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If I could give you anything…anything you wanted at all, what would it be? For many, the immediate response is: “I want to be smarter!!!” Why smarter? If you are very smart, what do you do with all this smartness? Is there such a thing as being too smart?
My younger brother, Ian, is a fourteen-year-old junior in high school. Clearly precocious for his age and stature, there are many who envy his ability and talent to understand academic concepts with relative ease. At this tender age, where most fourteen-year-olds are simply entering high school and trying to adapt to their awkward teenage bodies, my little brother is tackling the challenges of college applications, refining his resume, and perfecting his standardized test scores. His schoolmates joke with him about being younger than everyone else in his grade and about entering college at the age of sixteen without knowing how to drive. There was even talk about how he was going to get to the prom: Would his date have to drive him? Although these events seem superficially comical, one must look at the repercussions of always being seen as “the little kid in class”.
I wonder if there is a true solution to this situation. At a young age my brother demonstrated great skill and adeptness for understanding. Enrolled in a Montesorri preparatory school where students were encouraged to learn at their own pace, Ian was reading and doing long division in kindergarten. Later that year, when my family moved, my brother and I were transferred to another school system. Ian was placed in a kindergarten class filled with five-year-olds and it was clear he did not fit in. Finishing the assigned work within 15 minutes, he sat around fidgeting and causing trouble. The teacher, already overwhelmed with too many students, did not know how to handle the situation and sent him to the principal’s office. Faced with this dilemma, the principal offered my parents the option for Ian to test out of successive grades until we determined which academic level was appropriate for him. My brother took the exams and tested out of kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade.
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The concern about his social growth and maturity was certainly an issue. How would the kids accept Ian? Would the third graders play with him at recess or would he go play with the kindergarteners? Socially he belonged in kindergarten; yet in that classroom he was a disruption. Ian could become unmotivated in school and waste his talent simply because he was bored. There was also the risk that he could understand the third grade course materials, but never have any friends in class. This would also leave him unhappy and isolated. It was a lose-lose situation where something important would have to be sacrificed. Looking back, Ian was too smart for his own good.
In the end, my parents allowed Ian to join the third grade because they, like typical Asian parents, felt his desire for learning was too important to risk and that the social aspect could be developed over time. But how could he adapt to this new environment and act in a way expected of students three years his senior?
The transition was not smooth; in fact there were times where my parents began to question their decision. Ian was reprimanded for causing commotion in the lunchroom because he stood on the lunch table and attempted to slam-dunk his juice box into the garbage can. As amusing and entertaining as it sounds, part of me empathizes with his actions. Ian simply wanted to be a little kid again. Everyday he gets out of bed and puts on a mature persona for class. Yet there are times where curiosity and imaginative mischief needs to shine and grow. My brother lost this opportunity as a child and for that I am sad.
The physical aspect of development is another factor which sets him apart from the others. At a time when most guys’ bodies are developing and they are exploring the opposite sex, Ian was still a little boy enjoying computer games and playing outside with his friends. As a typical Asian male, Ian was naturally small and short for his age. Thus, when he entered high school at the age of eleven, the physical differences between him and his male counterparts was drastic. It is only now, as a junior, that he is really beginning to develop both physically and emotionally. Standing at five-foot-eight inches, he is taller and stronger. Last week he called me asked what kind of workout he needs to do to “bulk up” and gain muscle.
His understanding of social interactions with girls is also beginning to emerge. This year Ian expressed interesting in going to the Homecoming Ball. He brought a female friend from his science class and even brought her out to dinner before the dance. Also late at night, I would find him talking on the phone with a girl friend. There are signs that he might be getting involved in a relationship, but when confronted by me, his older sister, he furrowed his eyebrows and gave me the traditional denial of such a crazy idea. It is clear that Ian makes an active effort to act like all the other 16 and 17 year olds in his class, but certain subtleties of jokes and typical of high school banter still do not make sense to him. Ian is enjoying his high school years and has managed to cope well in this environment. My concern comes with the years ahead and his future in college.
Academically, I am sure my brother is able to manage the college workload. However, as a college student, I found the transition from high school to college to be very harsh and tumultuous. I had a difficult time even as an 18-year-old who had a lot of responsibilities in the last few years of high school. I could not imagine the amount of pressure on a 16-year-old male who will still be going through puberty as he tries to find a new life and place in college.
After watching my younger brother grow throughout elementary school and high school, I must say that I am very impressed by they way he carried himself and has adapted to his life. There are times I feel he lost parts of his childhood innocence; nonetheless, I do see a new young man emerge who is a motivated, active pursuer of learning. My parents did preserve this aspect of his personality and he did his best to find voice and personality in the midst of these older students.
I think that there are many challenges of being very smart. It makes you different from others in society and creates extra barriers to overcome. Instead of struggling with the actual academics, it is coping with the academics and learning about how to work with others at an advanced maturity level. It is how a person handles smartness, the challenge of using smartness wisely, which defines success. In Ian’s case, the evidence of being brilliant can also be advantageous for now he has both intelligence and youth on his side.