SPEND ENOUGH TIME in suburban preschools these days, and you're bound to hear one parent or another uttering a boast masquerading as a complaint about how they just can't keep the books coming fast enough for their precocious 3- or 4-year-old reader. Odds are, there's probably no reason to boast. Researchers who've been marinating in reading studies for years say a tiny percentage of children - maybe 3 percent, maybe a little more or less - can be classified as truly early readers. These 3- or 4-year-olds understand phonics and context, and they will likely keep up their accelerated reading pace throughout their school years...In grade school, whether someone could be said to be a genius (in our universe, that meant maybe the most impressive one or two people in the class)--or at least smart--mattered a lot in terms of how that kid would get gossiped about. We had a gifted program starting in the first grade, and it was widely known who was in and who was just a wannabe. Stacy (as we shall call her) was definitely in, and, in my first few years of school, widely heralded as a genius. In fact, during a session of show-and-tell one day in the first grade, after I had finished waving around my new Barbie doll, Stacy stood up and introduced her offering:
But most of the other early readers bringing smiles to their parents' faces aren't really reading at all. They're demonstrating merely that they've memorized lots of words by sight...Studies have demonstrated that the early reading advances these kids show typically wash out a few years down the line.
"This is a thesaurus." She held it up and passed it around. "It has synonyms. Synonyms are words that are like other words. I like to read it to learn words." At this point, if I were a more dramatic six-year-old, I probably would have fainted. As it was, I just sat in shock for several minutes. How did Stacy discover such a thing? And why? I could barely read at this point, and while Stacy was "learning words," I was spending my after-school hours pretending that my bicycle was a horse in various games of Cowboys and Indians with my neighbor. How could I be so stupid? The teacher was pleased beyond measure (finally, a break from the monotony of Barbie dolls and teddy bears, I imagine), and gushed about Stacy's brilliance for several minutes after the presentation. I was convinced.
Stacy was officially the smartest person I had ever met. Smarter than my parents, my first-grade teacher, and all the adults on television. I began to worship Stacy and try to ingratiate myself into her social circle. I largely failed in this endeavor because Stacy was not only the smartest person ever, but she was also super cool due to her mother's heavy involvement in the PTA and her ownership of some sort of business that personalized jewelery boxes and stationary and other trinkets, which were regularly dispensed as birthday gifts and party favors to the great delight of the class. (This was an age when having your mother chaperone field trips was still the it thing to do.) I think being a smelly Russian kid kind of disqualified me from her friendship. I finally did get invited to one of her birthday sleepovers in the fourth or fifth grade, but I was intimidated by her well-appointed modernist home (my house was a discount sale pastiche) and the sophistication of the party (we spent part of the evening applying make-up), so I didn't enjoy myself very much.
Shortly thereafter, Stacy's star began to descend. She was still a good student, but she no longer seemed quite as stunningly brilliant. By middle school, boys and other late bloomers overtook the socially established geniuses. By high school, only one or two of the originally designated gifted students remained at the top of the class and Stacy was not among them. My parents, who had responded to my incredulous tale of Stacy's thesaurus years earlier with a dismissive, "Her parents push her. Don't worry. She's not that great," were more or less vindicated. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that her parents were very involved in cultivating her toddler talents given her perennial involvement in lessons of some kind--skating, tap dance, acting, etc. Well, it didn't work out quite like they hoped, but except for a brief and very public "conversion" to Wicca, I think she still turned out fine. It's possible that she is disappointed at not having lived up to the promise of her thesaurus days, but I wouldn't know. Most likely, she doesn't dwell on them.