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Stop Writing About Smart Kids

The story of the smart-kid-who-graduates-high-school-early-and-goes-to-college-at-a-crazy-young-age-and-will-do-great-things-in-her-life is a journalistic gimme. Every few months, a journalist will find such a story and will report on it, expecting perhaps that readers will feel a brief moment of hope for the otherwise doomed present generation before sinking back into their default modes of cynicism and despair.

Maybe it worked before the internets. But now readers actually talk to each other, in larger and larger numbers, and the news-consuming mob tends to behave less civilly than news consumers in isolation. When the story of 12-year-old math prodigy Jacob Barrett streaked across our collective monitor in March, commentators everywhere took some dim journalist's unthinking assertion (that the kid might prove wrong Einstein's theory of general relativity) as license to berate Mr. Barrett and verbally assault his parents. Jacob's not that smart, they said, or he's immature, or he's helplessly egotistical, or his accelerated pace of learning is a form of child abuse, or he'll never get laid.

And now the Palm Beach Post has presented us with what should have been the heart-warming story of 15-year-old Jennifer Tilton, a math whizz who's heading off to her freshman year at MIT this summer. She's articulate and humble, and when asked whether she feels that her accelerated academic career has made for an unhappy adolescence, she is given to saying things like: "I can only evaluate from ages 0 - 15, but so far I can say that I'm living a really happy life. I never regret skipping grades."

To this writer, it seems odd that we even wonder about such things. What kind of weird cultural moment do we inhabit that we assume a life of the mind is an insufficient reward for sacrificing a drunken prom-night or long, useless afternoons catting it up in a food court?

But think about it we do, and perhaps because we believe our own wastrel high school existences to be sacrosanct, we're pretty damned nasty to a girl like Jennifer Tilton. As I write, her story's been live at the Post less than 24 hours. Here is a sampling of the resulting comments.

...I wonder about the maturity level of and experiences of the years that were missed/skipped. She is truely a very wonderful student, but there is so much learned in life by staying/living with peers...She would be first in her class for the rest of her high school years, so why rush things...You only go around once!

Ah, yes. Bet Tilton & Fam never thought of that. Thanks for your input!

I'm sure she is beyond smart, but a 15-year-old in classes with 21 year old college students seems like asking for trouble. Add to that that from the picture she looks like a pretty girl. The word jailbait comes to mind...

Yes, and when a word comes to mind, it demands to be immediately ejected from your ass and affixed to a comments thread, doesn't it? Still, your comment comes form a place of deep concern, and I'm sure the Tilton family is grateful you have decided to discuss their underage daughter's college sexual prospects in a public forum.

Poor, poor kid. Talk about a really screwed up life. Can you imagine being a 15 year old kid thrown in with a bunch of college kids? Too bad Jennifer will not only miss all the fun of high school but also all the fun of college. Do you think her newfound college friends are going to go to a PG-13 movie with her. Is she going to go out "clubbing" with them?

This note is signed "sad teacher," which is unintentionally apt. It is a sad teacher indeed who doesn't understand that education is its own reward; that learning is fun and social; that not all students like clubbing; and that a life of the mind needn't be the tedious existence one leads between weekend alcoholic blackouts. Ms. Tilton is going to MIT, where a great bulk of the students understand this. Too bad our local educators do not.

I could go on and on, but that's the gist of it. So I'd like to make a request to all SoFla journalists. Henceforth, stop writing about smart kids. Or kids period, if you can help it. I've been annoying people online my entire adult life, and it still sometimes stings when perfect strangers pretend to know ugly things about my happiness/life/sexual prospects/family. Must really suck for a 15-year-old girl. Especially one who incorrectly thought that having her picture in the paper would be fun.
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Brandon K. Thorp

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