A Finger Up His Nose and Pee Pants

We’re in for it. According to my son’s pediatrician, it’s not particularly common for kids to know letters at age two. Jack has been able to recognize letters since he was 19 months, as well as the sounds they make, and has always shown an inordinate fondness for the alphabet in general. At about 20 months, he insisted on having his multicolored letters in the bathtub and screamed for them when it was time to dry off. He’d take them to bed, and if a letter fell between the bars of his crib, he’d cry “Letter iiiiiiiii! Letter iiiiiiiiii!” as if the green foam “I” were his recently euthanized puppy.

As a writer and word lover, I’m naturally pleased and excited that my child may be verbally gifted. But I also know that giftedness is a mixed blessing.

“Do you know what this means?” I said to my husband. “Next year this time he’ll be walking around reciting the Preamble to the Constitution, only he’ll be doing it with a finger up his nose and pee pants.”

That gifted kids are socially maladjusted and weird is a stereotype. That gifted kids are usually much more mature intellectually than they are physically, emotionally, or socially, however, is a fact borne out by research.  It was impressive that I could read when I entered kindergarten, and charming that I’d gleefully bite my toast into the shapes of letters, but none of that was helpful when I’d pee my pants because I was too scared to ask the teacher to go to the bathroom. I could write wonderfully creative stories and create my own radio shows, but I was incapacitated by the anxieties of going through the lunch line. I tried it, once—and after forgetting to pick up my utensils and having to return to the utensil station to get a fork, I never bought my lunch again. Too many variables involved. There was deciding between white and chocolate milk… locating my Chuck E Cheese vinyl changepurse in time to get out my money without holding up the line… the likelihood of dropping my tray… Christ, it was a nightmare.

Speaking of Chuck E. Cheese, there was once a time when a rat knew how to dress properly when entertaining people, when he would care enough to put on a vest and a bow tie. Obviously, that golden age has passed. (gamesareevil.com)
Speaking of Chuck E. Cheese, there was once a time when a rat knew how to dress properly when entertaining people, when he cared enough to put on a vest and a bow tie and pick up a cane, for god’s sake. Obviously, that golden age has passed. (gamesareevil.com)

I should be comfortable with the peculiarities of giftedness. Education of gifted children was my specialty in graduate school, and I’ve always gravitated toward intelligent, but quirky and dysfunctional, people. One of my exes—who was obsessed, variously, with monasteries, military aircraft, and cartography—was the quintessential gifted underachiever. He dropped out of high school for a time, never finished college, and has always struggled to meet the demands his career places on him. He remains one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. Another of my exes spent his elementary years obsessing over the simultaneous threats posed by nuclear war and bullies. He ended his high school career two weeks prior to graduation when the ignorance and apathy of his peers during a discussion of Macbeth drove him to jump up and yell “Oh, fuck this shit!” before overturning his desk and storming out of the classroom.

Having known some classic cases, I sometimes forget that my husband—whom I still see as the dashing rake from high school—is really, really smart. (And not the least bit modest. I got the idea for this post several weeks ago, and ever since then, he’s been demanding to know what’s delaying “the post about how brilliant I am.”) He’s constantly surprising me—bursting my intellectual bubbles, even. Whenever I discover something new, I’ll excitedly say something like, “Did you know that the U.S. is overproducing corn?” and he’ll respond without looking up, “Yeah, because of Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon,” and completely steal my thunder.

My first memory of us being married is driving home from our wedding weekend. “Isn’t it weird about leaves?” I’d said. “How we see their true colors only when they begin to die?” I was thinking of Mark Doty: Strip something/of its mortality, and how do you know/what’s left to see?

He returned, “But who says those colors are their ‘true colors’? If the leaf spends at least 50% of its life being green, can’t that be its true color?”

I didn’t say anything. I just smiled to myself.

Here's Earl Butz squeezing a cow teat. (content.time.com)
Here’s Earl Butz squeezing a cow teat. (content.time.com)

It was only after our conversation about Jack and giftedness that I realized my husband is, in some ways, his own classic case. He told me about a salient moment from first grade: The class was reading passages and answering questions in their workbooks.  One passage told of a hungry cat walking around the neighborhood and seeing various sights. “What color was the house?” asked the first question. No problem—yellow. The second question asked, “What does the cat want”? My husband thought and thought. “What do they mean, what does the cat want? What does anyone want?” His frustration mounted. As the other kids closed their workbooks and fled to recess, he fought back tears. The teacher approached and they had a conversation that went something like this:

Teacher: Why are you upset?

G: I don’t know how to answer this question.

Teacher: Well, what does the cat want?

G: I don’t know!

Teacher: What does it want?

G: (tearfully) I DON’T KNOW!

Teacher: The cat is hungry, isn’t it?

G: Yes.

Teacher: Well, what do you want if you’re hungry?

G: Food? The cat wants food? That’s the answer?

Teacher: Yes.

G: (puzzled by the simplicity of it) Oh.

I suppose Jack comes by precocity, and the sensitivity that usually accompanies it, honestly, and I have no choice but to brace myself for emotional breakdowns. For not fitting in. For frustration. For an imagination that can conceive of amazing things, but may more often be used to generate all possible ways one could be maimed or killed in any given circumstance. (For the hundredth time, just because no one has ever died from a Cinnamon Life overdose doesn’t mean it can’t happen.) In other words, I’ve got to brace myself for a little combination of me and my husband.

Our parents are laughing sadistically right now—laughing so, so hard.