pleaded.
Finally we hired a silver-haired woman to assess Jack. She confirmed what we had begun to suspect: Jack was more than just smart. The term of art is “profoundly gifted.” The last thing you want to do with kids like these, she said, is to try and hold them back. Mental challenge is their oxygen. Confirming the true extent of Jack’s intellectual potential was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying, validating both our secret pride and a long list of worries: his anxiety, his difficulty making friends, his out-and-out difference from other kids. The news sent my parental compass spinning. Slower-is-better had been our true north. Now I didn’t know which way to go.
The silver-haired woman connected us with Oliver, another little boy in the neighborhood fluent in supernovas and subatomic particles. His mom, Kristen, and I set up weekly play dates, thrilled to find someone else in the same boat. The boys bonded immediately, rolling Play-Doh into comets and neutron stars while Kristen and I compared notes. They, too, had once tried to slow Oliver down, limiting his access to certain subjects for fear he was becoming obsessed. Like Jack, he’d responded by shutting down. These days she followed his lead, helping him pursue his many interests from origami to quarks to viruses. “I don’t want to keep him from learning opportunities just because they’re not age-appropriate,” she said in her levelheaded way.
Having stepped through the looking glass, this no longer sounded like sacrilege. I, too, was through with holding Jack back in the name of protecting him. But the Linus Pauling Lecture? It was Kristen’s idea, and I wasn’t at all sure. It seemed vaguely ridiculous to take two kindergartners to a lecture meant for adults, no matter how bright they were. “Open to the public” couldn’t possibly mean us.
I’m still not quite sure why I said yes. Maybe it was my reluctance to make waves in a new friendship. Maybe it was the simple desire for something different to do on an ordinary Tuesday. And maybe a genuine question was beginning to shake loose from all my former certainties. What did Jack really need? Did I even have any clue?
On the day of the lecture, Kristen’s baby sitter canceled, and she had to stay home with Oliver’s little brothers. I was on my own, banking on a big, dark lecture hall where a kooky lady with two 5-year-olds wouldn’t be quite so conspicuous. No such luck. The auditorium was tiny, the lights bright. As soon as we walked in, I could feel my face heating up. “This way, guys,” I whispered, hunching down the aisle. There were only two seats left together, down in the third row.
A bearded man at the podium was detailing Dr. Harrison’s curriculum vitae. I sat us down quickly and pulled Jack onto my lap, afraid to look to either side. Jack began kicking the seat in front of him and flinging his arms out to the sides. “Is this the lecture?” he asked in a loud whisper.
“Shhh,” I said, wrapping my arms around him straitjacket-style. This was a bad idea.
Oliver’s voice was equally loud. “They are going to turn the lights off and then they are going to have slides.” It seemed odd that no one around us was glaring — or even glancing — our way.
At last the room darkened and what looked like multicolored Koosh balls appeared on an overhead screen. The boys craned their necks to read words like “icosahedral” and “nanomachines.” Their bodies went utterly still.
“This structure,” Dr. Harrison pointed to a swoopy pattern of elegantly intertwined green strings, “is called the jelly roll Beta barrel.” Oliver’s eyes were locked on the screen.
“This lecture is great!” Jack called out, bucking on my lap. “It’s so interesting!” I was stunned. He really meant it. A few minutes later, he started flinging both arms up in the air over and over again, brushing me on either side of head. I pulled his arms down again and again.
“Jack, stop,” I finally hissed. It was time to go.
“Mo-om,” he complained in a loud, injured voice. “I was trying to hug you.” And then I got it. He was feeling grateful. The fact that I’d brought him here made him feel understood.
In the lobby on the way out, a stocky Asian man stopped us. Uh-oh, I thought. Here it comes. But his face was friendly, his voice a bit nervous. “Can I ask why you brought the kids today?” he said.
“Well,” I said, not sure how much to reveal. “They’re very bright, and this one,” I gestured at Oliver, “is especially interested in viruses.” A few feet away, Jack was making a pig face by pressing his nose against a glass door.
“I brought my twin boys,” he said. “They’re 8. They got perfect scores on the SAT.”
“Wow,” I said, not sure what else to say.
He was thinking of starting a school, he said, for children to work on Nobel problems. He scribbled his email on a scrap of paper. Anxiety rose off him like steam. I took it and thanked him, my head spinning.
Outside, the air was a huge relief. The boys broke into a run, chasing each other across the grass. “Jelly roll Beta barrel!” Oliver yelled, and Jack yelled it back. He seemed as happy as I’d ever seen him.
I was still holding the man’s number. I didn’t plan to call. Whatever was in our future, I doubted it was his Nobel school, though in my hand the slip of paper felt like a ticket, one for a journey I’d never imagined.
As for the needle on my compass, it had started to shift. No longer could I find my way with theories and plans.
The way forward was uncertain, the future unclear. Only one thing was sure: True north was this boy I loved, now drunk on higher learning and rolling with his friend on the green, green grass.
More Related Stories
- My text blew up in my face
- Boy Scouts end ban on openly gay boys
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Billionaire hedge funder: Babies, breast-feeding "kill" focus, keep women from succeeding
- "Bookless library" set to open in Texas
- Man arrested for sending Craigslist sex party to neighbor's house
- Greek yogurt, toxic waste hazard?
- Glenn Beck: CNN interview with atheist tornado survivor was a setup!
- Incoming BBC news director on journalism gender gap: "We can do better"
- Illegal construction, shoddy materials at fault in Bangladesh factory disaster
- Pope Francis: Atheists are all right!
- Lawsuit alleges anti-gay hiring practices at ExxonMobil
- Boy Scouts poised to vote, still greatly divided on gay youth
- Is recreational pot use safe?
- How I ended up in a pyramid scheme
- My bipolar partner beat me
- Teenagers care more about online privacy than you think
- Radio host tweets rape joke, blames journalists for reporting on it
- El Salvador court delays ruling on abortion case while woman's life hangs in the balance
- Kicked out of the mall -- for an anti-cancer hat
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11
Real Families is a personal-essay series that celebrates the surprising and ever-shifting nature of domestic life in the 21st century. If you have a fascinating, original story you'd like to share, email email@example.com. You can also post your essay on Open Salon and tag it "real families."