The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Fall Of Snail Kingdom

Throughout history, the fall of an empire has often been sudden and surprising: some unexpected turn of events occurs and all comes tumbling down. So, too, was it with the little principality known as the Grand Snail Hotel.

Those who have read the posts regarding Children and Pet Animals - and its sequel on The Grand Snail Hotel, will be primed to understand this post. If you haven't I suggest that you do, otherwise it will be meaningless.

You may recall that my wife and I found our sons building The Grand Snail Hotel in the lobby. It was constructed of plastics and provided a haven for gastropod life on our stairwell. It was also quite beautiful to look at. My wife promised to photograph it once we came back from the shops that evening.

Well, we did come back - but boy were we surprised at what we saw.

As the door to the lift opened, I saw my neighbour, with his back turned to me. In his right hand he held a large hammer. That didn't look good. Worse still, as I approached him, to investigate this strangeness, I saw that someone had kicked the hell out of the Grand Snail Hotel: it was lying in ruins in the stairwell, as if it had been attacked in anger. As I drew level with him, I saw something else: a blue powder on the floor to my neighbour's left: insecticide, I surmised, from the context.

After my sons had happily finished work on their hotel, and went back inside to loll contentedly by the television, mulling over their good deed, my neighbour had ventured from his home with a hammer and insecticide and set about killing my sons guests.

He looked at me and spoke in explanation: "Your sons have brought snails up here...they will eat my orchids."

It was quite surreal hearing a grown man speak of snails eating his orchids while he clutched a large hammer in one hand - and had once held insecticide in the other. It was like stumbling upon a serial killer quietly explaining why he was wiping out the neighbourhood: "They were eating my hamburgers." - or the like.

I nodded, to assuage him, thinking, that, noting the anger in his voice and the hammer in his hand that this was the most diplomatic choice at that moment. Besides, it was too late for most of the snails. They had either been squashed with a hammer - such a violent way to resolve the issue - or poisoned to death.

"It's a project." I pointed out, gently, putting the whole episode into the context of a child's exploratory life. I rather thought that, being Singapore, giving the situation an educative slant might mollify him. However, it didn't seem to.

He mumbled on some more about saving his orchids and I just nodded at what seemed like grammatically correct moments. I couldn't help but notice that he was all but choking on his own anger.

"Ask them to take them away by the end of today." He requested, at last.

I just nodded and oddly said: "Thank you."

I then went inside and told the boys the dreaded news about their now defunct snail colony.

"What?" was their simultaneous reply, as they leapt up to see what harm had befallen their guests.

I heard our neighbour explain to them that the snails would eat his plants so they had to go. He suggested that they gather them up - the survivors that is - and put them in a bucket so that they couldn't escape. He also said he wanted them gone by the end of the day.

They duly gathered them up into a bucket, covered it and left the snails alone for a few hours. By the evening it had gone.

This whole episode brought home to me what is wrong with Singapore. Kids are just not encouraged to play. The randomness of a good childhood is not thought worthy. There was so much to be learnt by my children through simply playing with and nurturing those snails - but that was not appreciated. It was taken to be a "naughty" act - which in this case was punished with the death of the snails.

Were his orchids really being eaten by the snails? I saw no evidence of them having left the no, I don't think so. They were well fed where they were and so had no need to seek food elsewhere.

I remember something funny now about our conversation. I pointed out to him, on hearing that they would supposedly eat his orchids that the children had left out food for them. "Yes," he said, delivering his words as if they were to be news for me: "Lettuce from your fridge."

I could hear in his voice that he expected me to be angry at this. He thought that I would see this as "naughty" and punishable, that I would somehow side with his world view and come down on my children for having the temerity to improvise a use for the food in my fridge. I knew then, that he really didn't understand my attitude to childhood - nor, what in my view, is a healthy attitude to parenting. For me, it is great if the children do something of their own volition. I like them to experiment. I personally couldn't understand why he would be so concerned about "misuse" of lettuce. It is more important that the children learn something, than that I have lettuce in the fridge. I can always eat something else - but they might never have another chance to learn this particular lesson.

I said nothing, however - for what could I say that would be understood by one whose views on parenting and childhood were so different from my own? I let it go, in silence.

I wonder what my children thought when they went outside and saw the ruins of their Grand Snail Hotel. What would they think of adults? They would have been confronted with the image of a man with a hammer, some blue powder on the floor - and a crushed hotel. How would they feel that their creative work - for all play is creative - should be so disregarded by an adult, that it should be destroyed in this way?

It was not what you would call encouraging for their efforts to receive this treatment. I am only thankful that I don't think Fintan noticed that snails had been killed. I am sure Ainan made the connection, however, but he said nothing to Fintan, which was sweet of him.

Together they gathered up the few snails that remained and made their goodbyes to them that afternoon.

Neither of them said anything about it - but I could feel that they were both disappointed. No doubt it has added something dark to their impression of the adult world. It would go something like this: "We build...adults destroy." or "We care...adults don't."

I am sure they understood the point about the snails eating the plants - but even so, the snails could have been moved by consent. All the neighbour had to do was knock on the door and ask them to take the snails away. He most certainly should not have set about killing them with a hammer. That is ugly - and unsettling.

Had I been in his position, I would have taken the "knock on the door" approach. It would never have entered my mind to start killing the neighbour's pets, simply because I didn't like them. In most places, that would be regarded as a crime. It probably is here, too.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and eight months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and one month, and Tiarnan, eighteen months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 1:02 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Tell your boys I'm sorry to hear about their snails. My kids have spent many happy hours building habitats for "roly-polies" on our patio. Not all adults are like your angry neighbor.

I remember an angry neighbor from my own childhood. The neighborhood kids referred to him as "Mr. Meany". Fortunately, we understood that most adults were not like that.

3:13 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your heartfelt words: I shall relay them to my sons.

It is interesting that your kids, too, took an interest in snails. No doubt, to children, they are appealing creatures: small, slow-moving,unthreatening - and just so different from mammalian life.

As for "Mr. Meany" types...I don't think they have learnt how to be happy with life.

Best wishes

8:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We do have snails (the kids love to poke their eyestalks), but roly-polies are not snails--they are Armadillidium Vulgare

Do you have these in Singapore?

2:16 PM  

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