I was hanging out in the biography section of Borders, banished there because History was M’s section, when the book caught my eye. Red and white cover — curiously several books I’ve bought recently are red and white. And the title? “wis·en·heim·er: A Childhood Subject to Debate” by Mark Oppenheimer. Hmm. Interesting. I pulled it from the shelf. It had me from the first sentence of the flyleaf: “Have you ever met a child who talked like an adult? Who knew big words and how to use them?”
It continues, “Was he a charmer or an insufferable smart aleck–or maybe both? … Frank and comical, Wisenheimer chronicles the travails of a hyperarticulate child who finds salvation in the heady world of competitive oratory.”
“Hyperarticulate.” I love that.
Needless to say, I bought the book. And I have to say: Wow. It has to be one of the best depictions I have ever read of what it’s like to be a verbally gifted kid. It’s also painfully honest about the less than lovely parts of that gift. (There is one particularly awful incident.) What makes it so special, in my opinion, is that Oppenheimer not only has the ability to tap directly into his childhood and teen experiences and vividly give voice to that gifted kid, but now, a parent himself, he can muse on what it what it must have been like to parent a kid like himself. Chapters II and III gripped me. I found myself nodding and nodding and nodding.
Compared with other kids in my gifted classes I was nothing remarkable. Yet the average adult, if introduced to two smart nine-year-olds, a girl who can do geometry and a boy who uses words like dissembled and eviscerated, find the boy more astonishing. At that age, speaking well is a better party trick. But my gift, my verbiage, presented a unique problem: you can have the words but without the wisdom they don’t count for much. There are nine-year-olds who can do post-collegiate mathematics, and nine-year-olds whose music virtuosity does not betray their age, but there has never been the nine-year-old who wrote accomplished adult poetry or a moving novel. If your gift is for words, you can write stuff that’s good given your age, but not stuff that’s good, period.
I felt this constraint, keenly. I even think that, if asked I could have described what I was feeling: that someday I could be a fine wordsmith, but for the time being I just had all these words and no place to take them. So I did what millions of boys before me–and girls too, but not as frequently as boys–had done. I began to think of myself, around fourth grade, as a master of words. I became a wiseacre.
His humorous description of his family life and their liberal social milieu, while perhaps a bit more “out there” did, I confess, sound rather familiar.
It was especially hard for my parents to convince me there were boundaries to how I could talk, because they surrounded themselves with people who thought talking and arguing were really good things.
Chapter II opens with this sentence: “From the beginning, I had a hard time with teachers, and teachers had a hard time with me. “ From there he describes his experience of attending a Montessori school that clearly wasn’t a fit for him.
It wasn’t just that the school’s theoretical matrix encouraged neglect of verbal kids, but also that the teachers had no interest in teaching language arts. … The math and science kids thrived, one of them, the redoubtable Eli Brandt, used the school’s freed to start simple algebra when he was eight. He’s now a Google software engineer. My gifts, however, seemed to be held against me. The school sold itself as a place where students could be individuals, but my endless quarreling, my hunger to challenge my teachers, wasn’t seen as a good urge that needed proper channeling; rather it was treated as a rebellion against the harmony that the school was supposed to embody.
It’s one thing to have a child to speak about unhappiness with school. But no matter how empathetic one is, there still is that little voice thinking, “Yeah, but he’s a kid. It can’t really be that bad” It’s a totally other thing to hear that alienation filtered through the words and perspective of a thirty-something Yale professor. Yeah, it can be that bad.
And his description of his “thing” with his teacher Lisa. Whoa. Just whoa. His description of how this spilled into his relationship with his brother. Again, close to the bone. Switch genders and it could have been a scene from our house. A pivotal passage (starting page 34) is when he finally tells his parents it’s just too much, that they just don’t understand how deeply different he feels. I don’t have space (nor the right) t0 reproduce it here, but let’s just say that for parents of profoundly gifted kids, it is very likely a conversation, a moment, that you have lived.
The second half book moves on to describe how Oppenheimer stumbles into — and eventually triumphs in — the world of competitive debate. In 7th grade he moves to a private school where the high school allows middle schoolers to participate on the debate team. “We were not a student body with brilliant futures,” he writes, “But the other ten students who joined the debate team that fall — all from the high school — were among the most interesting characters on campus.” “Interesting.” Ah yes. Oppenheimer is about ten years younger than me, which makes the book a double pleasure. Not only does he write authentically about the life and mores of homo teenagerus — a stage I am experiencing firsthand as a parent — but he nails the details of place and time, namely what it was like to be a teen in Connecticut in the 1980s, when things were still a little, shall we say, “looser.” (Full disclosure, that’s where I grew up.)
In debate, Oppenheimer “finds his people,” so important for highly gifted kids; at the prep school Loomis Chaffee, he soars. As a parent about to see her child off to boarding school, an entirely new world for all of us, it was fun to read a “teen’s eye account” of that adventure. This second half of the memoir immerses the reader into the world of competitive debate and although there is a fair amount of debate arcana, there is also enough description of the colorful characters and humorous situations to see the reader through.
So would I recommend it? Absolutely. An Amazon reader reviewer huffs that “It was a bad choice for a graduation gift.” Oh please. I would disagree. I think mature and savvy teens–especially ones with a love of words (I’m looking at you, C.) would enjoy it. I know I did.