recess radio program

3/04/04
Verbally Advanced
    by Koren Stembridge

My son J.J. is verbally advanced. There, I said it. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with this fact - but it is true. He was not a particularly early talker, It's just that when he was a year old, the flood gates opened for him, and he hasn't stopped talking since. While a good college comp professor will remind you not to say in 10 words what you can say with one - my son cannot resist the urge to reverse the ratio and square it..

For example, when he was a year and a half old, he walked into the main office of his preschool and told the owner, Mrs. Queeney, that he was going to the airport to see the blimps. When Mrs. Queeney, not knowing if she had heard him correctly, asked him to repeat himself he answered "you know, Mrs. Keeny, the blimps, they are also called dirigibles and zeppelins."

A few weeks later, he orchestrated a jail break from his classroom, galloping down the hall with classmates in tow. When Mrs. Queeney demanded an explaination, J.J. responded that he was Alexander the Great, and he was riding on his horse, Bucephalus. I had to reassure her that he'd gotten that classical allusion from a video on horses that had fascinated him and that he'd watched repeatedly

As part of a group of other young mothers I found this kind of thing embarrassing at first. I wished he was more like the other kids. Friends started to use him as a yardstick to measure their own toddler's verbal development, and it got to be a bit of a joke to predict what unexpected thing he would say next.

In response, I started to overcompensate- effusively congratulating mothers on their children's first, eighth, or 50th words - or compulsively pointing out the ways in which my son was not advanced. Someone else's daughter was the first to roll over, another woman's son was the first to walk. When meeting a new parent of small children, I would immediately find something in their youngsters to complement before my son could open his mouth.

Once while shopping at a children's shoe store, a mother was quizzing a much older child with an alphabet book. J.J. joined in, assuming he was welcome, and proceeded to tell her each letter, whether it was capital or lower case, its color, and then named all of the pictures on the page that began with the particular letter. She made it to the letter E before she closed the book and decided to shop for shoes another time.

People automatically assumed that my husband and I were encouraging his abilities - that we quizzed him all day long with flashcards - or that we refused to feed him until he'd recited the Declaration of Independence. What we certainly did do was read with him, encourage him to talk, and listen when he had something to say. As a librarian, I have always encouraged him to read - but none of this goes beyond what most of our friends did with their children - so why was J.J. so different? And why was I so embarrassed?

One night while at the mall, I handed a then two-year-old J.J. a $5.00 bill from my wallet and told him that he could buy a ticket for the carousel. He thanked me for the money, and headed off for the ticket booth. On his way, while walking through the food court he stopped at a table where an elderly gentleman was having dinner with his wife. He said "Hi, I am J.J. This is a 5 dollar bill. This is Abraham Lincoln - he was a president. I am going to get a ticket to ride the merry go round. I always ride the back horse his name is Peetie. What are you eating for dinner? I had my dinner at home. Would you like to ride on the Merry go round?"

The man laughed and told my son to go ahead without him. Then he looked at me and said "Words sure are his thing!"

As we rode around and around on the carousel, I finally got it. Words are his thing, and there's no way around it, and no need to apologize for that. After all, every child is special and has unique gifts, and sometimes it takes awhile for these talents to declare themselves or for us adults to find the words to celebrate them.. ar - but at the time, I assure you, the idea made perfect sense!

Copyright 2004 Koren Stembridge

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."