opinionBy Peter Thatiah
Nairobi — Legendary boxing promoter Don King knew a gifted youngster when he saw one.
One day, while on a stroll in the borough of Bronx in New York City in the early 80s, he met an adolescent about whom he would later say: "He was like a guided missile. All I needed was to point him to the title." This became the beginning of the 'Mike Tyson phenomenon'. To date, Tyson is the youngest boxer, ever, to have won a world heavyweight boxing title before his 20th birthday.
About the same time, a youngster from Nyandarua followed his village mates to Nyahururu Town, where he had heard the Kenya Armed Forces was recruiting candidates.
Although he had the correct height, his shoulders were a little hunched, and his educational background was way below the mark.
It was not until the athletics session started that the recruiting officers realised they had in their hands a runner of stunning potential and endurance.
The youth's athletic prowess won him a place as a recruit. Less than a decade later, the unlikely individual, John Ngugi, would shatter the history of athletics, by becoming the first man in the world to win five world cross-country titles.
Some turn around their biggest setbacks into their greatest arsenal
Such case histories provide insight into the fringe frontiers that highly gifted youngsters often must tread.
Theirs are stories of glaring and spectacular failures, exhilarating and unmatchable triumphs, yet the beginning is an all-too-familiar story.
They are your noisy "youths around the block", bored with life and wondering what to do with it. They may be as strong as fresh mules, and have boundless potential, yet they are often ignorant in many ways, and may never be discovered.
Like Michael Faraday, one of history's most celebrated scientists, some of them end up getting no formal education at all.
Like Winston Churchill, who had an acute stammering disorder in his youth but went on to become one of the world's most 'gifted' orators, some turn around their biggest setbacks into their greatest arsenal.
To behold their exploits is like to witness the earth turn a new page into a new era, and into a new standard.
Joseph Kivunja, the Principal of Kiamuringa Secondary School, Embu, says that, inasmuch as the highly gifted youngsters are not in any way abnormal, it would be a mistake to think they are just normal children to be treated like the others. Instructively, only a few countries have been able to come up with successful programmes of handling highly gifted children.
Aid for gifted students is nonexistent
Although there are reasonably sufficient funds from the Ministry of Education for special schools and for support measures for handicapped children, aid for gifted students, who technically need equally specialised handling, is nonexistent.
The fact that they are an important cog in humanity's wheel of advancement makes them a critical group. But they too are prone to life's vicissitudes.
In South Africa, for instance, there is a special syllabus that focuses on developing critical and creative thinking skills to meet the needs of children with above-average potential.
In some local schools, students who are talented in various disciplines (including sports) are on full scholarships, catered for by the school establishment.
This works as a system of reward. An example is St Austin's Academy, in Lavington, Nairobi.
Says Mr Kivunja: "Highly gifted students, whether in academics, leadership skills or extracurricular activities, are a gift to the schools as well as to the country. They help in lifting the standards and offer either new hope or challenges to the others."
He adds: "However, I must state that, while the ministry is evidently doing something on that level, the school curriculum currently in use is a little rigid, and is largely geared towards passing examinations."
Absence of a clear policy framework
A teacher for three decades, he says there are four core functions of a school in Kenya today. The first is to implement the curriculum, and the second is to test that curriculum.
The third core function of a school is that of offering guidance and counselling.
"It is the last one (identifying and developing special talents in students) that is a tall order."
Silas Nderi, a teacher and the Career Master at St Austin's, says it is a tragedy that most of Kenya's highly gifted youths risk getting sucked into a conventional system. He says the 8-4-4 system of education is burdensome, and leaves little time for both teachers and students to discover unusual abilities, which may be lying dormant in them.
"If the system weren't so, there would be no need for extra tuition classes when the schools are closed," he says.
As a result, he observes, pupils are increasingly becoming mechanised, leaving them no time for self-discovery.
He says the biggest barrier to the development of gifted students in Kenya is the absence of a clear policy framework to address the issue, so that, unrecognised, the students end up becoming troublemakers.
"Gifted children thrive on problem situations, and will usually go for the difficult rather than the easy. When they don't find challenge, they get bored and end up venturing into any area that may offer the challenge and that may mean anything from troubleshooting to experimenting with dangerous things."
Schools left with no choice but to improvise
Kivunja agrees: "Students who are exceptionally gifted are very good at discovering new things. This is because they finish their homework faster, and thus find themselves with extra time in their hands, which may be turned into other uses that may not be of benefit to the student."
He adds that, because there are no special programmes to cater for this group, schools are left with no choice but to improvise.
Giftedness in youngsters is often not self-evident. Having taught for three decades, Kivunja says that a trait he has noted in exceptional children is curiously low self-esteem. "Owing to their speed in about every aspect in their lives, gifted students are always on the lookout for the challenging, and they tend to become over-active in answering questions asked by their teachers in class. Some teachers mistake their enthusiasm for nosiness or pride or haughtiness, and may seek to cut them down to size, through unwarranted rebuke."
This inevitably injures the youth's self-esteem, and may affect the child negatively in later life.
A physics teacher at St Catherine's Girls Secondary School, in Runyenjes, Embu, Mr Siengo Gauki, says the teacher-training programmes at both primary and secondary levels do not offer lessons on how to handle this special class of students.
"In fact, some of us teachers end up killing dreams that could have bloomed into something valuable to the society."
Talented children have fewer inhibitions
Many teachers, he laments, feel intimidated by specially gifted students, and especially so in academics.
For instance, an academically gifted child will easily recognise a poor teacher in class, something many teachers are aware about.
Feeling threatened, teachers defensively build a wall between them and the bright student to protect their own ego.
"This works to the disadvantage of the gifted child."
Gauki says gifted students also tend to be outspoken, something that does not go well within a school establishment in which passivity and compliance are usually rewarded, and where expertise on how to handle such students is lacking.
"Because talented children do not feel unnecessarily limited, they have fewer inhibitions. This makes them trouble-shooters as well. When there is a problem, they are often the first to speak up. They also like having things their own way, especially in environments where they are not kept intellectually or physically engaged at all times."
Some schools have had to devise their own means of helping and dealing with their gifted pupils and students. It is not unusual, for example, to find a school having many children who shine in a given field of knowledge.
Need for a culture to act as a spur
Kakamega High School has, through the decades, been a shining example of excellence in theatre. St Austin's Academy has been synonymous with swimming and basketball superiority.
With 13 students on full sports scholarships, St Austin's arranges for their basketball team to travel to Seattle Peninsula College in the state of Washington, USA, for an annual summer exchange programme.
With four students playing in the national under-20 basketball team that was the runners-up (behind Egypt) in the continental contest, the students get the chance to experience the finest basketball tradition in the world.
One of the students, Julius Mbewe, believes that these exposures are bringing him closer to joining professional basketball in the USA later, after he completes high school and college.
The school's swimming teams, whose alumni include the famous Donde girls, who are currently on swimming scholarships abroad, do equally well. At the recent national championships, held in Mombasa, two St Austin's girls were number one and two.
According to Nderi, identifying and developing special talents in students requires that there be a certain culture at the institution to act as a spur.
"I have seen students who didn't know they were gifted in a certain discipline, until the day they mixed with the best," he says. "Where no framework for developing the talent exists, the talent goes to waste and may never be of use to the individual."
Most talents are discovered at school
Matters are complicated even more by the fact that most talents need to be nurtured while the person is still young, or they may never show.
Kivunja says parents do not do enough to help their children discover concealed potential, much less develop their talents. To parents, he says, "Children are not supposed, nor were they ever meant to be, uniform! You may buy them matching clothes but, deep inside, they are different individuals demanding deferent kinds of handling." Encouragement at home is critical.
"In fact, it only acts to injure their self-worth when you start preaching uniformity or conformity to your children."
Even then, many talents are discovered at school. Though home is the first base where the unsculptured mould must first be shaped, educationists say most talents are discovered at school. This makes it critical that teachers be trained on the basics of handling and helping gifted students.
As things stand, unfortunately, the girl or boy who may have broken the next word record, discovered the next vaccine, or set the next new standard, remains undiscovered, with no able guides to point them to the title.