Gifted and talented youth identify with ‘Ender’s Game’

vancleafsuephotoWhen teachers continually compliment a student at school, his or her chances of fitting in with classmates is almost zero.

I discovered this comment as I was re-reading “Ender’s Game,” the classic science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card. In the 1991 paperback version, Card wrote an introduction in which he described the impact of “Ender’s Game” on gifted and talented youth. He quoted a letter from a girl who was in a two-week program for the gifted and talented at Purdue University.

In the letter, the girl talked about the loneliness that she and other gifted and talented youth had experienced ever since kindergarten. All their lives they had been following a strategy of doing so well that they couldn’t be ignored. Youth in the Purdue program had discovered “Ender’s Game” and used it as sort of a textbook for discussion groups.

Meanwhile, adults who read the book either loved or hated Ender, but gifted and talented youth identified with him. Like Ender they were far ahead of their peers in whatever topic or endeavor was their passion. In many ways they thought and talked like adults. This contributed to their isolation from other kids.

Recently, I ran into an extremely talented teenager, who, as a high school sophomore, already had done website work for the National Sports Center in Blaine — as an intern. She had in her hands a recent book from Card’s fantasy series on Ender Wiggin. This encounter inspired me to re-read “Ender’s Game,” and I finally understood some things about my own childhood.

I grew up in a German American family in which people did not express emotions. My way of pleasing my parents was getting good grades and being praised by teachers. When I reached fourth grade, my teacher asked me to be a reporter for the school newspaper. I fell in love with finding out things before everyone else did and spouting off facts, whether or not people were willing to listen. I was hooked on being a newspaper reporter when I grew up.

When I reached sixth grade, I discovered my mother’s anatomy book that she used in nurse’s training. I spouted off facts about body parts in science class. Teachers loved it, and so did my mother.

In junior high school, I suffered during gym class when we were supposed to learn ballroom dancing. Boys stood on one side of the gym, and girls stood on the other. Teachers gave a signal for boys to ask girls to dance. I always was the last girl picked.

By the time I reached high school, students went around in cliques. Kids gossiped about the popular, beautiful people and who was going steady with whom. I hung out with a different clique — wallflower girls, some of whom weren’t dating.

As a sophomore I met Bill, my future husband. A sore point for him was that my grades were higher than his. He was thrilled when he got a higher grade in geometry. My secret to getting good grades was learning what teachers wanted me to learn. Meanwhile, Bill learned what he wanted to learn, and he wasn’t interested in pleasing teachers.

In high school my journalism career began to take off. For two years running I was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. As a college sophomore at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, I had my first professional journalism job with the Elm Leaves, a suburban weekly newspaper for Elm Grove, Wis. From there I went on to journalism school and the rest is history.

Bill and life in general have taught me to not care what other people think. All I need to do is be myself. This has made me a much better journalist.

Re-reading “Ender’s Game” has helped me understand how I became who I am today. I am looking forward to seeing the movie.

Contact Susan Van Cleaf at susan.vancleaf@ecm-inc.com

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