Back when I was butting up against teachers and an administration that refused to let Neil work at the level he’d already proven himself capable of, we took him to audition for a television show called Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? More than anything, I was delighted to meet the other families. There was another fourth grader learning algebra! There was another fourth grader who knew quantum physics! For most of the school year, I’d been fighting with his teacher, and we were soon to run into an administration that no way, no how wanted to deal with a boy who was as academically advanced as Neil. It was so refreshing to meet others like him.
Now, five years later, it seems like every elementary school aged child we encounter at Neil’s favorite events is not only a genius, but one certified as such. Some of it is due, no doubt, to the type of things Neil loves to do, but suddenly where there once were none to be found, there are suddenly hundreds. Within the last year, I’ve been asked at least three times about the Davidson Young Scholars program.
I first heard about the program at the end of fifth grade, but by then, we’d already decided to homeschool, and besides, I couldn’t fathom sending him off to Reno, where the program runs a free school for the scholars. For those who don’t know the program, I should explain: it’s for the “profoundly gifted,” who typically work 3 grades or more above the school grade they’re placed in by age, and who score in the top 1% in an IQ (or similar) test. So it’s quite exclusive, but everyone who knows the current scholars and meets Neil assumes he’s in it, and when they find out he isn’t, ask me if I’ve heard about it.
I will confess that at the end of what would have been Neil’s 7th grade year, when he was about to exceed some of the limits of my own education, we almost applied for the program. I asked Neil’s mentor, Bill Gosper, if he would like a letter of recommendation for Neil, and found a psychologist who could give him an IQ test, since Neil was still too young to take an SAT test. But the IQ test cost $525 I didn’t really have, and suddenly, I had to ask others already in the program what would being a Davidson Young Scholar do for Neil, other than give him a prestigious label? Besides offering education at the Reno campus (both for full time students, and on weekends for those who are willing to drive there), they can help a scholar’s family work with their local school to get the right level of education. But since I was homeschooling Neil, that was a moot point. The program will place the scholar with a mentor, but Neil had already found Bill on his own. And there were so many scholars in this area, it wasn’t always possible to find enough mentors for all of them. There’s also a local group of Davidson families who socialize together and organize field trips. But we were already in a group for gifted homeschoolers, which not surprisingly, has a fair number of Davidson scholars in it. The $525 test wouldn’t buy me anything we didn’t have already.
And curiously enough, as Neil increasingly discovers and defines himself, and has accomplishments and friends that say more about him that a formal qualification, I become even more dubious. It’s cool to find someone your own age with whom you can discuss number theory or themes in classical fiction, but it’s also cool to have a friend who challenges you to a splash fight in the pool, or to go geocaching along the creek. And when everyone you know is a genius, how do you stand out from that? I love a lot about Neil beyond his intellect. He spent much of Saturday helping his father pull up old tile from the kitchen floor; he’s empathetic and will go out of his way to cheer up a blue friend; he loves playing Rocksmith. He works one day each week at his dad’s office, helping scan in comic book covers and filing. Where’s the group for teens who are just awesome, with or without the high IQ? Each year, his schoolwork is increasingly more serious, and soon enough his childhood will be over altogether.
He wants to go to college, so he’ll probably be taking an SAT test in the next year or so, and then I’ll have a standardized number to quantify his intelligence. But I’m not happy about that either, because it gives you so little information about who he is. And I’m a little flustered to see so many families testing their five- and six-year-olds and getting them labelled as profoundly gifted so early; for me, there was a certain bliss in not knowing that Neil was so smart. And there was a lot I didn’t like about our school district beyond the fact that they can’t educate him. What I like about Neil is that he’s himself, and he’s free to be so, and I don’t want anything but himself defining that.