Touched by an Angel

Gifted children are otherworldly, Linda Silverman says. The challenge is helping them thrive here on earth.

"Demoralizing," she says.

After Linda lost her teaching job and, with it, the family's health insurance, the Silvermans had to apply for food stamps. But adversity only made them more creative. Hilton began working with autistic and handicapped children in their home. He offered a psychic healing course at the Boulder Free School. Hilton and Linda became foster parents to two teenage girls and opened a group home for four more adolescents.

"It was 24-hour chaos," Silverman recalls. "We had ten different girls living with us at various times, plus a college student to help with them. Our home was bursting with eleven people and a dog."

Jay Bevenour
Practice what you teach: Linda Silverman has devoted her life to gifted kids.
Practice what you teach: Linda Silverman has devoted her life to gifted kids.

Silverman eventually took jobs as a grant writer, consultant and part-time teacher at Metro State College and Colorado Women's College. She also helped to start the Colorado Association for the Gifted and Talented, coordinated conferences, launched parents' forums and joined committees.

In 1977, she was hired by the University of Denver to teach gifted education. Two years later she launched a testing, counseling and support project that evolved into the Gifted Development Center.

But educating the public was a slow process. One night about 25 years ago, Silverman was addressing hundreds of people at a back-to-school gathering. She was looking for potential members for the Boulder Association for the Gifted, which she'd founded. For an application fee of just five dollars, she would find a mentor for any child whose interests were not being fully developed at school; parents wouldn't have to pay another dime for the service.

No one applied. "They didn't want the stigma of having a gifted child," Silverman remembers.

Even after decades of study and debate, few areas of education arouse more resentment and misunderstanding than giftedness, she says. Everywhere from testing laboratories to teachers' lounges, people disagree on the definition.

Among the most common misperceptions: that giftedness equals elitism; that all brilliant children are rich, white and upper middle class. But in reality, Silverman says, giftedness crosses all economic, social, ethnic and national boundaries. Although affluent parents might be more likely to test their children, tutor them and enroll them in private schools, most exceptional children come from poorer backgrounds.

"If we systematically found everyone in the world who was gifted, we'd see that the vast majority are poor, because the vast majority of people are poor," she points out. "And even though you might see a higher percentage of gifted children in Beverly Hills, you're still going to find more gifted children in Bombay."

At the Gifted Development Center (, her clients come from all backgrounds and all parts of the world. They come not seeking prestige or ego enhancement, she says, but because they simply don't know what else to do.

When they discover that their son or daughter is a genius, many parents break down and cry. Like fathers and mothers of handicapped children, they worry about having enough money, time and energy to care for their offspring.

Yet parents of gifted children also must constantly battle the stereotype of being seen as stage parents. Although that label seems to fit some parents (see sidebar), Silverman says that stage parents actually are extremely rare.

Many people also mistakenly believe that gifted-education programs make bright children feel superior. In fact, Silverman says, the opposite is true. When brilliant students are placed with their peers, they discover children who know as much, if not more, than they do, and they're humbled. It's when gifted children are forced to remain with children who do not share their abilities that they become haughty.

"If we really want to create a child with elitist attitudes, all we have to do is place him in an unchallenging program for twelve years and allow him to be the smartest one in the class with no one in second place," Silverman argues. "Let him get by doing his homework in class, never taking home a book and acing the tests without ever having to study. By the time he graduates, he will be convinced that he's the top banana and that his rightful place in the universe is to be number one."

Some educators, usually men, equate giftedness with achievement, defining genius by how many books were published, how many patents were secured and how many prizes were won. Some of these educators, Silverman says, label children as "potentially gifted" until their outside achievements are measurable. "We don't label anyone as potentially retarded," she scoffs.

Silverman defines giftedness very differently. While many brilliant people certainly achieve fame and fortune, most aren't motivated by the traditional trappings of success, such as high grade-point averages, six-figure salaries or celebrity status. Some spend decades crafting brilliant philosophical papers. Others feel compelled to help others, and they do so as social workers or doctors. Still others serve as negotiators or counselors. And many become wonderful parents and teachers.

"My belief is that the trajectory of giftedness is inner development," Silverman says. "Spirituality. Compassion for humanity. Need for service. It has nothing to do with what you achieve or if you are well-known in the world."

She believes giftedness emerges in early childhood, as some infants zip through developmental milestones with extraordinary awareness, responsiveness and intensity -- an indication of the complex nervous systems that complicate their interactions with the world. Gifted children display many of the 25 traits she's identified, including a vivid imagination, rapid learning ability, perfectionism, extensive vocabulary, strong curiosity, long attention span, a love of reading, a preference for older children or adults, an excellent sense of humor and a high degree of compassion. Many of these children are "visual-spatial learners" who think in images instead of words. They solve problems in unusual and creative ways. They see the big picture but miss the details. They learn in huge intuitive leaps instead of step by step. They also tend to be disorganized.

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Linda Silverman is a joke. It boggles the mind that she retains any credibility after the fiasco with Justin Chapman.