New Age Prodigies

June 10, 1994

Two recent stories about youthful over-achievers have set us to hoping that the real wave of the future will be the generation coming right after Generation X. The stories described the exploits of a 12-year-old pilot, Vicki Van Meter, from Meadville, Pa., whose flight along the route pioneered by Amelia Earhart in the 1930s made her the youngest pilot ever to fly the Atlantic, and 10-year-old Michael Kearney, whose award of a bachelor's degree from the University of South Alabama made him the world's youngest college graduate. Talk about precocious kids!

Historically, the most famous prodigies have been musicians, mathematicians and chess players. The 18th century's Age of Enlightenment produced a slew of them. Composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was a typical prodigy; by the age of 5 he was composing and performing flawlessly on the piano and violin. The young Karl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855), one of the great mathematicians of all time, effortlessly computed long sums of numbers in his head. Bobby Fischer (1943- ), the eccentric American chess player, became an International Grandmaster at 15.

There's also the rare verbal prodigy. Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770), for example, was already a mature poet at 17. Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), one of the first published African-American poets, reportedly demonstrated amazing facility with the English language a few months after being brought to Boston from Senegal at age 7.

Some people find the appearance of prodigious talent among the very young unnerving. Yet experts at the Johns Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth say there is nothing unhealthy or abnormal about allowing children to progress at the level of their potential, even if that is well beyond that of their peers. Indeed, rigid adherence to the idea that kids always should be placed with peers, regardless of ability, can actually stunt a gifted student's progress, these experts say.

Granted, some kids do get pushed by parents or teachers for the wrong reasons. Sometimes they are forced to move more quickly than they are comfortable doing. Or their elders fail to give adequate attention to their social and emotional needs. But the fact is that kids develop at different rates. What is exceptional for most kids may be normal for the gifted child. And for such children, the most important thing is recognizing and nurturing talent early, lest it be wasted.

In the new era we are entering, the number of arenas in which youthful genius can shine -- from the concert hall to the tennis court to the cockpit of a plane -- will be greater than ever. That's progress; age should be no barrier. As long as what young Michael Kearney and Vicki Van Meter do feels natural to them, then more power to 'em.

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