Column: Gifted children need help, too

Farm Forum

It’s been more than 40 years, but in my head I can still hear David’s lines exactly as he spoke them.

We played opposite one another in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”: I was Algernon Moncrief, while he played Algie’s friend and (it turns out) long lost brother, John Worthing. I wasn’t much good, but David was superb. And no wonder: David in real life was much like the witty, cultured, model gentleman he portrayed.

David was an immensely talented musician. While most of our school’s guitarists were looking to Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix for inspiration, David modeled himself on Andres Segovia. Could he out-rock the rockers? I don’t know that he ever tried, but when it came to jazz guitar, no one at our school was even close. David was a fine clarinetist, too, the kind of musician who can make 32nd-note runs sound effortless.

David was interested in everything. Whether the topic was good books, good music or good food, David’s conversation was always witty and clever — and almost never confrontational.

Looking back, I scarcely noticed how (in between the games of our frequent marathon chess sessions) he gradually won me away from my professed atheism and toward eventual acceptance of the Gospel.

What would a young man with so many gifts and talents do with his life? Unfortunately, in this case the answer is not very much. He traveled, he studied, he learned — but he couldn’t really find a permanent career.

Eventually, he drifted into an unhealthy lifestyle. He contracted an immune deficiency disease that ruined his health. After a long and painful struggle, he died last week at the relatively young age of 61.

Stories like David’s are all too common. Young men and women blessed with exceptional gifts are often cursed by an inability to fit into the social mainstream, and they end up lonely and alienated. They drop out of high school at twice the rate of their less-talented peers. Frequently bored with academic tasks too easy for them, they might cope by adopting a passive-aggressive approach to school or by more openly disruptive behavior.

Gifted education may seem like a needless frill: Talented students are going to do fine anyway, so why have a special program for them?

The truth is that many gifted students (especially those who come from low-income families) are not going to do fine without the guidance of adult figures who understand well the particular problems they are likely to face. In a worst-case scenario, the mishandled gifted student might end up following the route of a Dylan Klebold or Adam Lanza.

Until recently, the Aberdeen School District had an exceptionally fine gifted education program with Jan Palmer, Rose Des Camps and SueAnn Yonkovich providing exactly the kind of guidance gifted and talented students needed. During the past couple of years, gifted education funds were cut. These cuts save the district money, but long term, there’s a heavy price to be paid in terms of wasted talents and wasted lives.

Art Marmorstein, Aberdeen, is a professor of history at NSU. He can be reached at The views are his and do not represent Northern State University.