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Fall 2006 [Issue No. 10]

ESSAY

 

 

Wunderkindergarten ▪► Arthur Saltzman

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It could begin with an eruption of wit, a sudden pun he puts together out of casual comments at the dinner table. Listen: between morsels of Gerber’s, he is conjugating irregular verbs. Soon he is doubling and tripling up on entendres while his peers are still trying to chant the alphabet.

          Or say his doodles do more than merely endear him to those who would love him regardless. His pals play with finger paints just for the fun of gooshing; meanwhile, without prompting, he’s producing post-Impressionist knockoffs. While Nicky and Bobby are using their Tinker Toys to gouge the carpet or harry the cat, he is giving Louis Sullivan a run for his money. Out of the mundane timber of Lincoln Logs, he has a miniature Parthenon under way.

          Perhaps the first sign of his election comes in daycare. When the other infants squinch their faces, it just means they are filling their diapers, but he is preparing to squeeze his first insight out. He picks up chess the way the rest of them picked up colds. The teachers and aides at La Petite Academy quickly single him out, or rather, they can’t help but notice how he separates himself from the sticky pack. “He’ll be a grand master before he’s ten,” says Miss Ashley. “He’ll give a concert at Carnegie Hall before any of the rest of them can play a measure,” says Miss Julia. “It’ll be close whether he’ll get his Ph.D. in physics or reach puberty first,” says Miss Karinne. These women always idle at “nice,” but for once they are not just being nice. “They’ll have to hoist him onto the stage to accept his diploma,” they agree.  

Prodigies come to a rolling boil in their cribs. As young as three, they are urged to perform in front of company. Because they startle even their own doting parents, their fathers set them out with the hors d’oeuvres to astound the company. Their mothers beg them to wait until the video recorders are ready. Just listen to them read! Only three, and they handle complex sentences as readily most kids their age do Legos. Or have them do math. They can add any pair of double digits in their heads, and they can already multiply through the nines. Or how about capitals? They don’t miss one in fifty. They don’t confuse North and South Dakota or mix the Virginias, ever. They’ve memorized all the songs from Oliver! and sing all the parts, with all of the proper histrionics and the accents intact. They spell like champs, and I don’t mean “dog” and “cat,” either. I’m talking “ancient.” I’m talking “celery.” I’m talking “carburetor” and “ridiculous.” Go ahead, honeys. We’re all waiting.

          And every prematurely endowed one of them toddles up and does so, smoothly and dutifully, pitch perfect and error free, solves the equations, recites Shakespeare, impersonates Jimmy Stewart, stretches the species. Urging does not trouble him. A crowd does not. He is destined to star at academic contests, after all. His bedroom bulletin board will soon be strewn with ribbons from science fairs; his bureau will be covered with trophies from assorted mental Olympics.

In elementary school, although the day’s allotment of nasal drip frosts his upper lip, he ticks off the Periodic Table of the Elements. He cracks crossword puzzles before he’s cut a third of his adult teeth. He wades into set theory while the rest of his age group is still stuck on Dr. Seuss. With pudgy fingers he beetles flawlessly over the piano keys—he also plays a mean miniature viola and a tiny violin—and in doing so proves that Mozart is a child’s game after all. Whatever his specialty, he always awes the guests, in spite of the fact that when he goes to sleep he still wants the light on and wets the bed. (Imagine a brain instantly able to unearth square roots or to dismantle Latin but unequipped to command the bladder.) But it is his capacities and not his lapses that define him, that set him apart and compel us.

          “He was a sage baby,” his dumbfounded folks tell CNN. “Only a few birthdays in, he was already figuring the family taxes!” It is a joke, but just barely. And it is a nervous humor they turn to, knowing the statistics regarding the prolonged childhood of prodigies. Dad may have to dress his boy until he is old enough to vote. Mom may be cutting up his meat at his wedding rehearsal. Just like parents who have children with disabilities, they have familiarized themselves with the oddities and the odds. They are already girding themselves for the prospect of longstanding dependency and deferral of their plans to retire to Boca Raton. The way that their friends have studied the hottest stocks, the prodigy’s parents have studied the vicissitudes of human potential. At dinner parties, their friends show off their fluency in foreign films or the National Football League; the prodigy’s parents can tick off textbook cases by name.

And so the quizzed kid ensues, flashing bits of aptitude that supersede anything that might have been bequeathed through the genes, given the average status of Dad, the mediocrity of Mom. And the reaction to him has always been unanimous and not merely polite. For other friends’ children—for their own non-prodigies as well—there is always a warm enough reception, for whom it is sufficient, to win applause, that they not spill their Tippy Cups or probe their noses. But this child was never meant for the sweet but limited achievements appropriate to his age. He so obviously and early on flew past sufficiency that he earns a place in their conversation even after he’s been excused to return to his room.

Remarkable, that boy, and frankly, rather unsettling, too, like something embryonic in a jar, which is where Harvard would house him if they had their druthers.  Maybe more off-putting than enviable, when you get right down to it, on the order of a potato shaped like the head of a president or a two-headed calf. The kid’s too young for copyright law, and a circus, though appropriate, would be cruel. If he continues to blossom at this rate, his head will have to hatch, that is, if he doesn’t blow his bright little wad before puberty. (Not all prodigies swell to grown-up prominence as reliably as they plumped inside their mothers shortly before.) And can you imagine the tribulations that await him at recess? Every generation finds playgrounds soaked with the blood of Poindexters, who scrabbled blindly about after their routine beatings to recover their snapped protractors and spilled calculus notes. (Admittedly, there is the occasional exception of an Alexander, who graduated to “the Great” while the rest of his class was still years away from serious career planning. Even the most brazen bullies didn’t risk tripping him.)  It can’t be easy to lead an untimely life like that. They will suffer for being so special.

Historically speaking, prodigies were as likely to be treated as demons as they were to be honored as prophets. We prize excellence, to be sure, but deviance to this degree is always at least a little disagreeable whatever direction it takes. As David Henry Feldman, a professor of developmental psychology, writes in Nature’s Gambit, the prodigy phenomenon seems “to violate the natural order of things,” and Feldman takes pains to point out that the etymology of “prodigy” includes connotations of monstrosity. We may not banish or abominate prodigies nowadays, but we haven’t exactly taken the targets off their backs, either. Soloists remain fair game for clean shots; a more comfortable fate can be had in the middle of the choir. An elevated I.Q., like an elevated white count, will upset the classroom and freak out the parents—the stricken kid needs constant watching.

Remembering the eight-hour-a-day practice sessions mandated by the early evidence of her remarkable musical abilities, violinist Yeou-Cheng Ma confesses, “I traded my childhood for my good left hand.”  Ravenous for the violin before the age of three, Nils Kirkendahl was already straining the expertise of teachers in several conservatories in the Boston area by the time he was eight years old. Watching the boy flog his talents forward, his composition teacher reports that Nils is not only “fantastic” but “too good to be true. He has no faults and that’s terrible, it’s frightening—marvelous, but frightening because you just can’t believe that this is all going to happen.” That level of brilliance and overdrive is quite a plight to wish on a kid, we tell ourselves, more than a little relieved to see the occasional mistake on our own children’s homework, grateful that their intensities can wane sufficiently for them to get to sleep. Better to be my routine daughter, my unexceptional son, and be able to bank on ordinary chances for happiness. 

▼▪▲

 Television has long been drawn to prodigies, but television usually portrays them as merely precocious. Frequently they are the youngest sons in sit-coms, whose elevated syntax, unflappable manners, and penchant for dressing like recently hired executives emphasize their distinction from mortal children, not to mention from their reliably flummoxed fathers. If they are daughters, they are pixie-cute with needle-keen vocabularies and lethal wit, but once again it is at the expense of their flustered mothers or woebegone dads. These are transparent caricatures, of course, tailored to the constraints of the half-hour format. Rather than challenge the human perimeter in any profound or permanent way, they end up as snuggly as the commonplace children in the cast. Whatever intellectual antics they demonstrate are designed to tweak a scene or two at most; they haven’t the substance to carry a half-hour’s plot. Real life would obviously expose their flimsiness, and at any credible school they’d never last out a single day’s abuse.

Occasionally, television will feature real-life children, dangling their tiny shoes just over the lips of their chairs, showing off their lisps, cowlicks, and gums like high marks on their report cards. I especially remember how Art Linkletter’s Kids Say the Darnedest Things enchanted viewers of all ages. Parents enjoyed their inadvertent insights and uncensored sense of things; the host’s avuncular, sidelong smile put the kids at ease and reminded the adults in the audience that laughter, surprise, nostalgia, embarrassment, and love were all acceptable responses—the host was open to any combination. Homebound kids watched their televised counterparts as well, partly for the Tom Sawyer-like satisfaction of seeing a grownup brought down, partly to guarantee their distance from their primped and mincing example. Who knows how many kids watched kids say the darnedest things just so they could damn them? But aside from the odd Shirley Temple wannabe who actually had the goods, Linkletter’s lot weren’t prodigies per se, only extroverts. Their future was in class clowning and, later on, in sales.

When prodigies appear in fiction, they either tend to struggle with or just plain regret their own endowments, or they exasperate the rest of the family, who have to face the glare of incipient genius day after day. J. D. Salinger’s Teddy, for example, is so gnomic a little boy, so imperturbable a picture of equanimity, that when he does make a mistake--on a family cruise, he refers to the porthole as a “window”--his father carries on with mock astonishment, gleeful as any junior high kid in detention who got to witness his teacher trip over the wastebasket. Indeed, practically all of the Glass siblings in Salinger’s stories descend from their eminence as radio stars into disappointment, dissolution, or some other ruin.

The hero of Percival Everett’s Glyph, an astoundingly erudite baby imbued with language and literary theory, also consternates his father, a lesser poststructuralist, with a flimsier grip on his wife’s devotion than the baby has. Parents, psychiatrists, government agents, and would-be abductors are at once astonished, threatened, and consumed by him, “And it all sat on me like a weight, a kind of self-referential density,” he reports. “I was like a loaded gun resting on a table in front of a bludgeon of convicts. And like that gun, the fear seemed present in all the faces near me that I might at any second go off, whatever going off might come to.” Similarly, in Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season, nine-year-old Eliza Naumann has lived well beneath the radar as an indifferent student and has never had to bear the burden of excellence her older brother does. But when she reveals a championship-caliber talent for spelling, giddiness is tempered by dread. Until now, mistakes were as normal and readily dismissed as grass stains on her skirt; as she moves to higher levels of competition, however, she feels defeat lurking in the auditorium, passing among the pre-adolescent contestants like the Angel of Death. Nor does practice ease the pressure of expectation upon her: 

She dreams a sky black with swarming letters. They fly with thick, stubby wings barely able to hold their fat bodies aloft. They brush against her skin, nest in her hair. They crawl up her nose, into her eyes. The ground is covered in torn and broken letters that crunch beneath her feet with every step. The sound of letters fills the air, making thought impossible. The letters squeeze themselves between her lips and flutter their terrible wings inside her mouth. 

 

Rita Dove, whose father drilled her with flash cards to keep her top-of-the-class edge, would have understood Eliza’s nightmare: “the faster / I answered, the faster they came,” she recalls, as if the cards assaulted her like malevolent birds. Yes, Eliza Naumann and Rita Dove might have commiserated with one another, were it not that elevation is so isolating.

Then there is thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis, in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, with her several idiosyncrasies: a gift for writing, a passion for plots and secrets, a compulsion to control the older folks in the vicinity. “Was everyone else really as alive as she was?” she wonders. “For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was? Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony?” The prospect of being central and powerful, the fascination of real-life intrigue, and the opportunity to truly author the destinies of adults tempt her to arrogance, with tragic consequences for almost everyone else. “And though it horrified her, it was another entry, a moment of coming into being, another first: to be hated by an adult. . . . [T]o be the object of adult hatred was an initiation into a solemn new world. It was promotion.”  Everything is magnified for the prodigy, disaster as well as opportunity, failure as well as acclaim. Her ascent is more dramatic than most; so will be her fall.  

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           Most of us can barely conceive of the brains we’re born with. If we think of what is doing our thinking at all, we might conjure something akin to those misbegotten embryos kept in jars for high school biology students to poke at and gag over. A vague concoction vaguely concocting, which does its mulling with a rubbery consistency that must give even seasoned neurologists pause. Something of a color between raw liver and bad cabbage. Something hunched in the skull like a hedgehog. I know that I am in the majority when I say that any viable metaphor for the physical brain, from runny sponge to blood pudding, puts me off my feed, as well as reminds me that I haven’t the stomach for dissection. That it might be my own brain under inspection makes my gorge, not my curiosity, rise.

Doubtless it’s more natural to remain oblivious to the brain even when one is using it to brood with. Honestly, who among us appreciates the huddled lobes, the occipital, parietal, frontal, and prefrontal portions drawn in like linemen protecting the pocket? Who has an inkling of the amygdala, wound like a friendship bracelet worn in secret, or the medulla depending like a slice of inner Illinois? What of the cingulate gyrus, which sounds like an animal grazing on the Serengeti, or the mysterious activities of the wily hippocampus? Who else but a surgeon bothers to comprehend the contours of our knowing? The brain’s greasy sluices and hidden switches, the pitch and yaw of thought, the sentience welling up, the humid mangle of it all. It’s an unfathomable hemisphere altogether, when you come to think of it, and more than a little gruesome, too. Then there is aging to face, with the prospect of one cerebral neighborhood after another surrendering to blight until the whole head’s disintegrated and uninhabitably dim. The strange relays growing annually stranger, the precious current leaking, the axons atrophying and dendrites drying out. Synapses once easily leaped yawning wider and wider. Once-limpid thoughts limping dully along. Awful to contemplate while one still can contemplate, futile to try to do so once the circuitry fries. No, basically, the general population does not keep the mind in mind.

However, in the same way that no one anatomized hitting so meticulously as Ted Williams did, prodigies probably visit above-average interest upon their above-average mentalities. Surely they are aware that certain times and places have proved especially conducive to their kind. They know about a clot of juvenile classical pianists performing in and around Prague, about a cache of chess masters who disdained the playgrounds of St. Petersburg to work on their boards, about a bumper crop of Berlin-area mathematicians who proved ripe for renown while their playmates were still raw youths. Don’t they suspect that these and not their run-of-the-mill siblings are their true kin?

Likewise, just as the bodybuilder flexes intently, admiring the muscles that separate him from those who sweat to far less benefit at the gym, so might the prodigy linger on the gray matter in which his distinction is pitched. Surely it isn’t much of a stretch to suppose him alone in the lab or sandbox colluding with his own cranium, considering his intelligence brewing the way a witch in a fable oversees the magic in her pot. All of us have muscles, but most don’t merit reflection; by the same reasoning, all of us have brains, but given the opportunity, it’s the prodigy’s brain you’d pick. For the prodigy himself must be awed by his own accelerated metabolics, must in the midst of all he ponders ponder how and why his mind is able to fix and tighten around a problem when the minds of most kids, confronting difficulty, merely mush and puddle. The ordinary child’s brain must be at best a frail government of a developing nation; it comes awake fitfully, sluggishly, like a low-level employee on a Monday morning or one of the fluorescent bulbs he’ll spend the day under. But the brain of a prodigy, with the next fresh understanding forever leaning on its doorbell, well, that bears watching. See the prodigy iris in, hone his focus, lock down on his task like a raptor sizing up its prey.  Doctors, take out your notepads.

What analogy can accommodate a prodigy’s thought processes? The prodigy himself might picture a derrick under construction, manned by an ideal team of riggers. He might think of ideas erected out of stainless girders, whose bolts hit their holes exactly. Its corrugations are tailored to every specification; its components are solidly machined. By contrast, my own pre-school thoughts never came close to the tolerances “ideas” require to deserve the term; “notions” was more like it, the sorts of things a boy might pick dripping out of the marsh and not be allowed to bring into the house. While the prodigy can apprehend a concept like a culprit, systematically stalking it, cornering it, and dragging it cuffed into the light, when I was a child, I spake as a child and surmised as one as well. My interior life was probably as sloppy as the room I slept in, and so was pretty much every other kid’s. But a prodigy’s mental landscape, tilled and fertile, its broad fields crosshatched with corollaries, promises a ripe future and a regular return.

And yet, not long after puberty, the erstwhile prodigies may very well stop producing. Experts report that, more often than not, prodigies fail to remake their disciplines in their own initial images. Ninety-nine out of a hundred prodigies do not sustain their climb into the true artistry of the adult master, says Yuli Turovsky, who conducts I Musici of Montreal and who has seen many young musicians break down or burn out. “It can be devastating to realize that you’ve done everything as a child and there are no more challenges for you as an adult.” Indeed, there are fewer stories of their unchecked ascent than there are of whiz kids wearing out: the human computer’s stunts stunted, the child composer’s creativity decomposed, the mini-linguist’s perceptivity dispelled. Some former prodigies handle the decline into normality well enough; others are traumatized.  They let their chemicals evaporate, their rough drafts and canvases yellow, or their calculations stall in the basements that had been remodeled to accommodate their respective gifts. They abandon their chess sets to the spiders and dust. They dash their treacherous instruments against the wall.

The descent of a prodigy into the typical is as unpredictable as his creation was and potentially as troubling in its repercussions.  In the realm of sensational mental events, he had always been a prince; we should not be surprised if he takes his exile hard. For the first time he must envision a relentlessly credible future, with his uniqueness tamped down into mere adequacy. He will have to suffer the insult of finitude like the rest of us. Sensing his diminishment, the prodigy might grow erratic, clinging desperately to the vestiges of his distinction. Asked to organize his sock drawer, he might hypothesize the structure of a new subatomic particle. Urged to finish his vegetables, he might scratch out a sonata on his napkin.  On his birthday, told by his mother that she loves him, he might escape her squeeze to sketch out a map of Africa; while she is finishing the decorations on his cake before the party starts, he is anxiously dotting on the capitals and detailing the crimps and fissures in the coasts. 

In the end, the arc of the prodigy’s career is inexplicable. Therefore, we should not wonder at the prodigy’s own tendency to fix on the mystical to explain himself to himself. He is certainly no less likely than the relatives, professors, and audiences he amazes to suspect that his gifts are not accidental, that he has been chosen. Not only is the prodigy not immune to claims of reincarnation, astrology, and other otherworldly realms, he might actually be more acutely attuned to them. And why shouldn’t the prodigy be given pause by his own implausibility? Why shouldn’t he be puzzled by the puzzle he poses? As Professor Feldman writes, “History and evolution seem to have given the prodigy privileged access to some of our more demanding symbol systems and allowed them to master some of our most complex domains. Is it not possible that other extraordinary capabilities and sensibilities might be part of the package as well?” Thus we may have to alter the manner of our marveling at him. Maybe when Adam thrashes in his bath because of Kristallnacht he is remembering not a conversation between his grandparents in the kitchen but the actual smashing of the glass. Perhaps when Randy awakens from his nap and starts spouting spiritual aphorisms, he is not inventing a testament but channeling the dead.

One day the prodigies will receive invitations to an international conference devoted to assessing the destinies of the innately favored. Ex-prodigies will gather to share drinks and compare accomplishments. One-time owners of photographic memories will stand cheek by jowl with bygone microbiologists and spent cellists. Some will have continued to gain altitude from the promontories they were born upon; others will have subsided into the same standard fates as everyone else whom PBS never bothered to feature in any special. They will be gainfully if not garishly employed. They will learn what has always been common knowledge among the commoners, which is that even among the excessively blessed, things get more ambiguous the older you get.

Let us not forget that child prodigies are children no matter how prodigious they seem. They need bucking up and looking after. We are duty-bound to tell them to practice, certainly, but it is also up to us to tell them        to finish their cereal, use the potty, go out and play.

“Have fun!” we cry as they take off for who knows where. “But don’t go too far.”  

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