Home > Giftedness - An Overview > Underachievement


At the start, the reader will have to understand something about the setting in which all of this took place: where I was and what I was like. But more importantly, it is necessary to know that no matter how difficult it was then, and no matter how many hidden scars he may currently bear, Charlie grew up into an extraordinary, kind, understanding companion for me and others, and, I hope, for himself. The end result for Charlie, now in his forties, is extraordinary, just as Charlie is, but I have often wondered whether it had to be so difficult for him and those who loved him along the way. Whether we could have found another way.

Charlie has spent much of his adult life working with students who are very much like himself, very bright, non-conforming, under-achieving. They have been fortunate to have him as a teacher and mentor. He understands them in a way that he never was able to understand himself. They give him perspective on himself as a younger person, and he is able to give them perspective on themselves and their lives.

When Charlie was born, I was 26 years old and Charlie was our third child in five years.

Having children was for me like a total immersion course in Child, because I had been an only child myself in a house of generally well-meaning, but innately unkind, adults, had never baby-sat for any one nor had any relationship with the young, except for my peers, had had no particular interest in child psychology or early childhood education or anything similar while I was in college, and had never been involved in any of the formative phases which might have better prepared me for the tasks of Motherhood: Master Psychologist, Social Arbiter, Educational Guidance, Child Advocate, and the rest that parenting entails. (Sometime I'll do a piece on the many roles of Mother, but that's for another day.)

I was accustomed to living my life among very bright, sometimes gifted, people. My family members were mostly intellectually gifted (but not necessarily sensitive or "smart"), I went to Nursery and Kindergarten and elementary school for smart kids and in general I excelled, although there were often others in my classes who I believed to be just as bright, or maybe even brighter. Although classes in my elementary school, which was the laboratory school for the state's teachers' college, included some students who were not quite as intellectually endowed, in order to leaven the mix, I never really associated with them, nor did those with whom I associated. That was an instinctive and conforming birds-of-a-feather social pattern.

Then I attended the local High School where most of the local college-bound students went, unless they were in private school. My friends and colleagues in High School were all very bright, all doing well in school, all expecting and expected to go to college. And I went to college at one of what was then called the Seven Sisters, where bright "girls" whose parents could afford to send them went to prepare themselves for finding a spouse, living a mostly sheltered life, and expanding their knowledge base. Everyone was very clever.

It was a time when female children of families of some means were not expecting or expected to work after college, but rather to have and raise children, and then do "good works," just like their mothers. Growing up, I never earned a penny; in my retrospective opinion that was true deprivation, since I was never forced to test myself in the harsh environment of work, never knew what the demands of "earning a living" were all about, never understood what constraints the demands of working placed on people's time, energy, and ambitions. Further, I never learned about the motivations of "bosses," since I was never forced to brush up against them. And, I was not a very analytical or self-analytical person, probably to a fault. It didn't come naturally and no one ever told me that analysis or self-analysis was a virtue. For that matter, we never, in our home, talked much about much and certainly not about virtues other than cleanliness, good scholarship, and a kind of surficial courtesy. And I always knew what was expected, and how unpleasant it would be if I didn't live up to that structured norm. I was mostly acted upon and not the actor.

I never knew who I was or what I was, except in the socio-economic and educational context in which I moved. I read a lot but I was rarely stretched. I had a nursemaid who was something of a mentor. Without her I would never have learned about The Princess and The Goblin and the Back of the North Wind. I would have been unlikely to discover my own flair for the written word, and probably not my taste for science fictions, fairy tales, and the land of Oz. But she never tried, and probably was not equipped, to teach me much about humans, just, delightfully, about extraterrestrials of various origins.

All of which is to inform the reader that I was ill prepared for being a parent. When it was time, I read a lot of Doctor Spock and Doctors Gates and Gesell, who were, as I remember, Yale psychologists of the time who wrote wonderfully and decisively about norms for infants and children. Since I had no personal pool of knowledge about kids and no adult source that I trusted on that subject, and since my husband was as new at it as I was, and coming at it from very different perspectives, I was very reliant on what I could get from books. It helped but it certainly wasn't enough. (I am still, however, an unrelenting advocate of reading all about it, whatever it is, to provide a platform on which to stand, while we prepare to learn to swim.)

And, of course, I simply expected our children turn out to be bright and successful. I had a view of myself as very bright, which was mostly true, and I moved among other people just like me. I was prepared to be shocked, really shocked, if any of our children was anything other than bright, reasonably "well-adjusted" and conforming, and a good student. I never really thought about it; though; it was a given. Anything else would have been incompatible and unthinkable.

And our first two children fit the mold. Most of the time they did what we expected. They were very bright, quite beautiful, quite charming. They were a joy to their teachers and a pain in the neck to the competitive parents of their peers. They were mostly a joy to us as parents, too, while we learned what to do with infants, toddlers, young learners, and the terrible teens. That's not to say that they, and we, didn't have at least our fair share of problems, some caused by us and some not. And that's certainly not to say that we didn't learn from the kids and the problems, and in spite of them, accepting new assumptions, and casting away some old ones.

Unfortunately, when you're in the middle of it, your perspective is skewed. And that is particularly true if there is no calm observer who communicates the observations, so that you know how your kids stack up against their peers (other than academically), what you're doing that's healthy, and how you could perhaps be more constructive and supportive in the on-going combat of the maturation battle, parents' and children's. I probably didn't learn as much as I should have.

Charlie didn't really seem any different when he entered our world. Were we different? Was I different than the person who welcomed his older brother and sister? Probably some: older, of course, but still in my twenties; more experienced (I hesitate to say wiser); still ignorant about my own cerebral and emotional workings; still never employed other than as a Mom; still acted upon, for the most part. I was reasonably pleased with the growing up patterns of both brother and sister, and had no particular reason to expect anything else of Charlie.

I would like to be able to say that he seemed different almost immediately, but he didn't. He was like the others. Reasonably sunny, following Spock's and Gesell's patterns, needing a little less sleep than I wished, needing a little more attention than I wished. But after all, he was the baby. He had two bossy siblings who mostly didn't give him the time of day. He had two rather stressed parents who had never used the word "stress."

But Charlie did what was expected of him: played with blocks; looked at picture books and read them when it was time to do that; fitted the patterns to which I had grown accustomed.

But, when he went to Nursery School and Kindergarten, he refused to "color in." Was it that he couldn't or that he wouldn't? Was it general rebellion or specific to the task or the teacher or the surroundings? Was it that he simply didn't like coloring books or the task of coloring? And was it important?

Charlie had a huge speaking vocabulary, but so had his siblings. He read on schedule, but not all that much ahead of time, but so had his siblings. He could have worn a jersey that said "Does Not Play Well with Peers," but I was not really worried about that. Or perhaps I was, and I didn't know what to do about it, so I put it aside. I had no personal memories of being delighted with school chums, so if I consciously worried about Charlie's "lack of friends," I would nevertheless not have found his behavior patterns to be out of context with what I already knew.

For that matter, Charlie's brother and sister were not all that friendly with their school chums, either. They were invited to their share of birthday parties, but so was Charlie.

But the important thing is that he refused to, or could not, "color in." Even if we had recognized that single act as a symptom, we would not have known what to do with it, where to go. The child psychologists of the time would, I believe, have found that small behavioural aberration, to be of little or no significance.

But it was the first real deviation of which we were aware. And, of course, when he moved on to First Grade, he continued to refuse to color in, although there seemed to be no doubt in his teachers' minds that he could have if he wanted to.

What made Charlie refuse to do what he was asked to do, when it is so simple to conform in this small matter and gain admiration and applause? Aye, there's the rub. We never found the solution to this conundrum, or the ones that followed. If we had been able to respond satisfactorily to this one opening gambit, I believe that we might well have won the game.

As it was, looking at it from my perspective of that time, it was not really so odd. I couldn't color in very well either, although I think I had done so in my early years when some one required it of me. And I know that if we had raised the "coloring-in" issue as a "symptom" of something more foreboding, we would have received the same blank stares we later got from psychologists and psychiatrists alike, as Charlie grew older. No one ever thought there was anything "wrong" with Charlie, just with us, for thinking so. No one ever thought that the fact that he always appeared to be the principal obstacle to his own success was anything other than ordinary. No one ever believed that it was odd that a youngster like Charlie, so smart, so knowledgeable, so perceptive, with so much "potential," could spend so much of his time doing himself in.

In nursery school and kindergarten, and almost until he entered college, Charlie was small for his age. He had eyes that required a lot of correction, and so he wore heavy lenses. He spoke in complex syntax with a mature vocabulary, and he was, as are so many gifted children, very literal in his use of and response to language. Sometimes that was a problem for others, although it was always beyond Charlie's understanding as to why the world didn't understand the literal underpinnings of the words that they were using.

Around the house, none of that seemed very odd at all. In the world of his peers, and many of his teachers, he was an oddity. He had a lot of trouble "making friends" among his peers, although he desperately wanted to. He was the last to be chosen for a team at recess or in sports, although he loved sports, and knew all the relevant data. He was clumsy. He was stereotypical. It was very frustrating to him. It was also very frustrating to me, because I loved him dearly and wanted very much for him to have the relationships he sought.

As advanced as Charlie was intellectually, he was not, I see retrospectively, in any way advanced in his understanding of human relationships and the social circumstance.

Why was that? Did we fail to convey to him through the usual osmosis the behavior patterns that make life simpler, or did he silently and secretly, instinctively or purposefully refuse to accept those concepts, as he appeared to refuse so many others that would have made his life pattern so much simpler when he was child, adolescent, young adult.

At that time, the concept of self-esteem was not so pervasive as it is now. Had it been, I somehow feel that I might have focused more intensely on what all of this was probably doing to his psyche. He never talked about it. I was never able to elicit from him why he took so many actions that made trouble for him. It was a mystery, which itself created an additional bone of contention between us.

"If you are having trouble with your homework, why don't you ask for help?" "If you don't understand something at school, why don't you ask for help?" If you can't finish your homework, why don't you ask me for help?" If the kids at school are making things difficult for you, please ask for help." "Why don't you ask for help?" Still, many of Charlie's tears, and many of mine, later, a mystery.

Was I so difficult to get along with? I don't think so and he doesn't say that I was. Was I so distant and hard to reach? I don't think so and he doesn't say that I was. I did not work until Charlie was in kindergarten, so I was around while all of these patterns were forming, but I was unable to change the direction in which he was going, or the direction in which our relationship was going. When I went to work, it didn't get better, but it didn't get worse. I was always at home in the evening, always checking on homework. Always the recipient of the multiple ways that he could find in order to dodge answering me. Of course, I knew they were dodges, but I did not have the inclination to fight it out every night, nor the energy. And it always felt faintly unhealthy to engage in a shouting match every night after dinner on the subject of whether or not there was homework to do and, if he admitted that there was (a rarity), then whether or not he had finished it.

In fact, as Charlie grew older, and I became more sensitive to his depths of anguish and anger, he brought me to tears often, although rarely in his presence. Why? Because I knew he wanted to excel; I knew (and I told him so over and over again in totally pointless harangue), that he was standing in his own way in a manner that he would not have accepted if it had been another person obstructing his passage.

In school, early on and continuing, Charlie refused to recapitulate for his teachers that information and those skills that he had already acquired. He refused to do it orally and in writing, whether in homework form or in classroom tests. In fact, he virtually never passed in a piece of homework, and the longer it was, the less likely it was to be handed in. And it wasn't until many years later that I discovered that he had actually absorbed not only what was being taught in school, but also every piece of information that was discussed at home (when he appeared to be engaged in activities of his own), and what was in the newspapers and on the television, and in the many books in our house.

The teachers all could tell that he was very bright, and they had known his older brother and sister, and they tore their hair out at their inability to make him conform. They complained to me a lot.

I think now that he may have been grossly insulted that we didn't all understand that he knew it all, and that he did not forgive us for that behavior.

He says that because it was all so easy when he was young, he never learned study skills. So when he needed them in high school, he didn't have them, and he could not then, as he could not when he was younger, seek my aid or, in fact, aid from his teachers or any one else. Why not? He doesn't really know yet, nor do I. And I am not even really sure that this fairly simple explanation (no learned study skills) has anything to do with what was going on.

A few anecdotes to provide the flavor of the moments and years. When Charlie was in grammar school, he was at one time the leader of the line in which the children were supposed to walk when they left school for home. One day at the end of the school day, a substitute teacher came into the classroom where Charlie and the others were waiting to be dismissed and sent home. They were not being very quiet. The teacher said, "This is the noisiest classroom in this whole school." "Oh, no," said Charlie, "Mrs. Smith's class is the noisiest classroom in the school." The substitute thought he was being "fresh" and "insubordinate" and dragged him by the arm to the principal's office to complain. But was he being fresh and insubordinate? No, he was being literal.

When Charlie was ready for high school, we considered sending him to boarding school, hoping that they would stimulate him into "behaving," and that he would actually learn a lot. We applied to a number of very good boarding schools, although his elementary and junior high record was not the kind that normally opens the door to Exeter or Andover.

We applied to St. Paul's. At the time, I knew the rector, but it didn't seem likely to me that they would take him. After a while, the rector called me up. "Hi," he said. "You know we are not going to take Charlie, don't you?" I admitted that it seemed unlikely. I recommend trying Mount Hermon," he said, "but I am not sure that that will work either." "All right," I agreed. "Are you still trying to get him to do his homework?" he asked. I admitted that I was. "Well," he said, "stop doing that. He isn't going to do it, and you will lose him."

I was appalled! Not make sure that homework was done? Revolutionary. But we felt that the rector was so knowledgeable that it was probably good advice for us to take. It was very hard for us to do, because it was our habit, and because it seemed counter-indicated. We worked at it. We actually bit our tongues. A lot.

That didn't make Charlie study or do his homework, but it reduced the level of daily rancor.

And eventually, Charlie went off to Mount Hermon, where, despite their long history with managing the young, they were unable to modify his patterns. He often didn't go to class, and he never did his homework. Nevertheless, being Charlie, he was absorbing information.

By the time Charlie had spent a year not going to class or doing his work, he was on probation at Mount Hermon for his Sophomore Year. And he had a new and very inexperienced guidance counselor. She was recently out of college, or perhaps graduate school, and she had swallow some professor's theory that if you engage the student in his own study plan, he will perform. Ha! She told me all about the contract she had made with Charlie. She had written it out and he had signed it. In it he promised to go to class and to do his homework and probably to behave in a number of other equally unlikely ways. I told her that it was a good idea, but that if Charlie was able to do all those things, he wouldn't have needed a contract in order to do them. But she was a true believer and was not interested in my experience with Charlie or others. Of course, Charlie didn't do the work. He couldn't. It was a fruitless effort, and a more experience guidance counselor would have known it. But then Mount Herman was ready to send him away, because "he didn't live up to his contract." Foolish people. This was not a matter of choice for Charlie, and they should have known it. Whatever the problems were, they were beyond his solution. Some one from Mount Herman called me up at work. I remember it to this day. It was probably the guidance counselor, but I have blocked that out. I know I must have told them what I thought of them and their inability to deal realistically with very bright but non-performing students. I know that I stood there in my office, looking out the window, and I wept. I wept for Charlie that he should have to under go this kind of punishment for a task he simply could not perform. He came home and eventually enrolled in the public high school in our city. And eventually he graduated with just the bare level of grades that was necessary to permit graduation. He virtually failed math. And he got an 800 in his Math boards. And in the 700's on his English SAT.

When he applied to college, the only college of any value that was interested was Worcester Polytech. They saw him as extraordinary and told me so. But they relied on the student to do the work, although they provided plenty of opportunity for the student to make up lost classes and missing tests. Charlie couldn't do it and he didn't. I do not know to this day what he did for two years at WPI. Unfathomable. And he doesn't want to talk about it, not even now.

By then Charlie has seen a number of psychologists and psychiatrists. Some he liked, and some he didn't. But so far as I knew then or know now, he was unwilling to open up to any of them, and no matter how bright and experienced they were, he managed to pull the proverbial wool over their eyes.

There was the chief psychiatrist at Harvard. A very bright man. He saw Charlie a lot. He said that there was nothing wrong with Charlie, that he (Charlie) was very much like him (the psychiatrist), and that he would no doubt become a psychiatrist. He said further that the problems, such as they were, were with Charlie's parents, us. His answer: leave him alone; he will perform. We had already tried that. And ignoring Charlie's patterns did not help him to succeed at school.

Then, there was the chief psychiatrist at another excellent university in the Boston area. She had a reputation for fully understanding college youth. She saw Charlie a lot too; it was while he was at WPI. There was the day we went to see her because she said she was ready to report. She said, "Isn't it wonderful!" "What's that?" we asked. "Why, Charlie is going to class regularly now," she said. "How do you know?" we asked, daring to hope that it might be true. "He told me so," she said." And we laughed. And then we cried.

Then, there was another psychologist whom Charlie appeared to really like. He saw a lot of Charlie, too. It is possible that he had some impact on Charlie that benefited Charlie, but of course he would not discuss anything with us, nor would Charlie. Whatever, that relationship came to an end, too, with Charlie still floundering in college. And at the end of two years, he was no longer welcome at WPI.

He was out in the world and ill-prepared for it. We were no better prepared to deal with him as an adult. But that is another other story.

This story has a happy ending. As I said when this began, Charlie has been successful at rebuilding himself into an admirable human being whose company I enjoy, whose intelligence and wisdom I rely on, and who has a broad network of friends, acquaintances, students, and colleagues who recognize his great capabilities and nurturing qualities.