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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 +

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Man made thunder.

I sneezed, a few days ago, rather loudly, in front of my three sons. The wave of sound seemed to push them back a bit, particularly Tiarnan, four, as if it were uncomfortable to hear. I was catapulted inward and backward, then, at that observation, to my own childhood. I saw, then, that I had, in some way, become my father, or almost.

I shall explain. When I was a young boy, my father would sometimes sneeze in a way I had heard no other person ever sneeze, before or since. It was not the sneeze of a man, but more of the thunder of the sky. His sneeze was awesomely loud. It was as if someone had let off a fair sized explosive device, right next to my ear: AHHH-HOEEEE!, he would sneeze. It was the kind of sneeze that one would be unsurprised to find had knocked one off one's feet. I used to wonder at how he made so much noise. Yes, he was a big man, with a big chest...but still, that sneeze seemed impossibly loud. I sensed, when he sneezed, the great strength in him. I knew what such a loud noise meant: it meant POWER, of the physical kind. Only a very strong man, could make so much noise, with a simple sneeze.

I have lived forty two years, now. Yet, I have never come across anyone who ever sneezed as loudly as my father did, when I was a young boy. No-one else even comes close. Of course, that means but one thing: his upper body strength, lungs and ribcage, were much more powerfully built than any other person I have heard sneeze - he simply expelled the air, with more force, speed and power. So, what I was hearing, as a boy, was my father's relative strength, compared to the other people I encountered. Perhaps there are other people with louder sneezes still - but, if so, I have never heard them. I suppose, in a way, that leaves me impressed, in much the same way that I was as a young boy.

When I sneeze, now, I see, from the reactions of my children, that they think me loud. Perhaps I am the loudest sneezer they have ever got to hear, in their lives, so far. Yet, I know something they don't: that my sneeze is a whisper, set alongside the ones my father used to explode with. I am a strong man, relatively speaking...but nowhere near as strong as my father was, as a young man. Indeed, perhaps, he is still stronger than me. Even so, when I sneeze now, I feel connected to my father, all those years ago: I feel as if I have become, as he was: the thunderer to my children, the possessor of explosive lungs.

I haven't told them, though, that my father used to sneeze much more loudly than me. I haven't told them that I am a mere echo, in the sneeze department, that my father was. Some day, I shall. But for now, they shall labour under the misperception that their father is the loudest sneezer in the world. Perhaps they will get to hear my father sneeze, one day: then my secret will be out. I am just, as my father used to say: "A chip off the old block"...but he is the Old Block, entire!

If I listen, within, I can still hear my father's thunderous sneeze, still call it to mind. Though I have grown up, it still sounds like thunder...the loudest noise a man's lungs ever made. Isn't it funny the bits of childhood that one holds onto? I have held onto a sneeze, perhaps because it always startled me, to hear how loud it was, each and every time it happened, despite my knowing in advance, just how loud it would be.

For me those sneezes were more than just sneezes: they were the essence of my father, for one of his more notable characteristics, one which no-one could miss, was his physical strength. Each and every time he sneezed, he was announcing that strength to the world. He was saying, without words: "This is who I am!".

(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: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html

I 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.

There is a review of my blog, on the respected The Kindle Report here: http://thekindlereport.blogspot.com/2010/09/boy-who-knew-too-much-child-prodigy.html

Please have a read, if you would like a critic's view of this blog. Thanks.

You can get my blog on your Kindle, for easy reading, wherever you are, by going to: http://www.amazon.com/Boy-Who-Knew-Too-Much/dp/B0042P5LEE/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2&s=digital-text&qid=1284603792&sr=8-1

Please let all your fellow Kindlers know about my blog availability - and if you know my blog well enough, please be so kind as to write a thoughtful review of what you like about it. Thanks.

My Internet Movie Database listing is at: http://imdb.com/name/nm3438598/

Ainan's IMDB listing is at http://imdb.com/name/nm3305973/

Syahidah's IMDB listing is at http://imdb.com/name/nm3463926/

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 12:50 PM 

13 Comments:

Blogger Anthony said...

Hello Valentine. I'm very pleased to have found your blog, and I very much enjoy reading about your life and your children's.

I've already browsed through some of the other posts and comments left by others, and have noted your propensity for tracking IPs/ISPs. I'm writing from Oxford University, and there is quite an anomalous proportion of geniuses amongst the students and academic staff here.

What made your blog even more special for me is the fact that I grew up in Singapore as a young child. I was never a genius (or at least not the profound sort), and I've never taken an IQ test to check. (I did score 2360/2400 on the SATS though, but that is not the highest amongst the friends I know.)

If I may suggest some things for your children's future development - the public schools in Singapore are actually very good, even for the gifted. I attended The Chinese High School and afterwards Hwa Chong Institution before Oxford University, myself. Your description of Ainan, however, would lead me to think that the Gifted Education Programme or other "talent development" programmes in the secondary schools and JCs under the Ministry of Education may not be sufficient for your child. I do suggest that you get in touch with the Universities - probably NTU and NUS if you are looking at chemistry for your son, and see if any special projects can be run for children like yours.

University applications for the UK should be made on UCAS - you'll want your child to sit and obtain 3 "A" grades at A Levels. For the US, it is the SATs - I think 2350 will suffice for the really top-end schools (Harvard), coupled with interviews, written work, etc.

I wish you all the best of luck with your gifted children.

Anthony

6:38 AM  
Blogger Kipihent said...

What happened to your post on censorship in Singapore?

11:05 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Kipihent,

Some of the responses I received, made me uncomfortable and so I decided it was best to take it down. I have too much to attend to, right now, to be getting into any draining arguments.

I hope you can understand.

It is the first time I have removed a post, since my blog began, but, upon reflection, I thought it wiser than leaving it. It was bringing me unwanted attention.

Thanks for asking.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Anthony,

I am very pleased to learn that you enjoy reading my blog...I enjoy writing it too.

I should point out that this is the second attempt I am making at replying to you - the first attempt having got lost, at the moment of posting.

I was at Cambridge University. There were some very bright people there, but there were many others who were more what I would call diligent and moderately intelligent. They were able to plod along through mountains of work and get it done, though without, perhaps, the sparkle of their brighter brethren. At least, that is the impression they gave. Perhaps I misperceived them.

I have never been to Oxford University...what proportion of the staff and students are geniuses in your estimation (two questions and two answers, I expect)?

Thanks for your suggestions re. Singaporean education. No doubt they have the right facilities but they were unwilling to make them fully available to our son. We had great difficulty dealing with the GEP. You are right. They are not set up for handling children like my son - and really don't seem to understand what they should be doing. They seem to instinctively provide something more appropriate to their usual situation. We gave up in the end and moved to Malaysia. Here, Ainan is at HELP University College and enjoying it very much. I will keep an open mind about how he continues his education elsewhere, once this is done.

Are you a student or researcher at Oxford University? What are you studying/researching? How do you find the culture/people at the University? Do they welcome you? Any thoughts would be of interest.

Thanks.

1:54 PM  
Blogger tearsunderstars said...

Mr Cawley

I was wondering about the censorship post too. Did I make you feel uncomfortable? I hope not. I wanted to let you know that I can see where you're coming from, and relate my own experience to it. Ever since I read your blog, everything came into perspective (at least for me). I can understand, but unfortunately, things are just like that, it's beyond our power to change it.

I'd prefer the post not to be removed, but I definitely understand your reasons to do so.

Regards

7:26 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

Hello Valentine,

I think perhaps you have made the right choice with your son. Education in Singapore is what I would call competent and vocational, and it does not rule out those with more academic interests. However, a savant or profound genius would probably not fit in very well. I note your various posts decrying the treatment of child geniuses in society, and I agree with you. It seems unfair that those who are talented are so often disdained (perhaps out of envy?). I myself greatly admire geniuses, not because I wish to emulate them (that would be impossible) but because they are, in a word, beautiful.

I find your writing, too, beautiful. Your love for your children is palpable, and you are very clearly sensitive and highly intelligent. If you do not mind me saying so, I think you are a beautiful man. You are a father that any child should be so fortunate to have. You have redefined the word "father" in my mind. A Father is not the distant, strong, authoritative figure in the minds of traditional Asian people - a Father loves, nurtures, and cares, even as he protects, supports and strengthens. I hope that one day I may be as good a father as you are.

I am not a true genius, so perhaps my view of Oxford University will be skewed. I am an undergraduate reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics (focusing most on the Economics discipline). There are some truly formidable geniuses here - Marcus du Sautoy, the mathematician, is an amazing person. He has a beautiful mind, but one that also tries its very hardest to communicate the beauty and symmetry of its ideas to the public in general. I find that an act of monumental generosity.

I guess one thing that the Singaporean education system has made me thankful for (and somewhat regretful, too) is its extreme focus on hard work and discipline. Diligence, as you've noted, pays off in educational institutions such as Cambridge. This is very true of Oxford as well. However, I do think that places such as Oxford, whilst somewhat traditional, do offer particular havens for intellectuals.

The problem, as always, is one of pragmatism versus fancy. Anyone who has ever considered postgraduate education has probably thought long and hard on the issue of funding. In academia, particularly in the humanities, arts and social sciences, it is extremely difficult to secure grants and funding. It is regrettable that many intellectual giants are constrained to doing research on topics which bear economic fruit. As such, for reasons of pragmatism, large academic institutions often have to sacrifice some degree of academic freedom on the altar of the economic imperative.

(To be continued, because they won't let me post that much!)

9:00 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

As a note, I was quite saddened to read your earlier posts on Singapore - it seems that the place has not been congenial for you. It's not the best place in the world, but I think it's trying hard. At the very least, the leaders do not seem corrupt, and the government is trying its best to make its people rich. Whether or not economic gain is the worthiest goal is a matter for some (subjective) debate, but surely a desire to uplift people's material conditions is not a bad one? I envision an enlightened Singapore moving towards a more open, inclusive and mature society.

Also, I find it very regrettable that race should be such a divisive issue in Singapore. I am ethnically Chinese, so I belonged to the majority whilst in Singapore. There are things that members of the majority take for granted - I strongly recommend any Chinese from Singapore to try living in another country where the Chinese do not form the majority, or any Anglo-Saxon/Jew/African/etc to try the same - moving out of one's comort zones shows us how we should treat people the way we want to be treated ourselves, should the positions be reversed. For myself, actually, my family has the opposite experience. I was born in Malaysia, and both my father's and mother's families are predominantly Malaysian Chinese. They have suffered quite a lot under Malaysian policies, and my father himself left his homeland in disgust after witnessing racially motivated lynchings, and facing discrimination from the government. You say that the Chinese do the same to the Malays in Singapore. This issue is one that has hitherto escaped my attention, mostly because I presumed that the discrimination that is observed is an indirect result of merciless meritocracy. I have worked under the impression that Malays were not systematically discriminated against in most sectors (except the military and weapons-manufacturing), and were encouraged to become economically competitive. That is to say, I think that a Malay person who is more intelligent, who works harder, will get hired over the Chinese candidate, and I believe that to be fair. There ought to be very strict, codified laws against racial discrimination.

Regarding censorship in Singapore - I completely disagree with how the government is handling censorship now. If I may reference John Stuart Mill - one additional function of democracy is that it produces the very kinds of human beings that we want human beings to be. That is, we do not want human beings to be mere automata, obedient and efficient. What an ugly world that would be! I do not want Singaporean citizens to be treated as immature children, not trusted to read incendiary material. The recent case of Alan Shadrake being arrested is very, very saddening. I feel ashamed of my country over that issue.

As for Oxford, this place is truly wonderful. At least for someone of high but not-exceptional intelligence like myself, it offers myriad opportunities for intellectual growth. Also, this is one of the few places in the UK where "nerdiness" is not frowned upon. I find the culture here much more open than in Singapore. We are encouraged to question, and think. Our thoughts are treated with care and respect. The small-group tutorial sessions here train us to think on our feet, and give us the opportunity to express our thoughts - not as mere students meant to learn from the masters, but as budding intellectuals in our own right. I've never once felt condescended to in Oxford, but perhaps that is because I have wonderful tutors.

9:01 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

It is good to hear, Anthony, that you are enjoying Oxford so much. It sounds a welcoming place (more so than my memories of Cambridge, I am afraid, but then, that was a long time ago...).

Re. Malay opportunity in Singapore. I am not sure that your view of able Malays being accepted over less able Chinese is a true reflection of what happens. If you listen to what the Malay community says about their lives, you hear something very different. I have heard it often said that certain jobs seem only to be available to Chinese people. The jobs are advertised as "Mandarin speaker only"...and if a Malay who speaks Mandarin goes for the job, they STILL don't get it...even though they are fluent in Mandarin. This kind of thing is typical of Singaporean employers, according to what is said in the Malay subculture. There are many such examples of quite overt discrimination. I think, in fact, that is more likely that a Chinese person of LESSER ability will be promoted and hired over a Malay of greater ability. That seems truer of what one can observe in Singapore.

Another almost universal charactersitic of Chinese Singaporeans is that they are totally blind to the discrimination that is all around them and in which they daily participate. They believe the mantra that it is "meritocracy"...but I don't believe so. I have taught in Singaporean schools and I saw some very interesting things there that lead me to question why things were the way they were. For instance, the best essay writer I ever came across was an Indonesian (Malay type, not Chinese type) boy...but that just doesn't fit the stereotype that Singapore has of who is the best scholar and who is not.

It would be pleasant to think of a future Singapore that is open and welcoming and which embraces difference and so on...but I am not sure that Singapore is headed that way. Our experiences with Singapore and its media, cast big doubts of its true character. Some of the things we observed are quite disturbing (for instance, national newspapers actually telling rather big lies about us, to make Singapore's education system look better, and us worse...) It was ugly, to use your word.

We gave Singapore ten years of our lives. We certainly tried to make it work...but in the end it has turend out to be much easier to live elsewhere. The "system" in Malaysia is more flexible and less resistive. We have found it more conducive to allowing us to move forward with our projects and aspirations.

I hope you continue to enjoy and benefit from Oxford. I once met an American who claimed to be "Clint Eastwood's producer on Rawhide". This was before I had gone up to University. He asked me where I was going, I said: "Cambridge". He said: "Why not Oxford?" I replied, "Because I didn't want to go there."

He seemed surprised. Looking back, I see a young boy, who hadn't actually been to Oxford...one day, i shall go and see if I chose well.

Best of luck.

11:00 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

It is good to hear, Anthony, that you are enjoying Oxford so much. It sounds a welcoming place (more so than my memories of Cambridge, I am afraid, but then, that was a long time ago...).

Re. Malay opportunity in Singapore. I am not sure that your view of able Malays being accepted over less able Chinese is a true reflection of what happens. If you listen to what the Malay community says about their lives, you hear something very different. I have heard it often said that certain jobs seem only to be available to Chinese people. The jobs are advertised as "Mandarin speaker only"...and if a Malay who speaks Mandarin goes for the job, they STILL don't get it...even though they are fluent in Mandarin. This kind of thing is typical of Singaporean employers, according to what is said in the Malay subculture. There are many such examples of quite overt discrimination. I think, in fact, that is more likely that a Chinese person of LESSER ability will be promoted and hired over a Malay of greater ability. That seems truer of what one can observe in Singapore.

Another almost universal charactersitic of Chinese Singaporeans is that they are totally blind to the discrimination that is all around them and in which they daily participate. They believe the mantra that it is "meritocracy"...but I don't believe so. I have taught in Singaporean schools and I saw some very interesting things there that lead me to question why things were the way they were. For instance, the best essay writer I ever came across was an Indonesian (Malay type, not Chinese type) boy...but that just doesn't fit the stereotype that Singapore has of who is the best scholar and who is not.

It would be pleasant to think of a future Singapore that is open and welcoming and which embraces difference and so on...but I am not sure that Singapore is headed that way. Our experiences with Singapore and its media, cast big doubts of its true character. Some of the things we observed are quite disturbing (for instance, national newspapers actually telling rather big lies about us, to make Singapore's education system look better, and us worse...) It was ugly, to use your word.

We gave Singapore ten years of our lives. We certainly tried to make it work...but in the end it has turend out to be much easier to live elsewhere. The "system" in Malaysia is more flexible and less resistive. We have found it more conducive to allowing us to move forward with our projects and aspirations.

I hope you continue to enjoy and benefit from Oxford. I once met an American who claimed to be "Clint Eastwood's producer on Rawhide". This was before I had gone up to University. He asked me where I was going, I said: "Cambridge". He said: "Why not Oxford?" I replied, "Because I didn't want to go there."

He seemed surprised. Looking back, I see a young boy, who hadn't actually been to Oxford...one day, i shall go and see if I chose well.

Best of luck.

11:00 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

It is good to hear, Anthony, that you are enjoying Oxford so much. It sounds a welcoming place (more so than my memories of Cambridge, I am afraid, but then, that was a long time ago...).

Re. Malay opportunity in Singapore. I am not sure that your view of able Malays being accepted over less able Chinese is a true reflection of what happens. If you listen to what the Malay community says about their lives, you hear something very different. I have heard it often said that certain jobs seem only to be available to Chinese people. The jobs are advertised as "Mandarin speaker only"...and if a Malay who speaks Mandarin goes for the job, they STILL don't get it...even though they are fluent in Mandarin. This kind of thing is typical of Singaporean employers, according to what is said in the Malay subculture. There are many such examples of quite overt discrimination. I think, in fact, that is more likely that a Chinese person of LESSER ability will be promoted and hired over a Malay of greater ability. That seems truer of what one can observe in Singapore.

Another almost universal charactersitic of Chinese Singaporeans is that they are totally blind to the discrimination that is all around them and in which they daily participate. They believe the mantra that it is "meritocracy"...but I don't believe so. I have taught in Singaporean schools and I saw some very interesting things there that lead me to question why things were the way they were. For instance, the best essay writer I ever came across was an Indonesian (Malay type, not Chinese type) boy...but that just doesn't fit the stereotype that Singapore has of who is the best scholar and who is not.

It would be pleasant to think of a future Singapore that is open and welcoming and which embraces difference and so on...but I am not sure that Singapore is headed that way. Our experiences with Singapore and its media, cast big doubts of its true character. Some of the things we observed are quite disturbing (for instance, national newspapers actually telling rather big lies about us, to make Singapore's education system look better, and us worse...) It was ugly, to use your word.

We gave Singapore ten years of our lives. We certainly tried to make it work...but in the end it has turend out to be much easier to live elsewhere. The "system" in Malaysia is more flexible and less resistive. We have found it more conducive to allowing us to move forward with our projects and aspirations.

I hope you continue to enjoy and benefit from Oxford. I once met an American who claimed to be "Clint Eastwood's producer on Rawhide". This was before I had gone up to University. He asked me where I was going, I said: "Cambridge". He said: "Why not Oxford?" I replied, "Because I didn't want to go there."

He seemed surprised. Looking back, I see a young boy, who hadn't actually been to Oxford...one day, i shall go and see if I chose well.

Best of luck.

11:00 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Anthony for your touching description of my words and the person who writes them. I try to write as I truly think and feel - and thus, if those words come across as beautiful, perhaps they do reflect some actual beauty within. That would be a warming thought.

I think it is the highest duty of us all, to express who we are, in this short life - and so, with this blog (and my other writings) I try to embody what I find within myself and in my life with my family, in the hope that I might be able to capture some of the character and essence of us.

Re. Hard, distant fathers.

Yes. It is funny you should use such words...they remind me of Lee Kuan Yew. Perhaps he is like the ideal of an Asian father...which is a funny thought. I would rather the father you described. I think the results of a nurturing father will be rather more bountiful, than an authoritarian father. It is a pity Lee Kuan Yew doesn't know that!

Best wishes Anthony.

11:07 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

Re: Malay discrimination in Singapore. Thanks for your explanation, it is very enlightening to hear from somebody who is neither Chinese nor Malay and likely to be unbiased about the issue. I can see how things like 'Mandarin speakers only' are commonplace. I have seen many job advertisements, particularly in the smaller-scale private sector service industry, which ask for Mandarin-speakers only. I will ask some of my Malay friends (who are generally very well educated) what they feel about the putatively meritocratic system here.

Re: Lee Kuan Yew. Ironically, my father is your kind of father - he is by nature caring and nurturing, but he has been brought up - through life's vicissitudes - to be more 'hardened', and to him, the epitome of success is Lee Kuan Yew. If he has ever worshipped anyone in his life, it would be Lee Kuan Yew. Strong, authoritative and often ruthless is what my father thinks of as becoming a great man. It is ironic that I think that my father is not like that at all, yet to me he is probably one of the greatest men. Now that I am old enough to consider the circumstances my father must've lived through, sometimes I feel sympathy for him. A little pity. I wish I could go back in time and give him the life that he has so generously given me. It is an odd thing for a child to feel for his father, but there we are...

I'm also really sorry to hear about how you were marginalised by the system when you were a child prodigy. Your story of the schoolteacher who called you a liar was particularly poignant. Perhaps I see in you what I see in some of the best fathers - A desire to create a life devoid of the suffering that they had once lived through as boys themselves. My father lived in deprivation and was often beaten up by his own father, so he is determined to see that I do not suffer the same.

Thanks and regards.

P.S. F- the haters. Many more of us love reading your blog, even those who don't agree with you. Voltaire's biographer

1:32 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Antony, I think a wise parent learns from their own childhood and tries to eliminate that which marred their own youth, from the lives of their children.

Thank you for those words of Voltaire's biographer. It wasn't easy being Voltaire either, I gather...though perhaps he gave more cause, for his troubles, than I do.

Best wishes.

12:31 AM  

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