Monday, August 01, 2011

TIP reunion, part 2: Closing Remarks

The following are my closing remarks presented at the Duke University Talent Identification Program (TIP) 30th Anniversary Reunion on July 24, 2011

In applying for TIP in 1982, I had to write an essay on Montaigne. It seems appropriate to open with one of his quotes:
“Poverty of goods is easily cured; poverty of soul, impossible.”
When I was a teenager, Dr. Robert Sawyer asked me to join him in Washington D.C. for a presentation to some members of Congress. Even as a kid, I was a passionate advocate for TIP. I am honored to speak today, and grateful for the opportunity.

It is wonderful to see so many people here, many having traveled far to be here. I keenly feel the absence of some very important friends who were here the last time we got together: Ramon Griffin, Bill Bevan, and Greg Kimble.

Duke University East Campus


My freakish intelligence was recognized literally almost the day I was born. I was tested by scientists doing perception studies on newborns. They kept asking my parents to bring me back in because I was the smartest baby they had seen.

Many children are precious, I was precocious. We were precocious.


Being gifted wasn’t easy, as everyone in this room knows. There were academic, social, and emotional drawbacks, and few resources available to help me or my parents cope. It's easy to forget what that was really like, and how horrible it could be.

I was often lonely, alienated, and unhappy. Teachers tired of my answers, energy, and enthusiasm. Other students treated me with something ranging from contempt to bafflement. Special programs and magnet schools meant I didn't go to school with the kids in my neighborhood, which made me an outcast at home, too.

I preferred the company of adults to kids my age, but the novelty of a kid who could beat them at Boggle and Scrabble wore thin quickly, and most adults aren't that interested in talking to kids (even gifted ones) for more than a few minutes.

My parents did the best they could. A family friend (Dr. Colin Blaydon) suggested my parents enroll me in a new summer program at Duke, the university where he taught mathematics.

I was accepted and took Writing I in the summer of 1982, taught by Mark DeLong.

I had no idea what to expect, but by the end of that first term, I knew what "gifted" truly meant. I worked hard and met students and faculty that were really smart.

I met kids who were obviously far more brilliant than me. I met kids who were more mature, together, and accomplished. And I met kids who were far more messed up, struggling in ways I found hard to believe. I still recall one fellow student who managed to lose his shoes in a tree while trying to retrieve a Frisbee. Others seemed barely capable of normal human interaction.

TIP was the first place I felt a true sense of belonging, of friendship, of welcome. That sense of home has been the heart of my involvement with TIP. That, and the delicious Union food and the wonderful temperate weather.

I don’t remember exactly how I met Dr. Robert Sawyer, but I did meet him that summer. I don’t need to recap all the things he did for TIP, or all the things he accomplished for gifted education.

However, I will tell you why Dr. Sawyer felt there was a need for something like TIP.

He wrote extensively about how terrible most “gifted” education programs and activities were. Sadly, he could simply change the dates on many of his earliest writings on gifted education and they would still be relevant today: the lack of academic rigor, the games masquerading as curricula, the slashed school budgets, the gap between rich and poor students…

Dr. Sawyer believed we could all do better.

He wanted a serious program for gifted kids. Something that would truly challenge and stimulate them. And perhaps he wanted a bigger audience for his square-dance calling.

More importantly, Dr. Sawyer told me he was concerned about gifted children in the more impoverished parts of the country. The phrase he used was “intellectual starvation”. He wanted to provide sustenance for these gifted children. To cultivate their nascent love of learning, so society wouldn't lose the benefits of their brilliance.

I remember being keenly aware of arguments that gifted kids, being already naturally advantaged by their giftedness, did not need any special programs or extra help; and that programs like TIP were just providing benefits to those already privileged. “Elitism”, they said.

Yet we all know how essential TIP was for our intellectual well-being. I can't imagine who I would be without it. I had a gifted and easy life and I struggled. How difficult were things for kids in more extreme situations?

The author's TIP residential group, Term II 1985.

Several reunion attendees are present, including Stacy Gardiner (front row, far left), Vernon Apperson (front row, 2nd from left, navy shirt), Dean Karlan (front row, center, white jacket), Colin Delany (back row, red shirt) and Elizabeth Sellars (front row, far right). The author is in the front left, wearing the bowtie and gray pants.

In the intervening years, I have seen some first-hand examples.

Boredom corrodes minds. Without opportunity and direction, kids' talents wither and evaporate, or curdle and turn destructive. Usually self-destructive.

I was a good kid. I played by the rules. My life’s turned out OK so far. Looking around the room, I'm guessing most of your lives turned out OK, too.

But I wonder about some of our peers…the kids who taught themselves calculus in a week but were incapable of getting to class without losing their shoes in a tree, who couldn’t interact. I know not all of them had the G/T classes and other advantages I had waiting when they got home.

As its first director, Dr. Sawyer worked hard to insure TIP reached out to minorities and girls, and spent as much money on financial aid as possible. The only thing worse than not having TIP exist at all was having it priced out of reach of those who needed it most.

TIP was expensive even back in those days. I was lucky – I never had to worry. In my time at TIP I met kids from every economic level, from big cities and backwaters, thanks to Dr. Sawyer. Many would never have made it to TIP without financial aid.

I attended TIP for 4 summers and a total of 6 terms in the 80s. I served on the advisory board in the 90s, and I taught in the last decade. I've had more of an opportunity than most students (and perhaps even most faculty) to see behind-the-scenes during my nearly 30 years' association with the program.

TIP has changed quite a bit since we were students. Organizations, like people, must grow and adapt in response to the times and their own needs. Today's TIP is not exactly the same as it was back in 1982. The world is not the same. Nor are we…but our original shapes are still recognizable, even as we've adapted to life, changed, and aged.

Dr. Robert Sawyer (right, white t-shirt, light blue pants) addresses former (and future?) TIP participants

TIP is a human institution, and is thus imperfect. Like all of us, it's made some questionable moves over the years. Been in a bad relationship or two. Maybe even said and done a few things it regrets with the hindsight and wisdom that comes with age.

You don't learn if you don't make mistakes and try new things.

TIP has never stopped trying to make a difference for those children at risk of intellectual starvation.

As you leave here, I would encourage you all to reflect on the impact TIP had on your life and consider a few things.

First, maybe give TIP some money.

TIP doesn't talk about this much, but they spend every spare dollar in their budget providing financial aid to students. They would give every kid a free ride if they could make the numbers work.

TIP also faces a number of surprising fundraising challenges due to their affiliation with a major university. They can't approach most companies or "compete" with Duke for funds.

TIP needs us. It needs our help so it can help those in need. Think about it, or better yet, do it.

Next, maybe teach. If I can do it, you can. I guarantee you will learn more than you teach, and you will find it to be a rewarding – if exhausting – endeavor. Teaching will also give you a new appreciation for the TIP staff and what they have to do every year to make the magic happen. And how challenging and satisfying dealing with gifted people like us can be.

Finally, think about your own life. Perhaps it hasn't turned out exactly as you'd hoped, planned, or feared. Or perhaps it has.

I know a lot about being a gifted kid. I still don't know much about being a gifted adult. After all this time, even Lewis Terman’s research doesn’t tell us much. We’re still figuring it out.

So here we are. It’s been quite a weekend. At most reunions, you meet old friends and reminisce about what you did.

Perhaps here you can remember who you were. How you felt. What you wanted to do. What kind of person you wanted to be. What kind of life you hoped to lead. How it felt to be excited about learning, excited about living.

Seeing you all, talking to you, learning about the incredible things you’re doing, and meeting your amazing kids has been a rejuvenating and humbling experience for me.

We were all gifted kids. Now we're gifted adults. Precocious then, post-cocious now.

As Dr. Wai said, “mostly normal, with some exceptional accomplishments”. That’s as fine and fitting a description of us as I can imagine.

Yesterday, Dr. Wai talked to us about the “black box” of TIP: Student goes in to the black box, something happens, better student comes out.

Why? Where’s the magic? Dr. Wai is looking into it. In true TIP fashion, some of you offered your own thoughtful suggestions and insights.

I offer this:
It can’t be the classes and teachers – we all took different classes with different combinations of teachers.
It can’t be the years we were there – TIP has continued on year after year, and had the same results.
It can’t be the campus – as we heard, TIP has spread to many different locations and still has the same results.
It can’t be the food or the shoelaces or the weather.

I eliminate the variables and I am left with the following inescapable conclusion:

The black box is empty. The only thing in it is…you. You change you.

We call that experience “TIP”.

This weekend and these past many years, we’ve heard over and over again that TIP made you who you were. Changed you.

Well, you just spent a weekend in the black box. You were here on campus. You sat in classes, talked with instructors. You ate the food. Experienced the weather. Wore the shoelaces. Danced the Time Warp. Were told by TIP about all the rules you were supposed to follow. You broke them. Caused the staff to revise them.

Dare to let this brief moment in the black box of TIP change you again.

To remind you not just what you did, but what you can do.

To remind you not just who you were, but who you are.


TIP's entire Term II student body and residential staff, 1984.

(Special thanks to Iran Narges, who provided perspective and guidance in shaping my words to best convey my feelings and intent for this very special event.)

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