How Does an Island Feel? Raising Gifted Children in a World That Turns Its Back

06/02/2015 04:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016


So eager to take my milk, he was.

As I held his tiny body, covered in those earthen smells of childbirth, he looked back at me and around and back at me like he knew what his role was, stretched his neck and latched on. The doctor said "what a cherubic face" and "you were fantastic" and "I've never seen a baby quite that alert in my entire career, I believe you'll be needing a good pair of sneakers".

Rocco, we called him. I was young -- young enough that I had read all the books and bought all the things as if those things would somehow raise him had I decided I could not. But I stayed with him every day and every night under the rented roof of a beautiful old Victorian with oak floors and tall ceilings. He slept for no more than 45 minutes at a time and always awoke disappointed, as if the coherent voice he dreamt with was again lost. The books said I was supposed to comfort him, they said I should check his diaper, maybe he was hungry. But the cries came anyway, those pleading, desperate screams bouncing from wall to wall. I would ready a second pot of coffee. This is how babies are, I told myself.

As the months passed, the rhythm that so many had spoken of never came. Our days were a marvelous performance of song and dance, intense tears followed by laughter, hours and hours of books. His quiet could only be had by listening to my voice stumble over Dostoyevsky or Dickens.

"Why would you read that to him. It won't do any good," said a friend who would later become an enemy, then a sister-in-law and then neither sister-in-law, enemy nor friend. Deep in the grip of early sleep deprivation, I failed to respond before she added, irritably, "There's research."

She was the first of many to wash their hands.

But I continued. I did what worked, what was good, what made quiet. And he preferred encyclopedias to picture books; seeing strands of letters typed on a screen to finger play; listening to Bach, visibly falling into that intense world of inner movement, to peekaboo. He was six months old.

Summer. Autumn. Winter. We moved to another Victorian house in a town nearby. Our past landlord needed the apartment for his mother, she couldn't climb the steps. I knew that he wanted to tell us that he hadn't slept either since Rocco was born. That the situation just wasn't working out. That it wasn't what he had planned on. And then I would say that I hadn't planned on it either, that I was drowning. But I didn't. I wished him and his mother well.

The new house, "the Tiny House" as we came to call it, because that's what he began to call it, was good to us. During the cold, damp winter it was warm, which was what it needed to be. I did a lot of thinking during that time. A lot of trying to remember myself, my relationships. My mother. Sitting with her as a young child, before things changed; before life got hard with job loss, with the stress of my sweet sister who was born incredibly premature, with my parents forgetting that they once loved each other. We would sit on the sofa and she would scratch my back. I remember the air conditioning hum and a warm comforter under my own tiny body. She would kiss my cheeks. Smell them. Look at me with such love. "You were born old, Manda," she would say.

And then, I caught myself saying those words to him.

"Born me," he replied matter-of-factly.

He was challenging my statement in a way I hadn't expected. So I elaborated. I began nervously listing those things that I loved about him as a way to make up for being unoriginal. I told him he was different and intense. I told him that I heard his words and agreed. I told him he was my baby. He smiled and slept through the night for the first time ever. He was 14 months old.

So, I was now given permission to sleep, but I had forgotten how. I would lie in bed during those dark times in the throes of "what now''. Good mother remained fixated on hearing him breathe. Bad mother remained fixated on how she would be moving her sad body before the dawn chorus, before she felt ready. A whole day's journey. Weeks. Years. Sometimes different but mostly the same, that journey. I never came to it ready.

4am. Breakfast. Coffee. 5am. Coffee. Reading aloud. 6am. Reading aloud.Coffee. 7am. Reading aloud. Yawning. 8am. Second breakfast. 8:02am. 8:03am. 8:07am. Stop looking at the clock. 8:09am. Only 10 more hours until bedtime. 8:12am. Pack up the car. Something must be open.

So we drove. Of course, Rocco was not easy to drive with. On good days he would chatter incessantly, making up words and melodies, songs, jokes that weren't funny with explanations as to why they were, repeating noises he heard outside or a radio dj's announcement.

"You're listening to 103.5 WKTU, WKTU, WKTU, WKTU, WKTU, KKKKKK, TTTTTT, UUUUUUU 103, 103 103 Mummy and Me KTU KTU You are you and I'm you too poo poo poo flambeed stew with eyeballs and tibias and stag beetles."

On bad days the screams came, sending shockwaves through the tiny, confined interior. A horrible nuisance for most, but for a mother they were a delivery of pain. Arms flailing not randomly, but in movements of programmed frustration. I would sing to him old songs and new, chant, reassure, bribe, get frantic. And it would keep on going, the only way to kill the power was to unbuckle. A sniffle and then a smile. Our plans ruined. He'd go in the house and spend an hour lining his cars up in perfect rows according to size and color as a way to comfort. I'd put the kettle on and stand in the kitchen running my fingers back and forth along the smooth countertop. Back and forth. Like little cars.

And so there I was. A woman who swore never to reproduce myself dealing with the consequences of reproducing myself. I navigated our days with non-existent outside help (because he was "such a busy child, my word"). We'd drive to Target, only a five minute journey, well within the safe-zone, four days a week. We walked up and down every aisle as I pointed at items and shared the words "microwave", "cheese plate", "dop kit", "caffeine pills", "self-help book", "EXIT". I was exhausted. But the rhythm of this exercise provided the structure we both needed to get by. When many other 18 month olds were at home nestled into naptime, mine was sitting in the candle aisle smelling the wares.

"Mummy, what's that smell?"


A giggle. "That's a rubbish name. Can I buy it?"

We left once a week with a candle for nearly a year. He liked to sleep with them. Unlit, of course, drawn to his tiny chest. I was happy when he was done with the candles. The parenting books mentioned the natural cycling of phases and thankfully this phase was over.

And then:

"I need the squash, Mummy, it's important." He had harvested his first squash that morning. None of us ate squash, but he received a seed packet from a great aunt and decided that seeds were the most magical thing in his world. I brought the yellow squash to his room and handed it to him. He smiled and held it close to his face. "They're so beautiful", he said.

I would never have noticed the truly feline form of a generic yellow summer squash without him. He showed me lines, the nuance of color, the stem ("the place it holds on to its mother, like you and me"). I started eating squash for the first time in my life. I made sauteed squash and made squash soup according to his recipes while holding the new one, my infant daughter Luca, in a sling. He was so proud. "Rocco invented that soup, Wuca."

It was, of course, really good.

So the candles, it seemed, were a gateway drug of sorts. The squash was eventually replaced by a rather cumbersome encyclopedia that forced him to sleep awkwardly against the wall. After that, stones. Gems. Pieces of wood. A list he found in the gutter. An old railway spike. An heirloom tomato. Nasturtium seeds. Coins. A trilobite fossil. A plastic container holding a memory box of deceased ladybugs. A handwritten eulogy.

We let him carry these things. His pieces of thing; so completely extensions of his own self. His hands smelled of coin metals. Fingernails constantly caked in the dirt of his collections. And when the sheer glory of the moment's finds became too much he would take those beautiful hands and shake them in a kind of frantic meditation.

He was stimming. I had no idea it was actually a "thing" then, but, like his things, he owned it completely. His need to let energy burst forth from his fingers was borne of happiness and excitement. The kind that came when finding a hammered nail or a rusted bottle cap.

I began instinctively picking up bits from the ground, what most people think of as garbage, to give him as special gifts. He drew them, diagrammed them. Fig 1. Fig 2, etc. We were such an island that I had no idea that this wasn't the norm. He was a fluent reader and writer. Afternoons spent with his nose in Roald Dahl, spelling me the words he didn't know. Then onto drawings of dinosaurs and leaves. Then requesting his evening meal. Talking about mortality. Singing a song about watching me get eaten by a therizinosaurus. And not yet four.

And the clock was ticking. Nearly time for preschool or early kindergarten and what was I supposed to do? "Sorry, little one, you'll have to hand over the Wordsworth so you can rehash the alphabet." Or, if they accelerated him a grade or two: "Sorry, little one, you'll have to stop memorizing field guides so you can spell words like tree and leaves rather than the Latin names you're already writing?" I didn't have the money to send him to an accelerated private school and didn't have the heart to make him march with the band. I kept him home.

Not really home.

We traveled up and down the East Coast. We hosted craft days and art days with other local parents who weren't schooling traditionally. We sat on the beach for science lessons and danced around the house with dusters for phys ed.

We did lessons and treasure hunts in parks. Began studying Early Man, at their request.

A visit to see a lame copy of Lucy's skeleton should never have excited two preschoolers as it did. All the adults circulating the Evolution area poked each other to look at the beaming knee-highs posing next to what other kids would call bones. Rocco was explaining to those that passed that "Lucy was the first Australopithecus afarensis skeleton ever found and she was definitely an adult because if you look closely the soft spot at the top of her skull is fully closed my name is Rocco and I'm five years old."

At the Peabody Museum in New Haven they ran to the Hall of Dinosaurs, sprawled across the benches, removed paper, crayons, pens from their satchels and began sketching fossils before I had even made it through the door. It was maybe a Tuesday morning. "No school today?" we'd hear over and over and over. Yes. They're in school right now.

So, the next few years were a tumultuous stew of intensity and demand. He now had a ready sidekick in his little sister, two years his junior. She, the textbook second child: quiet and unassuming, patient, hiding well her similar genius. So full of a belief in magic that she balanced him by dragging his realism into the clouds. During days at home they spent many an hour as privateers and fairies, 18th century noblemen and ancient Egyptian pharaohs (going through the process of mummification). Roc's compulsion to diagram found its way into their frolics; he began (what has now become) hundreds of pages filled with created names: John Porsecheston, Braddock Grim, Rana the Heir, Jeffrey Lynx, Piotr Dak, Temperance Bones,

Reed McDowell. She was born shortly after his sixth birthday.

Roc beamed at her, shook his hands in excitement and then hunted down my midwife. "Could you go over the placenta with me before you take it away. My sister and I are very interested." For the next 10 minutes they stood listening attentively to the grand tour of their little sister's ex-home. He came back satisfied, smiling and said,

"Hello, little Reed."

The 20-minute old infant lifted her wobbly head right off my chest, opened her eyes wide, stared directly at him and without rest turned back to me, to him and finally back to me, stretched her neck and latched on.

It could have been a moment of cloudy deja vu, had I not immediately realized what was happening. All over again.