‘I am Adam Lanza’s mother’

I spent Friday morning with my little granddaughters at an interactive museum filled with gleeful kiddies. At the same time,  a young man was killing  20 children — first graders, as it turned out — teachers, a counselor and the principal at a Connecticut elementary school.  He’d started by killing his mother.  Why didn’t somebody do something about Adam Lanza? Anarchist Soccer Mom explains what it’s like to love a mentally ill son, who’s often charming and sometimes terrifying. “Michael” is 13.

A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.

That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. The mental hospital didn’t have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist.

We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael. Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He’s been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work.

Michael’s IQ is “off the charts.” But he had to leave his gifted program because of his bizarre behavior.

Three days before the Newtown massacre, Michael lost computer privileges for refusing to wear the school uniform. He apologized, but then threatened to kill himself if he didn’t get his privileges back. His mother took him to the hospital. Police carried him in, screaming and kicking.

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

Her son’s social worker said her only option was to get Michael charged with a crime, creating a “paper trail.”

No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken health care system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”

There are many comments from parents with troubled, potentially violent sons who fear what might happen and don’t know what to do.

It is about mental illness. Can we do better?

Young people who feel isolated, misunderstood, angry and frustrated should reach out for help, writes Tamara Fisher, a gifted education specialist, in To a Bright Kid With Trouble (s). It can get better. “I’ve personally witnessed hundreds of quirky bright kids like you swim out of their soup and shine.”

How do you raise a child prodigy?

How Do You Raise a Prodigy? asks Andrew Solomon in the New York Times Magazine.

Chloe Yu’s son, Marc, “picked out a few tunes on the piano with two fingers” when he was “almost 3.” As a preschooler, he began performing at retirement homes. By 5, he added the cello.

At 6, Marc won a fellowship for gifted youth that covered the down payment on a Steinway. By the time Marc was 8, he and Chloe were flying to China frequently for lessons; Chloe explained that whereas her son’s American teachers gave him broad interpretive ideas to explore freely, his Chinese teacher taught measure by measure. I asked Marc whether he found it difficult traveling so far. “Well, fortunately, I don’t have vestigial somnolence,” he said. I raised an eyebrow. “You know — jet lag,” he apologized.

Marc was being home-schooled to accommodate his performance and practice schedule. At the age of a third-grader, he was taking an SAT class. . . . “In America, every kid has to be well rounded,” Chloe said. “They have 10 different activities, and they never excel at any of them. Americans want everyone to have the same life; it’s a cult of the average. This is wonderful for disabled children, who get things they would never have otherwise, but it’s a disaster for gifted children. Why should Marc spend his life learning sports he’s not interested in when he has this superb gift that gives him so much joy?”

. . . Marc sat on a phone book on the piano bench so his hands would be high enough to play comfortably and launched into Chopin’s “Fantasie-Impromptu,” which he imbued with a quality of nuanced yearning that seemed almost inconceivable in someone with a shelf of Cookie Monster videos. “You see?” Chloe said to me. “He’s not a normal child. Why should he have a normal childhood?”

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, a conductor and a former wunderkind, thinks the U.S. education system has little tolerance for spiky genius. “If Beethoven were sent to nursery school today, they would medicate him, and he would be a postal clerk.”

6-year-old qualifies for National Spelling Bee

A six-year-old Virginia girl who learned to read before the age of 2 will compete in the National Spelling Bee. Homeschooled by her mother, a college professor, Lori Anne Madison plans to become an astrobiologist, reports AP. She also excels in math and swimming.

“Hold on to that basalt,” Lori Anne Madison said in a bossy 6-year-old’s voice, shoving a chunk at her mother, “and do not drop it.”

“Go away,” her mother said playfully.

Sorina Madison held on the rock nonetheless, and soon was carrying more basalt and a nice hunk of quartz.

By then Lori Anne, wearing a green “Little Miss Sunshine” shirt, had joined up with more friends and had taken on a different quest, searching for snails, slugs, tadpoles, water striders, baby snakes at the Scotts Run Nature Preserve in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

“Oh my gosh, what is it? A water worm. A water worm! It’s alive,” said Lori Anne. “I need it in my collection. It’s wonderful.”

Her mother tried to enroll Lori Anne in a private school for the gifted, but the headmaster said she was too smart.

The veteran spellers, some as old as 15, have honed sophisticated study methods, spending hours daily over many months in their attempts to master as much of the unabridged dictionary as possible.

Lori Anne? She likes to study while jumping on her trampoline, with her mother calling out words.

“She doesn’t sit at a table for hours to study anything. I mean, she’s 6,” Sorina said with laugh. “She’s still a 6-year-old and we want to allow her to be a 6-year-old.”

Lori Anne’s favorite word is ”sprachgefuhl,” which means an intuitive sense of what’s linguistically appropriate.

Math prodigy: Autism is key to success

A young math prodigy tells 60 Minutes he’s proud of his autism and considers it a key to his success. At 13, Jake Barnett is a college sophomore.

What would Disney learn in school today?

Would we give (Disney) an outlet to express his creativity or, better yet, foster it? What would his school day consist of? Would he draw a sketch of Mickey Mouse, only to be ridiculed by his teacher because he should have been practicing his times tables?

I am sure that in today’s high-stakes testing environment, Disney’s creativity would be stifled by countless hours of basic reading instruction. He might not even have an art class due to funding shortfalls and a resulting budget that clearly places the arts at the bottom of the priority list.

Short-sighted administrators reject “critical thinking, creative thinking, and problem solving” as “fluff,” writes Colucci, who teaches gifted elementary students. Teachers are forced to spend time on mindless test prep instead.

Teaching reading and math basics to students who’ve already mastered the basics is a  waste of time, even if the only goal is boosting test scores. But I don’t think schools of any era have been set up to nurture geniuses.

Walt Disney developed his artistic talent by taking private art classes on Saturdays and in night school. He dropped out of high school to serve as a Red Cross ambulance driver in World War I.

Thomas Edison attended school only for a few months.

He was taught reading, writing, and arithmetic by his mother, but was always a very curious child and taught himself much by reading on his own.

. . . At thirteen he took a job as a newsboy, selling newspapers and candy on the local railroad that ran through Port Huron to Detroit.

As a 10-year-old boy, Albert Einstein read Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Euclid’s Elements with a family friend. Einstein left high school early, complaining “the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strict rote learning.” (Depending in which account you believe, he ran away or used a doctor’s note.) Unlike Disney and Edison, Einstein went on to study at a university.

It’s very hard for any conventional school to cater to the needs of a 10-year-old who is  turned on by Kant and Euclid. Geniuses have to make their own way.

Physics teacher wins ‘genius’ prize

Amir Abo-Shaeer, a physics and engineering teacher at Dos Pueblos High School in Santa Barbara, is a 2010 MacArthur Fellow, one of 23 recipients of a $500,000 “genius” prize, reports Noozhawk.

Once a mechanical engineer, Abo-Shaeer, 38, created the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy to give students — half are female — hand-on learning opportunities in science and engineering. The academy’s robotics team is one of the best in the nation. (Click on the link and look at the team picture: I’ve never seen so many blonde girls at a robotics contest.)

With a $3 million state grant and help from parent volunteers, Abo-Shaeer created a foundation to raise matching funds for the construction of a new facility, Elings Center for Engineering Education, which will let the academy triple its enrollment. The capital campaign is about $500,000 short of its goal, but I hope Abo-Shaeer won’t use all the MacArthur money for that.

The New Cool, by Neal Bascomb, slated for March release, follows Abo-Shaeer and his robotics team as they work to prepare for the FIRST robotics competition.

School for the 'profoundly gifted'

Super-smart students are enrolling in Reno’s Davidson Academy for the “profoundly gifted,” reports AP. Davidson is a free public high school on the campus of University of Nevada, Reno.

“Schools don’t handle odd ball kids very well,” said Jane Clarenbach with the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for Gifted Children. “The more highly gifted you are, the bigger problem you present to your school district.”

The school now serves 100 students scoring in the top 99.9th percentile. They take classes based on  “ability level rather than age.”

In Boise, Rachel attended six different schools, sometimes three in one day, to find classes that challenged her. Hanging out at the mall was not her idea of fun. In her spare time, Rachel is writing a seven-volume novel.

Being around intellectual equals at Davidson, she said, exposed her to a social network she lacked. The academics, she said, may have been her main reason for coming to Davidson, “but my favorite part has definitely been the social atmosphere.”

Some super-smart kids look like goof-offs in elementary school because they’re so bored Clarenbach said.

“Gifted and talented” programs may not provide much challenge to these kids — if they’re available.

My ex-husband let his daughter skip high school and enroll in a nearby college. She’s on track to earn a classics degree in three years.  Eventually, she’ll find intellectual peers her own age but it will take awhile.

Perspiration vs. inspiration

Practice, practice, practice creates geniuses, writes David Brooks in the New York Times. Forget the “divine spark.” It’s not easy being a genius.

If you wanted to picture how a typical genius might develop, you’d take a girl who possessed a slightly above average verbal ability.

Introduce her to a famous novelist to give her “a vision of her future self.”

It would also help if one of her parents died when she was 12, infusing her with a profound sense of insecurity and fueling a desperate need for success.

Hmmm. Seems a bit extreme.

Armed with this ambition, she would read novels and literary biographies without end. . . . Then she would practice writing. Her practice would be slow, painstaking and error-focused.

I think this is a formula for producing competent writers, not geniuses.