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 +

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Best Student in the Class

I had an unusual experience teaching, once, in a Singaporean school.

It was a neighbourhood school. The students were not what you would call academic, nor were they what you would call particularly interested in school. They were the kind of students who endured school - and then went onto to endure poorly paid jobs in life. I would say many of them were busily ensuring that they didn't have a future for themselves.

Yet, there I was to teach them in whatever way would work, how to write better. So, I set about it, deploying every trick I had learnt over the years to engage the class. It seemed to work. That however is not the issue I wished to write of. There was another matter which came to my attention: they couldn't write very well.

They were sixteen years old - or older - and yet had little grasp of grammar, spelling or what constituted an interesting sentence. Almost all of them were like this. One boy, however, stood out, for being quite polished in his writing. His sentences were complete and well-made. He used interesting words correctly. He had something amounting to a style. Errors were few and minor and the overall effect, on the page, was of an intelligent mind speaking quietly, to one, of his life. I was impressed. I wrote: "Excellent" at the bottom of his page and carried on with the class.

At the end of the class, when all others had left, he stood in front of me, with a little notebook in his hand. He offered it to me. "Sign it, teacher", he asked. I looked at what was written within. For each subject listed, there was a date, a space for a teacher's signature, the time of the lesson and a place for comments from teachers on how he had been. I understood at once: this boy, who was by far the best writer and most able student in the class, was under behavioural monitoring. Though he was clearly the most capable of all of the students, here, he was regarded as a "bad boy".

I signed, carefully and wrote: "Good writing work, today", in the comments section.

He didn't react. He didn't seem to believe what I had written. You see, on another occasion, in a later lesson, I had asked the class to write of a time in which they were unsuccessful. He found it difficult to start. I knew his writing was good so I asked him what was wrong. "The problem is, I am always unsuccessful." In other words, he had too many instances to choose from.

"No you are not!" I admonished him kindly, "You write well: you are the best writer here."

Again, I saw in him that he didn't really believe it.

"The problem here," I said, looking into his sad eyes, "is that you don't believe in yourself."

Yet, now, I ask myself: is that really the problem, or is it that the educational system doesn't believe in him? After all, they are monitoring the attendance and behaviour of their best student. Somewhere along the line, his school has come to misinterpret him, as a human being, and fail to understand his essential quality. It seems, furthermore, that he has internalized that view and doesn't believe in himself - which prevents him, of course, from seeing his own evident merits.

This saddens me. For when I read his words, I saw a mature and humane thinker, able to express himself well. Yet, he is not appreciated - and so does not appreciate himself.

I think it is time schools appreciated their students for their deeper qualities - and not just the superficial issues that may have got this intelligent boy labelled as "trouble".

Every time he wrote for me, I pointed out the merits of his words. I only hope it sank in. I only hope he came, finally, to believe in himself and his merits - for clearly, no-one else around him has.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and four months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and nine months, and Tiarnan, twenty-six months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, 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 @ 6:49 PM 


Blogger Eaststopper said...

A couple of weeks ago in London,I had the fortune of meeting a lovely Singaporean couple. Through our conversations, which inevitably lead to our Singaporean backgrounds, our lady friend revealed about her starkly unique upbringing.
She came from a neighbourhood school, was a 'MacDonald's kid' (term refers to someone, usually a school dropout who hangs around Far East Plaza and Orchard Road MacDonalds, used particularly during the early 90s), got a diploma and carried on her life in the military. Her grades were just short of failing and her testimony from all who taught her was not at all encouraging.
Two years after her marriage, her husband got a posting to U.S and she followed. Feeling bored, she took up a degree course in a private school. In a good way, she was forced to fend for herself and she discovered a fierce side of her she never knew - she had to survive she told us, and Survive she did. She aced her degree course and went on to do a PHD in the UK. She currently now holds a doctorate in telecommunications enginnering.
We had an terrific exchange about her past and how her future had changed because of her move out of Singapore. Much of which I am leaving out here for perhaps in another posting.
The overseas opportunites presented to her was enoromous she mentioned. Not forgetting too is the fact that for the first time in her life, she no longer felt protected, she had to fend for herself and that survival instinct kicked in.
I believe that there are many of such students like her, and how I wished she could be back home in Singapore as a shining example for them.
Unfortunately, Singaporeans do seem to have a pinkerton syndrome and she was passed over for promotions in her company presumably due to her lack of a stellar past track record which explained the reason why she remained still in the UK.

Thought I just wanted to share this with your Singaporean readers.


8:45 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Eaststopper for your comment. It serves to remind us that sometimes students are underestimated and may do much better than one could possibly believe - given the right circumstances. Luckily for your friend, she found those circumstances in time to give her a much better life.

Kind regards

9:02 PM  
Anonymous bee said...

Yes, you're right. The education system is unfair to those who don't have enough conventional intelligence, and it isn't fair. This is probably what makes some of them not believe in themselves. If only people were open to different ideas about intelligence, so many people would be a lot more confident in themselves. People who aren't good in schoolwork can excel in a lot of other areas, sometimes better than most "more intelligent" people. Maybe it's a bit ridiculous to complain so vehemently when I'm not really unfairly treated or anything, but still, it's not fair.

8:17 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Bee, it would be a better world, were people, here, viewed more broadly. The particular boy I refer to above had so much to offer...but no-one in his school really grasped what he was about. No doubt there are many such misunderstood students. Sadly, their gifts will only go to waste in a society that views people with too narrow a perspective.

Thank you.

10:03 PM  

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