David McCullough’s book The Wright Brothers is a captivating look at Orville and Wilbur Wright. The brothers were considered peculiar, aloof, single-minded, solemn, and obsessively drawn to their own pursuits. Neither of these self-taught engineers possessed a high school diploma. In pursuit of their ambitions, the Dayton, Ohio men spent weeks at a time camping on the sand of steamy, mosquito-infested Kitty Hawk, N.C. in order to study flight as directly as possible. There they watched seabirds for hours, sometimes flapping their wrists and elbows to better understand the motion of bird wings. Local residents assumed these two awkward, unsociable men were “nuts.”
As I read this book I’m reminded of kids I know. Kids lit from within by their own enthusiasms. Kids with labels and kids without. Kids like mine, kids like yours.
One of those kids is named Aiden. He attends a regular third grade classroom and, because he’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s, he also has an aide for part of the day. Her job is to reinforce, over and over, the exacting demands of his assignments along with other classroom requirements. (We now know too much help can be counterproductive.) His aide says Aiden quickly comprehends the material but sees little purpose in doing assignments to prove it. His resistance is growing. He reminds me a little of another boy labeled “underachiever.”
Aiden spends hours each week with various therapists working on his speech and coordination. His progress is tracked in excruciating detail and he’s made aware, sometimes minute to minute, where his deficits lie. It’s exhausting for him. He’s bored. He’s frustrated. He wants to do what he’s interested in and that means anything that has to do with bicycles.
Aiden reads adult-level books about bike repair, bike trips, and bike history. He’s memorized the offerings in bike catalogs from different manufacturers down to individual parts. He draws plans of bikes and will talk at length about them. His dream is to build a self-designed bicycle. Experts assure Aiden’s parents that their son must not be allowed to indulge in his love of bike-related learning except as a reward for meeting incremental goals in school and therapy. Aiden’s mother says when she follows their advice Aiden becomes withdrawn, often barely speaking at all. “He’s himself when it has anything to do with bikes,” she says. “He just comes alive.”
His mother never expected Aiden to have problems in school since he’s so obviously intelligent. She saw signs of this early on. As a toddler Aiden was skilled at putting together increasingly difficult puzzles. He was mesmerized by anything with wheels, especially his toy cars but also the wheels on bikes and strollers. He’d lie with his head on the ground slowly moving any object with wheels back and forth to observe the movement. He was also able to draw perfect circles, interlocking them in complicated patterns. When he was about 18 months old his eager engagement with people had noticeably declined. So had his early verbal skills. He became a quiet little boy wrapped in his own fascinations.
When I ask her to talk about Aiden’s best times she describes what many of us consider our own best times —-when we’re deeply absorbed in a state of flow or struck by awe at the world around us. One of those times was when Aiden was four years old. His grandfather, who has since passed away, came for a visit with three bicycles he’d picked up on trash collection day. He and Aiden spent an entire day fixing those bikes together. His mother said he still talks about that day. Another time his family drove to Ohio to visit the Bicycle Museum of America. Aiden was wonder struck, spending hours looking carefully at each display. This is a memory he cherishes. (Each to his own, his sister describes that place as the most boring ever).
Many children develop unevenly. Asynchronous development is particularly common in gifted children. A child may show artistic promise and read as well as students many years older, yet be well below grade level in math. All sorts of attention is focused on getting that math score up rather than letting the child’s best abilities afford her a strong sense of self, a sense that she’s capable of learning whatever she’s ready to learn, to let her discover all sorts of ways to love math as it reinforces her artistic and literary inclinations. Our strengths have a way of helping us learn more while pulling our abilities up in all areas, a concept often called by snappy terms like customized education and personalized learning. (A concept homeschoolers already know inside and out.)
Aiden’s fascination with bicycles is teaching him history, geometry, physics, technical drawing, and much more —- a self-education far more in-depth than the curriculum he’s expected to follow. Yet the very thing he loves is taken away until he meets the next demand, and the next, and the next.
We work hard to fit young people into the world of today, forgetting they are here to create the future through ideas, innovations, and solutions. A future that relies more on eccentricity than conformity. A future where the most gifted rarely fit the norm. That doesn’t mean we must push our children toward what society considers greatness, but to recognize that living with meaning, joy, and purpose is also a form of greatness. Perhaps a far more necessary greatness.
We need to nurture our children in ways that brings forth who they are, what James Hillman calls the “acorn” that’s exhibited in a child’s particular fascinations. Let’s not blunt the (sometimes exasperating, often inexplicable) uniqueness every child brings to life by tossing a blanket over light that doesn’t shine as we expect it to. Let’s remember history is full of “peculiar” people whose unconventional ideas still send us aloft.