Friday, October 3, 2008

Challenging Young Writers

Following is an essay I wrote for Diane Scanlon's excellent website for gifted children and their parents,

Inside a wooden case that once held a children's-model telescope, I keep a slip of paper from the second grade. It's a test result, revealing that my seven-year-old self had the reading comprehension skills of a freshman in high school. This was a pattern that would continue in later years. My sixth-grade teacher stopped giving me any but the bonus spelling words (the basic words being a waste of everybody's time). In high school, I hated every English class I took, and got A's in all of them.

Looking back, it's amazing that I never got into my school's honors humanities program. I was clearly a natural writer, one who was not being challenged - and that was why I hated English class. But it was the '70s, and everybody seemed to be focusing on the other end of the spectrum, making sure the problem kids would at least make it to graduation.

Fortunately, my SAT verbal score finally tripped the wire. I was invited to San Jose State's honors humanities program, where a corps of professors from different disciplines took us through world history - from Genesis through Nixon - touching on the music, art, philosophy, science, history and literature of each era. And boy did we write! Constantly. At the end of the two-year program, for my final project, I wrote and performed in a play in which Aristotle, attempting to tutor Alexander the Great, has his idealized forms rudely diasassembled by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. It was hilarious, especially when Craig Carter, playing on Freud's cocaine addiction, emptied two dozen packets of sugar on a mirror, performed his part with a wacky German accent, and then managed to accidentally snort some of the sugar into his nose. I found him in the hallway, hacking and snorting like a rodeo bull.

Since then, things have worked out well. Craig finally cleared his sinuses and became a gonzo-style journalist. I went on to write a dozen novels, seven of them published, to win a few poetry awards and fellowships, to cover theater and opera for several different Bay Area magazines, and, recently, to write on poetry and fiction for Writer's Digest.

So would I have taken this route without that honors humanities program? To be frank - yes. I ran into my sixth-grade best friend Maurice a few years ago, and he said, "Oh yeah. You were always talking about writing novels." Clearly, I'm one of the obsessed.

But I worry that it took so long for my obvious needs to be noticed - that other talented kids with just as much talent but perhaps less determination might not have received the kick-start that their gifts merited. Which is why I'm so glad to see a website like Diane's. Not that kids with learning disabilities don't deserve every attention they receive (let's talk about my brother Larry, who overcame his to win an MBA, and is now a Silicon Valley CFO). But let's not forget about kids with special abilities, talents that need to be challenged in special ways.
Photo by MJV.

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