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 +

Friday, October 29, 2010

Don't underestimate a gifted child

When I was 11, I wrote an essay for my teacher, Mr. Warburg. I put a lot of effort, into the essay, because, you see, I was a new boy in my school, King’s College School, Wimbledon. I wanted to show what I could do, with words and ideas. So, I put together as effective an essay as I could, in the time that I had. I remember, well, the evening of work that I put it together, perhaps because it was one of the first written tasks, I had been set, in my new school.

The next morning, I handed the essay in, not knowing how well I had done, but knowing that, I had, at least tried to complete the task, according to my understanding of it.

A couple of days later, when it came to Mr. Warburg’s English lesson, he looked over at me, from under his bushy, overgrown eyebrows and asked me to come to the front of the class.

“Read out your essay.”, he began.

His eyes were very intent upon me, too intent, though I didn’t notice it, at the time. I was too busy being nervous. I wasn’t accustomed to the idea of standing in front of the class and reading out my work. I was, as well, the “new boy” – or one of them, so I wasn’t really all that familiar with my classmates, either. They were still, largely, strangers to me.

I came to the front of the class as requested, with my essay in tow. I looked out across the sea of gazing eyes, upon me and then down at the page, before me – and began to read. I read it as carefully as I could, feeling a tight nervousness inside, as I did so. I didn’t want to be seen to make a mistake in front of so many unfamiliar witnesses. I didn’t want to seem to be a fool, in front of my new classmates. It was early days, in school, and I wanted to build a reputation, not slaughter it.

I stumbled over one word, as I read. I still remember that word: “Hieroglyph”. I had seen it written down, many times – and had used it, myself, this time, but never before had I said it, before an audience. My tongue clambered over it, and tripped a little on the task.

Mr. Warburg sat silent beside me. His dark eyes, darkened – but he said nothing.

Once I had finished reading, the class applauded me, for my work. Hands clapped together, in appreciation of all the effort I had put in, to crafting my work. They really seemed to like it. I was very pleased, but rather shy to be so applauded. I didn’t quite know where to put myself.

Just as the clapping began to ebb, Mr. Warburg pounced:

“YOU didn’t write that!”, he accused, with a sudden bellow, that startled me. From a silent presence, he had transformed, in an instant, into a venomous, accusatory one. He sat coiled beside me, stiff with tension, as if ready to strike, like a snake.

There I was, before a whole classroom of evaluating eyes.

Silence fell, on all but Mr. Warburg.

“You COPIED it out of an encylopaedia!”, he further accused, with a snarl.

I felt, then, as if my whole world had imploded. Suddenly, all those eyes didn’t seem so friendly. Some of them even seemed gleeful. A generalized sense of discomfort pervaded the room – mine and that of all the other boys.

I began to shake a little, so overcome was I, with a sickening feeling. I was but a child and a sensitive one, at that. I was on the edge of tears and, were it not for so many cool, unmerciful eyes upon me, I would have begun to cry.

“I didn’t…”, I protested, softly, unable to muster the volume, to match Mr. Warburg’s.

He just scoffed at me.

“Get back to your seat!”, he ordered, dismissively.

I stumbled back to my chair, utterly dazed. I had written of my best. I had tried my hardest to do the work to the best of my ability. I had tried to show Mr. Warburg, what I, the new boy, could do – and this was my reward: to be accused of plagiarism and shamed in front of the whole class.

The fact is, every word of that essay had been mine and no-one’s but mine. I had read and researched the piece – but every word was of my own thought. It was clear what had happened: my best effort, had been rather too good for Mr. Warburg’s liking, and Mr. Warburg’s experience. He simply did not believe that an eleven year old boy could possibly have written it. Well, I had.

I learnt something that day – but it wasn’t the sort of lesson a gifted child should learn, really. Although I enjoyed writing essays, I never again put out the effort, for Mr. Warburg, that I had on that early essay. I never again tried my best – after all, I knew what happened if one tried one’s best for Mr. Warburg: he would publicly accuse one of being a plagiarist and shame one in front of the entire class. So, I made sure that that would never happen again. I wrote an answer to every question set – but never again strived for perfection, where Mr. Warburg’s work was concerned. It was dangerous to do so: best to just write the first thing that came into one’s head and leave it at that.

Over time, however, Mr. Warburg came to understand that I wrote well. However, he never apologized for his public accusation or the terror of that moment, that he had put me through. Furthermore, I never forgave him for it. For me, thereafter, Mr. Warburg was an ogre just waiting to happen.

A few years later, I heard some hot news, which was running rampant around the school.

Mr. Warburg had died of a heart attack.

I couldn’t have been happier. To my young mind, no-one on this Earth deserved an early death better than Mr. Warburg. The day of his death, was a good day for me. He was a rotten man, who could be truly cruel to his students. I was so glad he was gone. I felt, somehow, that he had finally got what he deserved.

The thing that made him a rotten man, was not just that he had publicly shamed me, as he had, on the basis of nothing more than supposition and the stereotyping of eleven year olds – but that, when he realized, later on in the year, that I ALWAYS wrote well, even on fictional pieces, that could not have been copied from anywhere, he NEVER apologized for what he had done. Nor did he make redress for the damage by admitting that he had been wrong, to the class, so as to repair the damage done to my good name – or at least, the good name I had wanted to build. Mr. Warburg had made it a whole lot harder.

A gifted child is often, not only not rewarded for their gifts, but punished for them – as I was, the day I read out my essay for Mr. Warburg. The problem with such moments, is not just the emotional damage of the incident itself, but how it might change the gifted child’s attitude towards their own gifts. Some gifted children may just give up “showing their gift” in any way, at all. Some gifted children would start to deliberately underachieve when faced with the kind of response I received that day.

Fortunately, I never lost my enjoyment of writing and kept at it, for my own happiness, if not for anyone else’s. However, from that day forward, I feared Mr. Warburg. Being in his classroom was a constant stressor, for I knew just how unpleasant he could be. I never wanted to be the victim of his nastiness again. Fortunately, I never was – but I never forgot just what he could be like.

That memory was what made me happy, the day Mr. Warburg died. The ogre was finally gone. Never again would he persecute a child for the essay they had written. It was a good day.

Now, I wonder, what would Mr. Warburg think of this particular little essay?

It isn’t as well written as the piece he attacked me for – but then, he doesn’t really deserve a great piece of prose. I have, instead, written the first thing that came into my head…which is just what he entrained in me, by rejecting my best efforts, as not my own.

I never did find out what Mr. Warburg’s first name was, otherwise I would write it here. Never mind – his surname is most evocative and seems appropriate for the kind of man he was. He was not a kind man. He was not a perceptive man. He was not a tactful man. He was not a particularly intelligent man. He was a cruel man. He had a bit of a temper. He cared little for the feelings of his students. He was my form teacher for a year. I came first in my year, in the final examinations – but he never said a word to me, of congratulations, of encouragement, or of apology for how he had treated me.

That was just the kind of man he was: an unkind one.

He only ever managed to make me smile, once. He did that by dying.

I wonder, now, at the lack of wisdom in Mr. Warburg’s life, that he should have lived it, in such a way, that the happiest moment, he ever created, in his star student, was inspired by his own death. If I still did not have that image of him shaming me in front of the class, I might find it in me, to pity him, for his lack of insight, into how to live a good life, in a good way, that makes a mark of goodness on the world. He knew nothing of that. He only knew how to set a child up, for a fall, in front of a class of merciless young boys. I suppose, that to modern eyes, what Mr. Warburg did, that day, would be termed abuse. It remains, to this day, one of my most indelible memories, of childhood. It also captures, the dilemma of being gifted, that I experienced every day, whether I was aware of it or not.

It is this: whether to show one’s gifts, and be denounced for them, or to fail to express one’s gifts, and be forever frustrated?

I chose to express them…and was denounced. Would I have been happier had I chosen otherwise? I think not. The right choice, is to express one’s self, never mind the reaction. To do otherwise, is to suffocate in public, each and every day.

The world is filled with Mr. Warburgs. The gifted must remember this and not allow the Warburgs to snuff out their gifts. Continue to express yourself, no matter how many people attack you for it. The only way to become, is to externalize, what lies within. The writer must write, the actor must act, the scientist must think – and the musician play. Never let the unbelievers, silence you. Think on – and one day the world will be glad that you did so, when it finally awakens to what it is, you have to say.

Believe me, that day will come…it just might take much of your life, in the becoming.

Be patient. Be strong…and just BE.
(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, 10, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, 6 and Tiarnan, 4, this month, please go to: also write of gifted education, child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, megasavant, HELP University College, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, Malaysia, IQ, intelligence and creativity.
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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 12:44 AM 


Blogger Casandra Ramirez said...

I'm really sorry about what happened to you as a boy. I remember similar episodes of my childhood, though I am not by any means gifted. Your story is a very inspiring one and you're a good role model.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Casandra, for your kind words. I think too many teachers, act so as to crush whatever is wonderful in their students. It is sad, but often teachers have less understanding of children than one might hope for.

In what ways do you think I am a good role model...and what do you find inspiring about my story? I would really like to know.


11:13 AM  
Blogger Cloudy said...

Of all your writings (at least those that I have read so far which start from a few months back) this is my favourite.

Thank you for sharing your memory.

Unlike you, I am someone who was labelled gifted and I never felt I deserved it, until today. It is a tag I do not want others to learn of because of what they would expect of me.

1:50 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Cloudy, for emerging from your months long silence to comment. It is good to hear that you like this post, so much. What, in particular, do you like about it? I would be interested to know...

I suppose, over time, I am writing the context and background to my life now and the children that I have. I think there is value in that. A careful reader will one day be able to understand just how it is, this particular family, turned out this particular way. Given that our individual lives are irreproducible, unique and unrepeatable, I think that is a worthwhile task.

Re. keeping "gifted" private.

I can understand that. It is often better, I suppose not to have any pressures of expectation. You are then free to be yourself, without worries about what other people expect you to be.

Best wishes on becoming whatever you wish...without anyone else necessarily knowing what you are doing!

3:36 PM  
Blogger tearsunderstars said...

I wonder how he became a teacher in the first place? It seems like he upholds everything else except what a teacher should be.

If I were you, the feelings of disillusionment will be so great that I'd doubt my self-worth.

As I read of your experience, it seems like my issues are of much smaller magnitude. But I am so glad you kept writing despite such poisonous treatment directed at you.


3:54 PM  
Blogger Cloudy said...

I like this post because it gives a glimpse into the gifted person you are, the boy you were, the insecurities you once faced, and not just as a father.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Ah, Cloudy, I see. You mean it gives a more complete picture of me, than the unified "I am a Dad" viewpoint of the rest.

I hadn't considered it, but are right: there is much in this post to hint at matters previously unaddressed. Perhaps I will write more posts of my childhood, over time, when they seem relevant to the thoughts of the day.

Thanks for letting me know why you value this piece.

8:20 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I think I continued to write because some part of me has to write, despite such a destructive encounter.

I think, when you are a child, it is possible to put up with things which, in later life, one just simply wouldn't allow. I think we learn, over time, to refuse to accept ill-fitting conditions. Children, however, have yet to learn that they can assert their wishes in this respect.

It was a very wounding introduction to school...I think it was actually my first essay for him.

Many, like you say, would have been too disheartened to continue. Fortunately, I mustered the will to carry on.

Thanks Tearsunderstars for your comment.

8:23 PM  
Blogger Casandra Ramirez said...

I find your story to be inspiring because you've grown up to be a good and very talented man despite the difficulties of growing up gifted and misunderstood.

You do everything you can to get your children the education they deserve, even when some people try to bring you down. And for what I can read in your posts and see in videos online, you are a wonderful father and husband.

10:01 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Casandra for your kind thoughts.

Yes, I have overcome more obstacles than people might imagine, to achieve what I have, so hasn't been an easy path by any means. I am still wrestling with obstacles of various kinds...but I have got used to doing so, I just kind of carry on, until I get where I was aiming to go.

I try to be the best father and husband that I can. I realize how vital being there, in the most solid way possible, for one's children (and wife) is. One day, I will be nothing more than a memory to my elderly children. I hope I am a good memory, for them. I am trying to be one...!

Best wishes to you.

6:55 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

The comment that follows is copied and pasted from my front page, today...

"I do wonder whether a visitor from Quebec, Montreal, is awaiting a response, to a post that I never received. I wonder, because this visitor from Quebec, Montreal, has visited the same page on my blog, for several days in a row, several times a day. I can only assume, therefore, that they are awaiting some kind of response, perhaps to a post that they attempted to make. Well, I am sorry to say that no such post has been received. Thus, if you are the visitor, from Quebec, Montreal, and you have something you wish to say...please post again, so that I might read it and respond to it.

I would like to apologize for your wait, should you, in fact, have posted - but, like I said, I have received no such post.

The blog post that has been read, repeatedly, these past several days is the one entitled: "Don't underestimate a gifted child".

I may be wrong, of course, and the Quebec, Montreal visitor may just, in fact, be fascinated by the post, in question, such that they wish to reread it, several times a day, for several days. If so, perhaps that visitor would like to let me know why it is so interesting? Thanks."

5:45 AM  

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