From time to time Shane jokingly complains to me about Nathaniel's precocity and how it shows up. Most of it is centered around the NT (intuitive thinker in the Jungian scheme of personality types): the budding scientist type. (Briefly, the NT analyzes everything, looking for flaws in logic. Intellectual challenge is fun for the NT and takes precedence in the NT's play activities over physical games. Math and the laws of nature intrigue the NT like nothing else can. The fuel for the analysis, examination of logic, and playing at experimentation is generally provided through the reading that NTs do -- and they all do a lot of it. The are voracious, if not promiscuous, readers.) Each time that Shane comments about the NT nature of his son, the "complaints" bring back a host of images from Shane's own childhood.
Shane was a little NT nearly from birth. The first indication came when he read me a book at the age of 23 months. Astonishingly, he was still not walking, perhaps because every time he stood up, Noelle who was paraplegic, a year older, and his size, would pull him down with the words, “No, no, Nanie, get hurt,” and just perhaps because he was too busy teaching himself to read. Ironically, Donnie and I had begun to think that Shane might be retarded, given his slow physical development. His intellectual prowess, however, became increasingly clearer with passing months. At the age of 2½, sitting in the grocery cart at the checkout counter, he looked at the change that had been given to Donnie and piped up with “wrong change.” Sure enough, he was correct.
“Excuse me,” Donnie said to the clerk. “My baby says you made a mistake.”
Shortly after that, when Shane was approaching three years of age, I conducted an experiment with Noelle and him on conservation of number, a Piagetan concept I was studying in graduate school. Conservation of number is a concrete understanding that Piaget’s own children reached at age 7 and most children reach at that age or a little bit later. There are several ways to test for it. I used two different tests. The first was with coins, and the second was with water.
First, I laid out two rows of ten pennies. One row I spread out more than the other row. “Which row has more pennies?” I asked. Sure enough, 4-year-old Noelle, told me that the spread-out row had more pennies. Clearly, she had not reached conservation of number, where one would understand that the number of pennies can be constant while the space they occupy can change.
I turned to tiny Shane. “Which row has more pennies?” I asked.
To my surprise, he responded, “Let me count.” He counted each row carefully, then pronounced, “They are the same.”
So, I changed the rows, squishing together the long row and lengthening the short
row, so that what was the short row before was now the long row. “OK,” I said, “now which row has the most pennies?”
Shane looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “Mommmmmeeee,” he intoned incredulously, “they are the same pennies!” Ah, dumb Mommy! He had reached conservation of number. When? I don’t know, but definitely before the age of three, confirming the a comment made by my sister-in-law, who was an elementary school teacher, that while everyone’s attention, family and teachers, was captivated by Lizzie’s skipping first grade and outperforming kids older than she, it was Shane who had the truly remarkable intellectual gifts. (She was right. Lizzie ultimately also skipped seventh grade, as well, graduating at 16, but Shane skipped four grades and was ready for college at 12, waiting until he had body hair – his criterion for enrollment – to begin college.)
A couple of months after my experiment, Shane entered the University of Pittsburgh nursery school, which had a stellar reputation. He attended for only one day. At the end of the day, the director grabbed me. “Do you know that your son reads?” She asked.
“Oh, yes,” I responded. “He has been reading for over a year. He taught himself, so I cannot tell you anything much more than that he can read all of the young children's books that we have.”
“Well, then,” she continued. “Do you know that he can add, subtract, multiply, divide, and do fractions?”
There I was stuck. I had not known all that. Thinking about the grocery store incident, I replied lamely, “Well, I know he can get the correct change.”
The director counseled us to enroll Shane in first grade in the university laboratory elementary school, and so we did. I have pictures of the little tyke stretching to reach the doorknob to enter the schoolhouse. He was small for his age to begin with. None of the desks fit him, but he did not seem to care. He liked his schoolwork, and he seemed to get along with his classmates.
Bit by bit, I began to see my sister-in-law’s characterization of Shane as accurate. Mostly little things reinforced that characterization. For example, Shane and I would take the bus home from the university – a full 30 miles – at the end of the day. One day, we were sitting beside a chatty elderly lad when Shane happened to look out the window. “It’s dark out,” he commented.”
“Oh, yes, sweetie,” said the little old lady. “Didn’t you see the sun going down when we crossed the bridge?”
Shane stared at her, probably trying to figure out whether or not she was serious since at that age he took everything literally. Finally, he decided she needed some education. “Oh, no, lady,” he said. “The sun did not go anywhere. We just turned away from it.” Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the slackened jaw of one very surprised little old lady!
It was fire, though, that made me realize how much of an NT Shane was (and still is). The first fire demolished our bathroom. Ten-year-old Shane had started it. He explained very rationally how it had all happened. He had wanted to determine whether quantity of paraffin or the shape it was in caused a greater rate of burn. So, he made two candles, one short and fat and one tall and thin and planned to see which burned up the fastest. Unfortunately, he got them too close to the bathroom curtains. After a lecture by the fire department chief and me (plus what should have been the fright of a fire although he himself very calmly called 9-1-1) and my subsequent hiding of all matches, he had learned his lesson, I thought. I was wrong. Where he found more matches, I do not know. However, he managed to find some, climb out on the roof, and drop burning objects onto the lawn. When I grabbed him by the ear over that one, he explained that he was just experimenting (again, sigh!). “Newton posited,” he told me, “that two objects will fall at the same rate regardless of mass. However, would that hold true in all circumstances? If, for example, one were to be on fire, would not thermal uplift retard the rate of fall for that object?” Ack! I think parents of adult NT children are lucky to have survived their children’s childhoods!