Child prodigies do us all a big favor

By Jack Sparacino
I was channel surfing recently and, like someone wandering through a huge flea market on a clear Saturday morning, I encountered a gem among all the other whatnots and clutter.  A singer.  Her name is Jackie Evancho.  She has been competing on the popular and entertaining TV show, “America’s Got Talent.”  She has a marvelous stage presence and a lovely, HUGE operatic voice.  Close your eyes and you are at a fine show anywhere in the world.  She has a CD out, “Dream With Me.”  Oh, yes, one other thing.  She is 10.
This young lady got me thinking about child prodigies, a subject we barely touched in my school years.  What are they, exactly?  How do they get that way and come to our attention?  How do they do in later life?
I’m still digging into this, but I have learned a few things recently.  First, they are found all over the world and have been around since, probably, the dawn of man. A child prodigy is a person who, very early in their life, excels far beyond normal levels for their age in areas requiring profound ability. Their skills often involve math and music but cover a wide swath including art and even philosophy.  They are as rare as a baked potato sitting next to you in math class or a vegetarian tiger.
Scientists have studied brain activity in prodigies and learned that their long term working memory, specific to a particular area of expertise, may be superior to other people’s over long periods of time (hours).  Studies have also pointed to interesting differences between prodigies and the rest of us in how the cerebellum helps to make their thought processes more efficient.  Hopefully, there are prodigies studying their fellow prodigies and they will learn ways for all of us to process information, think and perform better.
Of course child prodigies usually benefit from a supportive environment, much as the rest of us do better when we are strongly encouraged to succeed and rewarded when we do. Interestingly, some prodigies, like harpsichordist and composer George Frideric Handel, appear to have achieved historic success with little support from their families.  I call this the “hell or high water” effect, children with so much talent and motivation that practically nothing can stop them.
Many child prodigies leave us practically speechless, to the extent that we can even comprehend what they are doing.  As a very young child, Shirley Temple sang, acted, danced, and helped keep up America’s spirits during the Great Depression.  Korea’s Kim Ung-Yong received a Ph.D. at age 15 and is reported to have the highest IQ in the world.  Australian Aelita Andre shocked the art world with her abstract paintings at the age of … 2! Gregory Smith, who could read at two, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize at 12.  These are relatively recent examples of incredible genius and accomplishment.  But again, children have been astounding us for a long time.  Austrian Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed and performed what we now label “classical music” at concert levels when he was barely 6.  He composed his first opera at 12.
Ah, opera, and back to young Jackie Evancho and her remarkable singing.  In a world of bad economies, natural disasters, cruelty, ugliness and suffering, there is still lots to be cheerful and optimistic about.  The sun still breaks over the horizon in the morning.  Flowers are still pretty, puppies and kittens still warm our hearts.  Our friends and family still provide comfort and make us laugh.  Human kindness has not gone out of style.  Bravery and devotion to doing the right thing are still with us and within us.  But there is something especially magical about seeing a child who is more than a “star,” greater than an amazing show or two.  I think those children give us renewed confidence that we do live in a special world, with special people and special experiences.
It’s almost enough to make you forget, even for a few moments, all the disasters and despair in the news every day.  Almost.

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