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 +

Thursday, June 23, 2011

They will never know.

Looking back on my past, an unavoidable thought comes to me: many of the people I remember, are no longer alive, or are very unlikely to be.

Today, I was reflecting on my prep school days. This was a brief, though seemingly long few years of my life, which provided, perhaps, the only island of acceptance, in my whole school career. I shall explain. In the years before I joined this particular prep school (Westbury House School, in New Malden, Surrey), I had been in the state school system. In those schools, I had not been accepted, in any real way, by the students around me. I had “stood out” too much, as someone different. The difference was clear: I was much brighter than the other students – and they were even aware of it, for the names some of them used for me, were pejorative ones, based around the idea of cleverness. There were a few children there, who were well disposed towards me, however, so it wasn’t utterly uncomfortable – yet it has to be said, that it probably would not have been good for me to have stayed there too much longer. For a start, I wasn’t really learning anything, because nothing challenging was being presented. The only lesson I would have learnt, had I stayed longer, was that being clever means being marginalized.

Westbury House School was much better. It was a small school, with small classes and a personal touch. It was actually, as it stated in the name, a house, that had been converted into a school. As a child, I thought it enormous. As an adult, when I saw it again, I saw nothing more than an adapted house, with a playground attached. Yet, it provided something I didn’t know, until I received it, that I had been lacking: acceptance. At Westbury House School, I was not only accepted, but was popular. It is funny, but the teachers and the Headmistress, had managed to cultivate a culture in which being a good student, was to be admired. All there aspired to do well, and did not resent those who did well. It was a good place for a bright young child to be, in social terms, at least. Academic success was not punished by exclusion, as it so often is – but rewarded by respect.

Today my thoughts turned to a particular teacher. I cannot now recall her name – but she was my form teacher in my final year, at Westbury House School. She taught me English, among other things. It is this fact that awoke my thoughts. I realized that her pedantry over words and their use – for she was very particular about them, in a positive sort of way – was one of the reasons why my own use of English, became, as it is to this day: accurate, in its grammar and word usage – at least without any obvious errors. She would explain the rules of English to us, with an absolutism that we did not find off-putting, but actually found reassuring in a way – for, at least, someone knew what the rules were. She also did so without recourse to unnecessary jargon.

She was an old lady then. She had brownish hair, but her face was lined, and her body thin, with the kind of slenderness that comes to some, with the passing of the years. She must have been about sixty, when she taught me. It seems impossible that she might still be alive, since the time I reflect on is about thirty three years ago. She looked severe, in her bodily form – severe and spare – but she was actually quite kindly. She had a policy towards teaching me that I actually found quite liberating. She had noted that I usually finished any task set, long before the other kids. So, she asked me to read a book, instead. This was quite easy to do since I sat at the back of the class, in the corner, with the only bookshelf directly behind me. I would thus, turn my head and browse until I found a book I liked, then I would read until the other kids had caught up.

I loved to read, as a child, so this made my time in her class much more congenial. It also personalized it for me – because the books I chose were always ones that I liked. This policy of hers applied to all classes that she took with me – and that included maths. I also finished first in maths too, so I had plenty of time to read whilst waiting for the other kids.

I remember one book in particular, which concerned the finding by some children of “100,000 francs”, which, at the time, seemed an impossibly large sum and probably was, for when the book was written. What struck me about the book was the drawing the front of the children running. One of the children was me. Yes. It was most odd, but one of the faces of the kids, looked just like me. It was funny. I picked out the book because I liked the sound of the story and it just so happened that the picture looked like me. All the other kids thought so too. It was as if I had actually posed for the portrait myself. It seems the artist may have imagined a face, but that face had turned out to be not so imaginary after all. Either that, or I look like a French kid somewhere, long ago, since the book was set in France and may even have been written by a French writer, in English.

I felt welcome in that classroom, in that school. It was the first educational situation in which I could be myself without the hint of a social penalty. Of course, there was no use of the word “gifted” in those days. Nor was there any differentiated curriculum – at least not in that school. My “differentiated curriculum” was being assigned to read books, at the back, whilst others got the through the work I had already done. I wasn’t actually ever set harder work or different work to do. Yet, I didn’t mind. I wasn’t bored because I had books to read. The time wasn’t wasted and those days reading no doubt contributed to my ultimate familiarity with the written word. As a teacher, she was wise enough to make sure I had something interesting to do and did not leave me sitting BORED waiting for everyone else.

What gets me about this memory is that my teacher, whose name I am sorry I cannot recall, will never know what became of me. She doubtless has died already. Thus, she would never have found out the long term consequences of my presence in her classroom – consequences to which she would have made some contribution, in some way, even if it would be impossible to determine exactly what – other than, as I note, a particular attitude to the English language. She never knew that I became a writer. She has never read this blog. She cannot have read my books, because though written, I have yet to publish them. She never learnt of my scientific contributions – for those papers only began to be published in the last few years. She never learnt that I had acted, in plays, tv and the odd film. She never knew that I had fathered some gifted children and left the UK for South East Asia. She never learnt anything of my adult life. I left her classroom one day, to go to another school – and, from her point of view, I left her life, altogether, too.

It is a pity, in a way, that she never knew. It is a pity that I never got the chance to tell her what effect her bookish intervention had had on me – or how it had me feel so much more interested in my educational experience. I remember now, the feeling I felt as a young boy, being given permission to read at the back of the class: I felt it to be a privilege and an acknowledgement too, that I had done the work and needed something more to do. I felt a boyish pride in being so singled out. I suppose, in a way, that was a very important intervention, in terms of the growth of self-belief. It made me realize that I was special in some way and that that specialness had been recognized. However, it must be said, that there had been many prior occasions on which I had inferred that I was different in a special kind of way – but this was one of the first I can recall, in which another acknowledged that difference and responded positively to it. As such, it is, no doubt, important.

I would like the chance to speak to some of these figures of my childhood and to let them know what effect each had on my development. I would also like the chance to thank those who deserved thanks. Of course, there are those who deserve to be chastised for their conduct, but I don’t think I will trouble myself with them. However, it is, most likely not possible for many of these people, I still remember: most of them will be dead by now. Only I know, who was important and why. Only I know, who contributed positively to my early life – and who did not. They are gone now. They will never have known, the way they touched me. In a way, that is sad – but there is nothing to be done. It simply takes too much time to grow up and become, for those who were elderly at the beginning of the journey, to still be alive at its fruition.

So, I am left, here, to thank one who cannot read my words: thanks, to my nameless form teacher, for inviting me to read, at the back of the class, whilst others poured over problems I had already solved. It meant something to me, at the time, which I never got the chance to say. It means something more to me, now, that I have come to understand its long-term impact, on the person I became. Thank you.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 6:53 PM 


Blogger Adelaide Dupont said...

This wonderful book is by Paul Berna (his birth name Jean-Marie Sabran). He lived from 1919 to 1994. He died in the January and I think I picked up that book in the August or September [of that year], at the same time (in the same pile) as Harriet the Spy.

Reading through "They will never know".

It's pretty rare to have a teacher who doesn't leave you bored. And you appreciated it even then!

I have some of these moments too.

"Only I know": that's the spirit!

8:32 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for putting a name to the author of the book. How funny that you should know it, too.

Yes, many a teacher has a talent for inducing boredom. I was lucky to have a few, though, who had a talent for creating absorption - at least, in me, anyhow. Looking back, I think she had quite a task: she had to teach several subjects, given that it was a small school, but she did so very well. She managed the most important element: maintaining interest.

Yes. I appreciated it. However, I never said that I did - since, as with most children, I tended not to feedback to my teachers.

Re. Only I know: it is something, anyway, that I recognize the situation now - and remember it with gratitude. Sadly, though....she never knew.

11:38 PM  

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