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Entries in Gifted (3)

Tuesday
Oct012013

A Voice of Understanding and Hope

Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope By James T. Webb, Ph.D. 224 pp. Great Potential Press, Inc. $24.95. http://www.greatpotentialpress.com/searching-for-meaning

Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope, by James T. Webb, Ph.D.

A Book Review By Wendy A. Skinner

In the process of editing my book about the challenges of raising a gifted son and daughter, Jim Webb, my publisher, got to know our family very well. At one point, I had confided in him that my 10-year-old daughter had planned her own suicide and landed in a day treatment program. During this time, she routinely bemoaned the plights of the world. “I can’t listen to the news,” she’d say. “The war in Iraq, global warming, the rain forests disappearing…” Webb said it sounded like she was experiencing “existential depression.” At the time, the term went over my head, but whatever it was called, my daughter had experienced it so intensely that she’d wanted to end it all.

Fast forward eight years to today. I now understand what he meant by existential depression. Webb’s new book, Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope, gave me an immediate connection to my daughter’s struggles with plenty of insight and tools for anyone to make positive life changes.

I learned that there’s a strong connection between disillusionment, isolation, and depression, especially as it relates to bright people. Their intense sensitivity impacts how they perceive and respond to their world and can cause them greater disillusionment than the average person. As they grow from childhood into adulthood, they realize that rules of society are extremely complex and arbitrary. They see hypocrisy and become disillusioned, for example, when their parents say they love each other but later divorce, or a drunk driver with a long DWI record kills a friend. They “see how things might be and should be” and want to change or make right these wrongs. If they feel they’re alone in their concerns, some bright people eventually wonder why they even bother to wake up in the morning.

My daughter, now a 19-year-old college student, picked up the book last night. “The cover’s corny,” she said. She began to page through it anyway. She and stopped and read aloud the first column in a table called Characteristic Strengths and Associated Difficulties and Challenges for Gifted Adolescents and Adults. “Yep.” She nodded. “Large store of information in advanced areas? Check. Diverse interests and abilities? Check. Multi-talented? Check.” She chuckled, as she read the associated difficulties. “Career decision problems, frustration over lack of time, feeling different from others…That’s me alright.”

This book uncannily describes my daughter (and my husband, brother-in-law, friend…), her outlook on life, and her intensities. Webb understands his subject deeply and knows how to give valuable advice. Toward the end of the book there’s a fascinating chapter discussing not-so-healthy coping styles, such as learning not to care, numbing your mind, seeking adrenaline rushes, and withdrawing. Some of these coping styles can help in tiny doses, but making a habit of them can cause more harm than good. I’d witnessed my daughter using these coping styles years ago, and I must admit that at times I’ve used my fair share of them, too.

The most inspiring and motivating discussion for me, however, revolved around the healthy coping skills, such as those related to getting involved in a cause, touching and feeling more connected to others, and living in the present moment. Webb also offers concrete exercises on how to arrive at your own life’s meaning and purpose, i.e. happiness. They aren’t quickly or easily accomplished, but they are doable if you give them time with honest thought and reflection—things we might avoid or are uncomfortable doing, but must do if we want to move forward with life.

Our daughter has matured into a confident, happy young woman, and after much debating—remember “diverse interests and abilities”—she recently declared her major environmental studies. She’s found a community of people who share her concerns—for now. I suspect that when her life shifts again after college, her intense sense of justice will cause disillusionment once again.

In the meantime, I’m recommending Searching for Meaning to her—and to you.

 

Wendy A. Skinner is the author of Life with Gifted Children: Infinity and Zebra Stripes, published by Great Potential Press and winner of the Arizona Glyph Award. Her nonfiction articles have appeared in Teaching for High Potential, Parenting for High Potential, and Understanding Our Gifted. She writes from St. Louis Park, MN, and you can visit her at www.wendyaskinner.com.

[This book review will be published in OUTLOOK, Nov/Dec, 2013, Vol. 26, No. 4, a publication of the Minnesota Council for Gifted & Talented.]

Friday
Sep062013

Betty Johnson: The Tip of the Iceberg

In addition to advocating for gifted children, Betty Johnson is the City of Minnetonka historian. In 1971, she founded the Minnetonka Historical Society and played a pivotal role in the acquisition of the historic Burwell House. In 2002, she authored the book MINNETONKA MILLS: A HISTORIC PROFILE IN PICTURES AND STORIES. She gave city history bus tours (pictured above) in 2006 and, every year over the last four decades, she's passed on local history to school children and other groups through a history slide show.[This personal profile of my mother was originally published in OUTLOOK, September/October 2013, Vol. 36, No. 3, a publication of the Minnesota Council for Gifted & Talented.]

You’d think I’d know enough by now to write about my mother, but when your mother is Betty Johnson, a modest yet prolific participant in civil service, arts and education, it’s tougher than you think. So, recently I found myself back visiting my childhood home. As I sat across from my mother at the large oak kitchen table, I learned more about her life than a 750 word article could ever cover. That said, bear in mind that I have an iceberg of knowledge, but only the tip of it will get the ink on this page.

Betty and her husband Bob still live in the Minnetonka house where they raised their five children since 1968. In 1972, when their oldest was 17 and on his way to Stanford University, Betty gave birth to their fifth child, Miriam. Miriam read Dr. Suess’s Red Fish, Blue Fish at four years of age and displayed an early talent for acting when given an audience. Betty recognized these and other precocious traits from raising her older children and, as do many parents of gifted children, began searching for and creating ways to challenge her youngest. Betty’s activities led to decades of service advocating for all gifted and talented children in Minnesota.

In 1979, Betty initiated formation of the Hopkins MCGT chapter. In that same year, she helped found and then become the director of West Suburban Summer School until her retirement in 1996. In 1985, West Suburban Summer School became a program in the new Gifted and Talented Department of Intermediate School District #287, a 13-district consortium of the western suburbs of the Twin Cities. Inside and outside of MCGT, Betty’s worn more hats than I have fingers to count. Within MCGT she’s held the positions of president, treasurer, chapter coordinator, director of MN Gifted Awareness Project (a three-year collaborative effort funded by Northwest Area Foundation), annual conference co-chair with Shari Colvin (for the last 14 years), and 30 years as the newsletter editor, a position she still holds today.

I remember in the early years hearing my mother’s machine gun-like Selectric typewriter ra-ta-ta-ting away on articles for the MCGT newsletter as she sat at the same oak kitchen table. At first, Betty literally cut and pasted the typed columns onto 11”x17” stock paper for traditional printing. Today, she types up the articles on her Mac, sends the files to Tony Rinkenberger, MCGT webmaster, and he puts them into a layout program before sending the 12 to 24-page file on for digital printing.

Some of you might recall Betty as “the voice of MCGT.” Before the internet, if people had a question, they called the MCGT office and left a message. When staff was either too busy or absent, Betty responded to phone messages and helped guide families to resources—not unlike she did in her first job out of college as a social worker helping military families stationed at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey.

“For years she was the first person many of us talked to when we started our journey as parents of GT kids—a voice that was reassuring and encouraging,” says Kathy Geary, now chair of MCGT’s advocacy project. “I’ll always remember speaking with Betty as I began to consider the possibility that my kids were gifted.  Betty listened carefully, offered reassuring feedback and sent me a list of books and resources.  She threw me a lifeline as I began the journey of parenting GT kids.”

How does a person become so committed, heart, soul and mind to gifted kids? Long before Miriam was born, Betty’s personal experiences established her sense of curiosity and service. “I went to a four-room school in Ames,” she says. “When I finished my fifth grade work, I’d listen in on the sixth grade lessons—taught in the same room. By the end of the school year, the principal invited me to move ahead to seventh grade.” Betty had no problem keeping up with her classmates on or off the field in junior high as one of the smartest students, the tallest seventh grader and the first girl recruited for the kickball team.

In eighth grade, Betty began six years of working in the Ames City Library after the librarian recognized her love of reading, especially science fiction and mysteries. In college, Betty received her B.S. in Home Economics from Iowa State. “It was the major that allowed me to take the most electives,” says Betty. “I took history, geology, astronomy—even a class called woodworking and weaving.” She came full circle in her formal education by completing her M.A. in gifted education curriculum and instruction from the University of St. Thomas in 1994.

Remember that iceberg I was telling you about? You’ll have to ask Betty yourself about what lies under the waterline regarding her employment and/or leadership with: General Mills, Minnetonka City Council, Minnetonka Historical Society, Music Association of Minnetonka, City of Eden Prairie, Hennepin County libraries, Stages Theater Company, Youth Performance Company, Perpich Center for the Arts, Odyssey of the Mind, Hopkins Schools Spelling Bee, AFS Intercultural Programs, YMCA, Metropolitan Zoo Advisory Committee, and much more.

Betty would be happy to talk with you over a jigsaw puzzle at the kitchen table any time. After all, there’s a lot more room—and peace and quiet—now that she’s put the typewriter away.

Friday
Sep022011

Life with Gifted Children: Four Years Later

(This appeared today in a guest post on Lisa' Rivero's everydayintensity.com)

Wendy A. Skinner, author of Life With Gifted Children: Inifinity & Zebra Stripes.

Like many parents of gifted children, when our children left the cocoon of family life and began spending most of their waking hours in public school, I worried. Will they make friends? Will they be challenged? Will they be OK?

Our son, Ben, and our daughter, Jillian, were so bright and capable, but also so very sensitive. I worried for their happiness. I advocated for them because I knew as small children, although they were mature beyond their years, they didn’t have the wherewithal of life experience to advocate for their exceptional educational needs. For years I wished I could read something other than the dozens of how-to or research-heavy books about gifted children. I wanted a story. I wanted to listen to someone who’d already been there, raised their gifted children, and survived to tell the tale. I found nothing published within the last 30 years, so I wrote the book I wished I could’ve read, Life with Gifted Children: Infinity & Zebra Stripes.

When I began writing in earnest, Ben was an 8-year-old fourth grader who was soon accelerated another year in math and Jillian was a fresh 5-year-old kindergartner with interests beyond playing house or racing cars on the carpet. Ben went on to excel in math and declare himself a physics major at Carleton College. This week he’ll step on a plane to Germany and live with a host family while studying theater and the history of Berlin. Next week, as a recent high school graduate with a National Merit Scholarship, Jillian will meet her roommate from Chicago, an artist like her, and begin her freshman year at Carleton.

What’s happened since advocating for our children in grade school? The teenage years are often described as the most tumultuous phase of a person’s development that can provide enough angst to last a lifetime. Anxiety, depression, and loneliness marked our children’s lives in various degrees. On the other hand, so did hours of caring for lizards and snakes at the nature center, nights creating web pages for a neighbor, winters nordic skiing with teammates, and days earning academic honors, as well as developing friendships and falling in love for the first time. That’s what has happened. Mind you, Jillian celebrated her 17th birthday only two weeks ago and Ben is still 19. The process of searching for a circle of friends where they can truly relax, be themselves, and be understood, is still unfolding. The main difference is that now, they’re in a social and intellectual environment of their choosing.

My most satisfying realization as a parent of gifted children is that after graduating from high school, they’re lucky enough to spend their next four years in an environment that supports their intellectual curiosity as well as their quirky and intense interests. An alumnus once told me that this will be the only time—four precious years—that their true peers will surround them. Once they get out into the real world, they’ll work with and serve people from all walks of life. These four years are a gift that will allow them to continue developing their talents and interests, develop lifelong friendships, and grow into people who’ll make a difference for themselves and others in the world.

In the meantime, both Ben and Jillian continue to discover and wrap their brains around the what-ifs. Ben continues his fascination with mathematical and analytical problem solving. In addition to his physics classes, he’s taking as many computer science classes as he can. He’s a modest kid. He doesn’t say much about his college work, but when I ask, he will. I can tell that he simplifies his explanations for the sake of my elementary understanding. If only I could discuss Saturn’s rings or the properties of the low-temperature helium he’s researched over the summer like his housemates can, but I can’t and that’s okay.

Jillian continues in her persistent and private ways. She’s an artist. Stories constantly simmer beneath her calm exterior and bubble out her fingertips in writing and hundreds of doodles and sketches. Very few people know and even fewer understand how these narratives and images run through her veins. She’s not an exhibitionist, but a true artist whose primary purpose is to make her characters come alive and solve their problems. And what problems they can be! The worlds she creates are half science fiction and half fantasy, sometimes with whole civilizations teetering in the balance.

Everything changes, and yet, nothing does. The external circumstances, the geography of our lives, will change completely. In a week my husband and I won’t hear the floorboards creak at night when Ben jumps out of bed with a startling discovery or hear Jillian laughing as she watches an episode of The Big Bang Theory from her laptop. Our grocery bill will decrease by 50% mostly because “the Hoover” (as we’ve nicknamed Ben lately) won’t be around. I won’t be picking up the water glasses or socks that Jillian routinely scatters around the house. As much as our home will change from bustling to stillness, Ben and Jillian will always be our children. On occasion they’ll need our guidance as they navigate the many firsts to come—filing income taxes, renewing a passport, booking a flight, dating for the first time or maintaining a long-distance relationship.

What advice would I give parents now that our children have crossed the threshold from home to college and beyond? Persist. Expect the unexpected. Lay a solid foundation for them. Know that no matter how brilliant you think your children are—and they’re probably more brilliant than you’ll ever know—they’ll find their way. In the meantime, you’ll have more sleepless nights when you ask yourself, Will they be OK? Take it from a mother who’s been there: with your love and guidance, they will be all right.