Thomm Quackenbush, author

Controlled Myopia | 2011 | Anti-Social Network

02.10.11 3:56 p.m.

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.  

-Galileo Galilei


Talented Youth

I had to adjust the brightness
(you see what I did there?)

Center for Talented Youth is a program for gifted youngsters (a term used in my presence, to my embarrassment) through Johns Hopkins University. It started out as a longitudinal study of the rate at which gifted students can learn and evolved into its current form of a summer camp for smart kids. To become a part of CTY, we happy few needed to score in the ninety-fifth percentile on standardized tests to deserve further testing, though I don't recall any unusual tests beyond taking the SATs in the seventh grade years after they selected me. I was tracked as "gifted" in kindergarten, likely because I comprehended the logic of clown pictures in sequence, and cannot understand now how that was a valid diagnosis with so little data.

Having been told we were the best of the best - whether or not this was objectively true - at such an early age, how many of us moved on to be useful to society? Or, depending on one's metrics for success, happy?

Labeling a child "special" when they are still unaware of what "standard" mean jars them from their native orbit, especially when such classification isn't coupled with advancing the students to where their aptitudes seem to be or providing them sufficient resources for continued excellence. I doubt I perceived much difference between my classmates and me, but my classification was publicly stated by the teachers and principal too often for my peers to ignore. The gifted toil beside their mainstream friends and, largely unjustifiably, come to resent them for the audacity of not instantly grokking English grammar or long division.

I went to two CTY seminars, experienced my first long distance heartbreak (in that I was a middle school student, she was to my memory stunning, and made it overt in the closing minutes of one program that she was attracted to me; I think we exchanged maybe a letter or two) with a girl bearing the improbable name of Skye Green, so I am aware how numerous we cognoscenti were. While I would love to believe that a generation of the superbly brilliant continually suffuses itself into society, I am cynical. I have known too many intelligent people who fizzled out, who found an addiction at twelve, who decided it was easier to get attention by spreading their legs, who hit a solitary wall and lost their identity, who didn't maintain their sharpness when faced with a world that would not bend over backward to accommodate them. Intelligence is a seed. Without persistent effort, it wilts before it can blossom.

In middle school, I had a friend Justin whose math homework I would sometimes copy. I thought little of this, I wouldn't have been reticent to hand over to him some of my English homework in trade until he shouted at me that I had gotten lazy since joining my genius program (I think he referred to it with more sarcasm). I didn't see it this way, I just didn't happen to enjoy math and figured, since correct answers should be identical, there was the least amount of sin in copying that subject. However, this was one of the first times I recall someone I cared about perceiving that I was different because of how I thought, the first time I was aware someone resented what I was. But, in retrospect, perhaps he was right to say this.

According to Wikipedia, Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook, was a part of CTY, as was Lady Gaga. Evanna Lynch, who portrays Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter movies, attended the Dublin program. Six of thirty-two Rhodes Scholars in 2006 were products of CTY. Unsurprisingly, many of the contestants on Teen Jeopardy cut their teeth against other geeks at CTY first (I was on a local game show called Scholastic Match-Up; we did not win). Impressive, right? I am aware enough of statistics to understand a deviation when I read it. Tens of thousands of students are branded by CTY annually and this is all that can be boasted? A fraction of one percent made something of themselves. Maybe the grandest feats earned a "citation needed" or were too humble to note, but that still implies a failure rate well above 99%.

One of the students I tutor asked what happened to an artist. I stated that he had committed suicide. He asked why. I shrugged and said that many people who are ahead of the rest of us, many who are so brilliant it hurts to look directly at them, cannot stand the burden and the isolation this produces. True genius and soul-crushing insanity are at least kissing cousins, if not intimately coupled. Along with self-medication to manage living in a reality to which they can no longer relate, it is a wonder that we can sustain the profound as long as we do. That is where programs like CTY come in, proving to the gifted that they are not alone, that other people care about learning even if the only numbers the students hear their peers mention are sport statistics, the only poetry comes in the form of dirty limericks, the only history sexual, the only art on freeway overpasses, the only music with deafening bass and guttural lyrics. These kids needs group therapy as much as they need peer stimulation.

Years ago, I asked my father what the parents did while their precocious progeny were learning about theater or practicing science (the two seminars I recall attending before deciding I learned more reading on the car ride down than I did in the classes). He assured me they were lectured for hours on how important it was to set aside staggering amounts of money so we could all go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Vassar, and (of course) Johns Hopkins. While this is no doubt true - few people are autodidactic and disciplined enough to manage to preserve their minds without post-secondary education, myself unquestionably included - it does come off as a long-term scam, tracking children as the best and brightest to extort future tuition payments from their hopefully doting parents. Indeed, many alumni of CTY have ended up in the Ivy Leagues. I would have attended Vassar - they harassed my guidance counselor until I agreed to apply - but I could not afford that tuition for a Bachelor of Arts degree that would carry little more weight than the one I earned at a state school for a fraction as much.

I feel it important at this juncture that I do not believe I am startlingly intelligent, though I am no slouch. Even my writing, of which I am reasonably proud, owes more to years of practice and exercise than the natural ability with which my genes gifted me. Scholastic acumen was the spark and I have spent the rest of my life fanning it to a bonfire. For the most part, I am simply curious enough to want to read about most everything (and my mother is fond of telling people how I was easy to cart around because I would sit on a sidewalk and start reading a book from my backpack the moment things became a bit slow) and the tact to listen patiently when someone worthwhile was talking about something I want to know.

In my undergraduate and graduate schooling, in classes geared toward teaching, it was implied in hushed tones that gifted students are special education students and are owed Individualized Education Plans. However, little money is given to programs to foster these kids and most school boards will slander one as an elitist for suggesting naturally high achieving students are owed funded attention. Put them in the library, they will figure it out on their own, right? One of the most intelligent student in my high school was left in the library all day, since he had surpassed all the scholastic requirements and the administration did not know what else to do with him.

My elementary school had a program for the gifted few called SPARKS, though I no longer remember what the acronym meant. What I remember of the program was being yanked out of fifth grade English almost every day so I could make Venn Diagrams, complete logic squares, write exquisite corpse stories, and design robots. Why they opted to deprive me of English instead of a subject for which I cared less was then a mystery to me, though I suppose it did not hurt that I could make up the work in minutes. (As point of fact, I once wrote a poem titled "Rainbow of Tears" when informed with five minutes to spare I needed a Valentine's Day poem for the board. It was not put up - too depressing - and my mother still thinks it is the best thing I have ever written.)

I feel, perhaps without justification, that CTY's interest in me faded once I did not manage a perfect score on the SAT they had me take in the seventh grade (more realistically, it may well be that CTY deduced my parents would be unable to shell out to send me to Harvard and cut their losses). My less-than-stellar score was to do with the math section, which involved quite a bit of rote memorization of concepts to which I had yet to be exposed. (Years later, when I took the SAT in high school, I was in the ninety-ninth percentile in Verbal. Math, however, still lagged, above average but only by sixteen percent.) To them, I imagine, I was a whiz kid, but a hopelessly unbalanced one, able to write moving prose to the Internal Revenue Service about why my taxes are so muddled.

This label of giftedness is something that I have carted with me. I broke up with the first girl to ever ask me out because she couldn't keep up with me intellectually and I would have rather been single than bored. With each relationship, my sapiosexuality grew until I would not even deign to kiss on the cheek a girl who could run intellectual circles around her classmates. I still banter at people to test them in hopes someone will get an allusion and I can feel it appropriate to continue developing a friendship. Being smart is one of my defining characteristics, to the extent that I sometimes keep silent so as to not become the arrogant know-it-all archetype I hate so much in other people. On occasion, someone knowing something I don't and displaying it haughtily registers to my endocrine system as a threat, as though they are a slavering tiger calling my knowledge base into question. It can be rather lonely in daily life, so I surround myself in my free time with people with whom I can talk about topics that interests me. Though I don't often admit it, I have detailed mental dossiers on my friends, who can talk to me about single nucleotide polymorphisms, the mythology in contemporary fiction, inkhorn discussions of Imagists and Confessionalists, occult rituals performed by rocket scientists, protests in Middle Eastern countries, Jungian thoughtforms, or psycholinguistic. Our friendships are genuine, but I also know the utility they provide to me. I further know that I especially love Melanie because she is one of the most intelligent and well-rounded people I have ever met (if she isn't a genius, I believe the term needs revision). I invested myself in teaching so there would be no opportunity to ever stop learning, though I discovered that public schools prefer one stick to a curriculum and not explain descent with modification or Freudian psychoanalysis to English classes. My life is an altar set up to my curious brain and the sacrifices are never slight.

It reminds me in no small way of those of my peers who bred early, after which they were defined either because of or in contrast to this helpless, beloved thing toddling after them everywhere, sucking up resources and curtailing social opportunities. A time does not come, no matter how they try, when they could cease to have had children. Even were they to abandon their spawn to an orphanage, the deed would have still been done. I understand, to a degree, those who neglect the improvement of their unusual minds. It is much easier to become normal if one is on the right end of the bell curve, as one just has to consciously ignore the pull toward anything more challenging than a gossip magazine. But one who is aware enough to have angst about one's exceptionality is going to be worn down by the declining cognition; once labeled as gifted, nothing short of a lobotomy is going to make one content to be average, however much they may extend effort toward dullness.

Yet IQ tests continue to have to be reset, because we as a species are getting more intelligent despite what society seems to think (the problem is a perceptual one, utter stupidity is easier to transmit now). What was gifted a few generations ago is likely "normal" now. While cities are far from full of intellectual titans and while idiocy seems to earn its possessors television shows more often than gene-pool bleaching - and while public schools do an increasing disservice to students by focusing on standardized testing - intelligence is gradually winning the day. The "nerd" stereotype has transitioned from being an object of scorn and pity to the one dealing out comeuppance. The clever need not feel alone in a sea of mediocrity, because that body of water used to be called the Gulf of Genius before spilling over.

Center for Talent Youth, while one of the most prestigious in the world, is far from alone in their work. I later attended an independent summer experience for advanced students in Dutchess County (Summer Scholars), acted as a resident advisor for them years later, and taught for two years at Summer Institute for the Gifted at Vassar College. Though some of the students were less "intellectually gifted" than either "rich" or "one of the few who applied from that school", that increases the number of the labeled into the tens of millions (if we generalize upward, as I think is reasonable). But our world is not primarily governed by the literati. Most do not assume the label extends past graduation and I cannot say they are wrong to. Most can lead their adult lives without the specter of what they supposedly are always at their backs. Most, perhaps, trade-in their gifts for the quietude of a normal, happier life. I cannot.

Soon in Xenology: Maybe a job.

last watched: Community
reading: Blindness
listening: Morrisey

Controlled Myopia | 2011 | Anti-Social Network

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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Works by Thomm Quackenbush

The Night's Dream Series

We Shadows by Thomm Quackenbush

Danse Macabre by Thomm Quackenbush

Artificial Gods by Thomm Quackenbush