David Bouchier 1/27/14
7:40 am
Mon January 27, 2014

Gifted and Talented

Today is Mozart’s anniversary. He was born on 27th January in 1756, and certainly fell into the category of gifted and talented children. He started playing the piano at the age of three, and composing at the age of six. When he was eight years old the boy amused himself by writing his first symphony for all the instruments of the orchestra.

History seems full of such astonishing child prodigies: the mathematician Blaise Pascal, the poet Alexander Pope, the artist Pablo Picasso, and hundreds of others. It’s a mystery where their gifts came from, but what they had in common was an early rather than a late start.  They focused one passionate interest from childhood, and stuck to it in spite of everything, even in spite of being labeled as odd, or even abnormal.

There’s no way of measuring how many geniuses appear in any given place or time, but these days they seem to be quite rare. It may be that, in an egalitarian society, a true genius learns to hide his or her superiority, just as the driver of a Ferrari must keep it down to fifty-five miles an hour on our restricted roads, even if it can easily go at two hundred. Genius, like speed, may attract unwelcome attention.

All parents naturally want their children to be special, and try to get them into gifted and talented programs. Garrison Keillor, the host of Prairie Home Companion, likes to joke that all children in Lake Wobegon are above average. But of course only half of all children can ever be above average, and only a tiny number are born with an extraordinary talent. But then not many parents want their children to be different, let alone unique. Fitting in may be more important than standing out.

Modern childhood is so extended that there’s not much chance of making an early start on a career, except perhaps in sports or entertainment where the talent is easily recognized and potentially profitable. On the whole young people are not expected to be capable of anything much until they have been processed through the whole educational machinery from kindergarten to PhD.  Even if a child does have a special gift, by the time they graduate they may have forgotten what it was. Grades and credits and distribution requirements and multiple choice tests have knocked any taint of genius out of them.

What would happen to a Mozart today? The chances are he wouldn’t find a music program in his school, and in any case Mozart scarcely ever went to school. As a hyperactive, mischievous boy he would probably be given drugs to calm him down, flunk out of school from sheer boredom, and end up working in the fast food industry. I sometimes wonder how many mute inglorious Mozarts there are, flipping burgers out in the suburbs.

I once asked my mother if I had shown any special talents at the age when Mozart was composing symphonies. She thought about this, for rather too long in my opinion, but finally admitted that I did sleep more than the average child.  So I have to accept that I am part of the vast majority whose special gift is to have no special gift. It’s quite a relief really. At least I haven’t wasted my genius and, as a consolation prize, I can always listen to Mozart.

Copyright: David Bouchier

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