Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine

JUNE 1997




S C I E N C E    A N D    T E C H N O L O G Y

Author's Notebook
Yesterday's Whiz Kids:
Where Are They Today?

By Melissa Hendricks

My story on mathematically precocious youth brought a flood of memories. No, I was not a prodigy, dare I wish. But the terms "gifted" and "precocious" were very much a part of my childhood, when my mother was pursuing a doctorate in education, specifically in gifted education. I remember the discussions my mom and her classmates had about the special needs of bright students, and the right vs. the wrong way to fulfill those needs. Only 8 or 9 at the time, I was too young to understand the details of those discussions, but I absorbed their tenor.

The era (the late '60s and early 70s), I recall, was intellectually charged. My mom and her classmates buzzed about the "new math," "open classrooms," radical innovations in education, not just for the gifted, but for students in general. Whether or not educators finally embraced these experiments, back then-to me, anyway-everything seemed possible and fun.

I also remember feeling that although the grownups were talking about educating gifted students, they were also interested in something more fundamental. They were curious, it seemed, to understand what made a gifted person so smart. The extremely bright student was an anomaly, and the education students wanted to understand something so out of the norm.

Decades later, I now feel the same way. While interviewing grown-up "whiz kids," I kept flashing-back to that earlier time. How could a 12-year-old score 760 on the math SAT? How could a 15-year-old compete at a top-knotch university? It still seems amazing.

One of the former prodigies I interviewed told me that people who are not gifted create caricatures or stereotypes of super-smart people, so that they can understand them. Of course, all precocious students are not skinny, socially awkward nerds with two left feet, but such stereotypes serve as palpable symbols of otherwise unfathomable intelligence.

I wouldn't be honest, however, if I said that, as a child, I was as dazzled by the gifted. No, when my mother and her friends discussed the gifted, I mostly felt pure, unadulterated jealousy. What was so great about these gifted students, anyway, I silently asked. Why did they have special needs?

Now I have two young children of my own. It's too early to tell whether they are precocious. Neither one has played the Mr. Rogers theme song on our electric keyboard yet, as, according to Parade, 2-year-old prodigy Lenny Ng did. But I'm not holding my breath. Whether my own children excel at math, music, tennis, gardening, or nothing in particular, I hope to encourage, rather than pressure, them to pursue their passions.