Touched by an Angel

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

During one quiz, Justin noticed that the students were filling in only one bubble by each question, and he asked his mother why. "Because there is only one right answer," she said.

Justin pondered that for a while, then began filling in one bubble at a time. When he finished, the pajama-clad toddler padded up to the teacher and handed in the exam. The professor patted him on the head and smiled.

Since most of his students hadn't finished, the professor killed time by grading the toddler's paper. After scanning the quiz, his jaw dropped. Justin, at age two, had scored a 76 on a college-level behavioral-modification quiz.

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.

"I read the questions," the boy explained.

That was how Elizabeth learned he could read.

Justin was born on July 17, 1993, in Rochester, New York. He is Elizabeth's only child; she never married his father, who lives in North Carolina.

Early on, Elizabeth knew her son was special. He began talking at four months, walking at eight months, tidying the house at a year. He was very independent, too, his mother recalls, always wanting to dress himself and make his own meals. He was neat and orderly as well, and would get upset if unwashed dishes filled the sink. And he loved exploring.

"I had a backpack, and I'd take him different places to see things," Elizabeth recalls. "A museum, a concert or a park. Even the laundromat or the grocery store. He had to be learning something. It got to the point where he'd literally wait by the door for me."

When Justin was eleven months old, she enrolled him in a Montessori school. Even though he zipped through the toddler programs, Elizabeth had to fight to get him placed with older children. But eventually he got bored of that, too. When Justin was three, she slipped him into kindergarten by leaving the year of his birth off his application. But even kindergarten wasn't enough to keep him occupied. Justin was light years ahead of the basic word games, counting exercises and playtime activities that enthralled his classmates. He already played the violin and the piano and competed in chess tournaments. When the class spent nearly a week searching for Eeyore's tail, Justin was ready to leave. And he did, as soon as kindergarten officials discovered his true age.

Elizabeth then tried to enroll him in elementary school -- Justin had tested to the eight-year-old level -- but New York law prohibited anyone from starting a formal education until age five. So she began home-schooling her boy, who soaked up the material, completing an entire grade in four months. When Justin turned five, Elizabeth tried traditional school again -- but administrators who'd said they would place Justin according to test scores balked after discovering that these scores put him at the ninth-grade level.

Elizabeth and Justin resumed home schooling. But now Justin was taking the lead, selecting his own courses, writing his own education plan. His thirst for knowledge was insatiable. He once compared it to the robot in the movie Short Circuit, which demanded: "More input. More input." The only way his mother could keep up was to continually buy and sell used curriculum online. And still, Justin spent hours conducting his own research and special-ordering more material.

"My mom would get the idea that I needed more to do when the mailboxes were overflowing," he once wrote.

While others his age were entering the first grade, Justin audited a physics course at the University of Rochester in New York; he'd already taken a high school correspondence classes through Cambridge Academy in Florida and done courses through Stanford University's gifted-education network.

By age seven, he was a full-time college student at Rochester. Because Justin was a minor, Elizabeth accompanied him to campus, lugging his books, opening heavy doors, walking twenty paces behind her mortified son. During lectures, Justin made her wait in the library until he rang her cell phone.

"He pretended I didn't exist," she says.

Justin thrived at college: writing papers on Babylonian creation myths, discussing string theory, dragging his mother to a human-rights "camp-in." He also played pool, video games and Ultimate Frisbee with older students, who had no problem accepting him. "I am in an environment where there is serious learning and serious fun," wrote Justin, whose education fees are usually waived or financed through scholarships.

In April 2000, Justin became a syndicated columnist for the Paradigm news service. His weekly column, "The Justin Report," explores everything from world peace to "What is a bored student to do?" to surviving family road trips.

"Each day I find myself discovering my own path through uncharted territory," he wrote in one column published this past March in the Christian Science Monitor. "Everyone and everything in the world should be appreciated and has a lesson to teach, if you take the time to listen. I follow not the 'normal' code of life. I have the courage to be me."

Justin's most ambitious effort is Project FAD: Fix Age Discrimination, which he launched in December 1999. The idea began as an assignment for a class on youth and government but soon blossomed into a full-blown movement based upon the obstacles he'd encountered. FAD's professed goals: eliminate the minimum voting age; place children in grades according to ability, not birthdate; establish a worldwide system of self-paced education; pass laws that include age as a form of discrimination.

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