Pressure destroyed Chapman

Mar 042002
Authors: Sarah Laribee

When I was twelve or thirteen, I had to do a report on the legend of Atlantis for a history class. I used my family’s copy of Funk and Wagnall’s Illustrated Encyclopedia, as it would still be several years before I would start doing research on the Internet. Of course, the majority of my Internet time now is spent on, where I can rate the relative attractiveness of random people, and so I still don’t really do research. At thirteen, however, I was fairly convinced that my single source was adequate for my paper. I was certain, after all, that I was the only student to have quoted Plato.

When I showed the paper to my dad, however, he was less than impressed. He and I went over and over the paper for countless millennia, and by the time I handed the paper in, it was twice as long, had dissertation-worthy sources, and had charts that detailed the supposed destruction of the fabled city. I was furious at my father. But I got an A.

This is, of course, a parent’s job. The calling to take a lump of unformed raw matter, and fashion it into an actual, real-life intelligent human being. And as I anticipate teaching a year from now, it is my hope that the parents of my students will take as active a role in their children’s education as my parents did in mine.

However, there is a strange phenomenon that occurs in a society so madly obsessed with success as ours. The Coloradoan reported on Sunday that Justin Chapman, a boy-genius who’s been receiving quite a bit of press lately, is actually not such a genius after all. Justin, who is eight, reportedly scored off-the charts on intelligence tests, and was dubbed by Linda Silverman of the Gifted Development Center in Denver, as “the greatest genius to ever grace the earth.” High praise indeed.

As it turns out, Justin Chapman’s mother admitted to The New York Times last week that she falsified the results of her young son’s tests, and began to feel guilty about the pressure that was being applied to the young wunderkind after he was hospitalized for a possible attempted suicide.

Of course, Justin Chapman is a smart boy. He graduated from an online high school at age 5, and at age 6, took classes at the University of Rochester. And, his mother maintains, all of the work accomplished at these institutions was his own. But, Chapman’s test scores, the things that give weight to the claims of sheer genius, are falsified. And the pressures applied to the boy, the pressures of his mother, the pressures of the media, the pressures of a society that so desperately wants to look on something above and beyond the mediocrity of the everyday, just got to be a little too much. As a friend of mine asked a few days ago, “Justin Chapman, do you miss your childhood?”

Of course, the Chapman example is the most extreme, but there are a million examples of children who are missing their childhoods. Chapman’s mother said she falsified the scores because “they opened a lot of doors for him.” And there are a hundred things that we do for our youth to open the doors to a failed childhood.

The Justin Chapman story couldn’t exist in a culture that is not obsessed with huge success at any cost. We see the socially acceptable forms of Chapman’s mom in the parents who push their kids a little too hard, a little too fast. It’s the soccer mom syndrome on crack.

I thank my dad for his pushing. But I wonder where it all ends.

Sarah Laribee is an English major who doesn’t yet have kids to push. But someday-

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