My grandmother just gave me a ton of attention for so many years. She talked about how she took me on the train to New York City. I was 18 months old and I was talking to everyone on the train. I can remember as a 4-year-old boy sitting with a green blackboard and her teaching me to write my name on the blackboard. I think all the attention she gave me cultivated an impulse to learn.
I was the first-born grandson and I think she was excited about having a grandchild. She realized that I caught on quickly and she kind of knew what she was doing: She was a Master teacher of special education students. She was teaching every minute. And she was doing it for all of us.
The question is why I sunk my teeth into learning and others did not? I think the reason is that I had more stimulation during those first three important years. I had more one-on-one time with her. And so I was always looking for something to think about. And then after second grade, I got into the summer book club; I remember sitting in the corner in the shade reading these eight books during the summer.
Nobody told me to do it. I asked my mother to buy me the books and she bought them and she ordered them. It wasn’t that the adults were guiding it in any way; it’s that the really early stimulation had set up a certain kind of hunger.
When I was twelve my grandmother took me to see Duke Ellington in my hometown of Cleveland. It was just the two of us. I think it was right around the time that I just started playing the clarinet. Some of the featured players in his orchestra played clarinet. I know that experience influenced me in terms of my sense of what it meant to be a clarinet player, but did my grandmother know this? Was she aware of how, if at all, this interaction would influence me? Did she do this intentionally? Did she think I had a gift? What type of parenting role did she play in that instance?
Here are some things parents should know in order to get the most out of their children:
Identify Your Child’s Potential
Have you ever heard anyone say that a child is a “bundle of potential”? Things that a parent does can influence the way that genetic potential expresses itself and how it may or may not evolve over the course of life. Parents should ideally have an understanding of their child and be able to imagine their child’s future self, then figure out how they can help to steer the potential toward a direction that will be the most beneficial for the child and maybe even for the family.
Initiate Long-lasting Communication
In early childhood, and actually all the way through life, either the child or the parent initiates something and the aim is to keep the communication going as long as they can. This prompting of a response from the other, which then goes back and forth, is known as the serve and return.
Kids are Great, too
Some children who come into the world with special qualities, have parents who have figured out how to enable, harvest and help them to optimize what the child’s qualities ultimately turn into. As much work as the parent does, it’s important to realize and acknowledge that kids are bringing something to the table too. There are no great parents without a great kid.
Harvard's Ron Ferguson is co-authoring The Formula with Tatsha Robertson. As-told-to by Allison Theresa. Interview done at Harvard University by Tatsha Robertson.
By Jon Reisfeld
When I was eight years old and enjoying a weekend sleepover at my grandmother’s, I wrote a couple of short, rhyming poems and handed them to her. She read them, smiled broadly and, to my surprise, showered me with praise. She even gave me one of her signature all-in, bear hugs. (To this day, I’ve never known anyone who hugged as hard as she did. My arms used to ache from her many bracelets pressing against me.)
She wasn’t done. Still kvelling about how wonderful my poems were, she took a clear plastic storage bin from her bedroom closet, emptied it in front of me and put my poems inside, promising me that, from that day forward, she would keep a copy of everything I wrote. That’s how the “archive,” as I later called it, came into existence. It’s also how, in her mind, my destiny as a writer had been revealed.
Every time I wrote anything in the years to come I would always make her a copy. The bin eventually filled up with short stories, poems, newspaper clippings, magazine articles and more.
Her reaction had made a deep impression on me, as I discovered the following school year, when I found myself in an extremely embarrassing position. I had been amusing myself in class, building forts out of bundles of counting sticks, when the stern voice of my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Barkley, crackled above the din.
“Jonathan,” she said, “don’t you have anything better to do? Stop wasting time and return to your desk!” Suddenly, my cheeks felt hot as, all around me, my classmates snickered and jeered.
As I returned to my desk these completely uncharacteristic words sprang into my head. “I’ll show the old battle-ax!”
I sat down, took out a paper and pencil and fearlessly composed three new poems on the spot. One went like this: “We go into the car wash…And watch the water-spout…But we don’t see it very long…Because the car comes out!
I gathered the pages, walked over to Mrs. Barkley’s desk and slapped them down. ‘That’ll show her,’ I thought smugly. But in retrospect, I think Mrs. Barkley viewed my efforts as proof that she was a motivational genius. She praised the poems, and I was quickly elevated from ne’er-do-well to class poet laureate. I continued writing poems throughout that year, and Mrs. Barkley challenged the rest of the class to do the same.
At the end of the year, we read our poems to the entire school and our families in a special assembly. And by then, my grandmother had added dozens of new poems to her growing collection.
Check out Jon’s new thriller here.
Editor’s Note: Carmen is going to Yale, but before she leaves I asked her to provide tips on how she organized herself as a student and to provide some study secrets! I found these wise tips helpful for my own life experience. Don’t miss her story this week on “The Ordinary Genius Project,” which can be found on TatshaRobertson.com. Meanwhile, I wanted to hear from Carmen’s mom. How’d they do it? I know their story. Things have not been easy for them, but the parents equally raised four very smart and loving children, the oldest son is a football star and scholar in Baltimore and the oldest daughter, Carmen is headed to Yale. Here’s mom, Crystal:
My husband and I decided to move the children to parochial school after our public school tried this “new” non-math program. We used our tax returns to pay for it, and didn’t take vacations, or buy new cars. We picked our children’s education as our family investment. We continue to explain the value of learning and understanding in the world. We did this through illness and layoffs, and plenty of uncertainty.
The Lesser Side of Comfortable
There are plenty of bills getting the slow payment plan, and it causes anxiety at times, but we continue on with prayer, and determination, and help from both sets of grandparents. Every little bit helps. The “we,” in this picture is very big. We encouraged her, and her siblings, and they continue to work hard. I’d say we did this on the lesser side of comfortable.
It’s All About Effort
A note about Carmen. When Carmen was in sixth grade, she came to her father and myself and told us this: “Mom, Dad: I’ve decided that I want to get high honors while I’m in middle school.” We acknowledged that this was very admirable, and that we supported her decision, and that it wouldn’t always be easy or fun, but we were there for her. After graduating at the top of her class, she came back to us, and noted that she was going to do her best to stay in high honors through out high school. We again noted that this was a wonderful goal, but not an easy one with sports and the many activities, but we supported her decision.
It Was Never Easy
There were many, many long nights, a few tears, lots of typing, reading and pushing through, but she did it, just as she had decided that she would. She maintained a 4.2 GPA or better her entire high school tenure, while playing three seasons of sports, tutoring, and riding fifty minutes a day each way.
Her drive and determination took her to the top five percent of her class, and she graduated sixth in her class. We are just so excited to see what’s next at Yale.
A Mother’s Sage Advice
I told her to just keep doing what she’s been doing. Read and study to know the material, not just to make the grade. Understand the discussion and ask your questions until it makes sense; help others along the way who need help. It reinforces what you have learned. Yes we are proud, and we take credit for just loving her, and supporting her to the best of our abilities.
Crystal lives in Connecticut with her children and husband. Be sure to catch our interview with Carmen this week. For more stories like this one, visit “The Ordinary Genius Project,” at TatshaRobertson.com (Full disclosure: Carmen is Tatsha’s niece).
Written By Laurie Hertzel
I learned to read in the quiet of an upstairs bedroom in our house in Duluth, Minnesota, the room where the twins slept side-by-side in cribs, where nobody would think to look for me. I was three years old, and I did not recognize the words on the page by looking at them, but had to work at them, sounding them out, saying them aloud. At some point they became not just letters or sounds, but actual words with meaning, words connected to other words, words that said something, told a story, and I picked up speed and read and read and read, chattering away out loud.
My older sister finally hollered from down the hall, “Shut up! You’re driving me crazy!” but my mother came to my defense: “Leave her alone; she’s reading!” Magical words that came to define my childhood.
I knew the rules: Do not follow the text with your finger. That would show me to be an amateur; also, it would slow me down. Sitting on the floor, book propped against my knees, back against the wall, I read until my voice was hoarse. At some point I realized I could manage it silently, but out loud was easier and had the added benefit of annoying my sister.
In my bedroom, which I shared with three other sisters, we had a white wooden bookcase packed with books, and I read most of them—The Gateway to Storyland and The Bumper Book were my favorites, collections of poems and stories put together by a man called Watty Piper. When the twins were old enough to read they were inspired to reverse his initials and call him Potty Wiper and then laugh hysterically. This did not ruin the books for me.
On the first day of kindergarten, Mrs. Pedersen told us that we each needed to bring in 50 cents to pay for the mats we napped on at mid-morning. I was the seventh Hertzel child, and we had a bunch of these mats at home in our basement. My mother wanted me to let Mrs. Pedersen know that I didn’t need to buy one. But how? I was shy, terrified of speaking to adults.
So I waited until my teacher stepped away from her desk.
I slipped over and found a pencil and paper, and I printed, “I already have a mat,” and left the note for her to find. It did not occur to me to sign it.
Later that day Mrs. Pedersen called the class together. We sat in a circle on the floor and stared up at her as she held up a piece of paper. I recognized my note, and I felt my face grow hot.
“Someone left me a note,” she began, and I did not dare move. “Would you like to let me know who wrote this?” I waited a few seconds before slowly raising my hand. The guilt was crushing, even though I did not know what I had done that was wrong. Using her pencil? Being in possession of a mat?
She looked at me oddly and said, “Do you know how to read?” and I nodded, miserable. Didn’t everyone?
Mrs. Pedersen kept an eye on me after that. There was a reading corner in the back of the kindergarten room, and most days she came back there and gently took a book out of my hands and urged me to go do something else—choose an instrument from the music box, or take part in one of the games. I followed her into the middle of the room, looking back longingly at that sweet corner. Nobody else ever went back there; nobody else seemed interested in books. I didn’t understand why I had to keep leaving.
One morning, Mrs. Pedersen was called to the office for a phone call. She asked me to read to the class while she was gone. I grabbed the book she had taken away from me the day before, only half read. It was a collection of Ukrainian stories, and I had been in the middle of “The Spiders’ Christmas Tree.” I would read that to the class, and thus find out how the story ended.
The other children sat on the floor, and I perched on a chair and read aloud. In the story, spiders crept into a poor family’s home and spun their webs all over the Christmas tree—they were trying to make it beautiful, but instead they ruined it.
Halfway through, Mrs. Pedersen returned, and I stopped and looked up. She paused in the doorway and nodded at me to continue. She and the children listened as I read aloud, all of us waiting to find out what happened in the end. And lo and behold, a fairy came, and with her wand she turned all of the sticky gray spider webs to pure gold.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune.