“He can’t really be among people he doesn’t know.”
“It’s very difficult for him and for his family. He’s hard to control.”
“He has severe Aspergers. It’s really terrible for everyone.”
These and many other similar statements, always said in hushed, dire tones, were all I knew of Joshua’s nephew who lives in Israel and who we had not seen since he was a baby, almost 16 years ago. When we arrived at their house, I was prepared to encounter a reluctant recluse of a child, difficult and perhaps angry with no ability to interact socially.
The young man I met instead completely blew my mind.
Yes, upon first meeting he was a bit shy, said hello quickly and retreated back to his room. A few minutes later he came back out to receive the gift we’d brought for him, and his Mom asked what he was doing. “Working on my writing” he said. “What do you write?” I asked, and that was all it took. He explained at length (and all in perfect English, I might add) the type of warrior fantasy fiction he writes. I asked if I could see it and was invited to his computer where I was shown the manuscript – pages upon pages of text, written in English and posted on a fan fiction site. To date he has over 17,000 readers.
Genius is perhaps too general a word to describe him.
He loves Japanese anime and Manga, and so has taught himself to read, write and speak fluent Japanese. I asked him how he did it and he said, “I don’t really know. I just kind of picked it up.”
He showed me his own Manga style drawings and then asked if I’d like to see one of the videos he and his friends made. Clocking in at 7 minutes or so, it was full color animation in anime style, complete with sound effects and a full cast of characters and their voices. It was every bit as good as much of the stuff you see on TV. Probably better. I asked how long it took them to make it and he told me a few months, with each person working on different aspects of the piece.
During our conversation, he was funny, passionate about his work, interested in the work of others and completely attentive when I made comments or asked questions. He has a group of like-minded close friends, all of whom he met and interacts with exclusively online. And while he clearly prefers his online community (and who can blame him?), he also helped set and clear the table for dinner, and walked the family dog later in the evening.
Joshua and I left their house shaking our heads. To our minds, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this child. He simply thinks differently than most of us. He is not suited for a traditional school or a traditional life and therein lies the tragedy, because homeschooling is not an option for him. The system in which he is forced to function – and not just the school system – sees him as difficult and even handicapped. When I would talk about his genius, people would not disagree but would always add, “…but he won’t be able to get a job live on his own have a normal life.”
I pointed out to anyone who would listen that he doesn’t need a ‘normal’ life. His mind is extraordinary, and so can his life be. There are many, many people in the world who make a very good living doing exactly what he is doing right now. He does it because he loves it, and isn’t that what we always tell people they should do? Follow their bliss? Well he’s found his and all anyone can talk about is how it’s a problem; that he is a problem.
His parents are not to blame here – they would love to be in a position to let him leave school completely – but the Israeli system and their own financial limitations will not allow it. And so they struggle to let him do his own thing while feeling compelled to insist he participate in a system that has branded him as damaged.
Was there ever a “well-rounded” genius? The people who changed the world – the Edisons, Einsteins and Jobs – did they always fit in, get good grades and play well with others?
We all know the answer to that question.
The freedom to follow our passions is the great gift and privilege of unschooling, and if I could, I would grant it to our nephew in Israel. Forget the fact that he doesn’t want to sit in a classroom and learn Arabic (a required subject there) or do math equations. Forget that he gets upset at people who talk down to him and makes no bones about telling them so (in loud tones that make others uncomfortable). Instead, let him soar; he is fully fluent in three languages, his knowledge of programming and animation is greater than many who’ve studied for years, and his creativity knows no bounds.
I write this blog for people like him; people who are currently caught up in a harmful system that does not recognize their genius. I write in the hope that maybe my words can somehow help change things. Israel is a a long way from here and operating under an even stricter system than we have, but change has a way of spreading, one misunderstood genius at a time.