Letting Michael be Michael ... a 12-year-old with 4 Guinness records.
Retarded? she screamed inwardly. She blamed herself; she refused to eat. When doctors pumped sugar water into her through an IV to help her gain weight, she countered by exercising excessively. Kevin, her husband, was on an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean for six months, so the young mother-to-be did not have the benefit of his reliable advice on what to do.
Finally, doctors induced labor. Thirty-seven hours later, Michael Kevin Kearney was born, almost two months premature, weighing in at 4 pounds, 2 ounces and measuring 13 inches.
A decade later, Cassidy and Kevin Kearney must have thought more than once about those first few precarious hours of Michael's life as they sat answering reporters' questions about Michael's most recent accomplishment. Today, January 8, 1996, the 11-year-old was starting his first graduate school classes - his fourth title entry into the Guinness Book of World Records. Michael Kearney was defying the odds.
At age four, Michael maxed. out on the IQ test for six-year-olds at 168-plus. The Stanford-Binet L-M version measures a mental age that can then be adjusted for a child's chronological age to obtain a true IQ. When the math was worked out, Michael's IQ registered at 325 - an IQ of 145 is considered genius.
Kevin and Cassidy Kearney agree that the last 12 years have been both a blessing and nightmare. Do you laugh or cry when you discover your child is "severely gifted"? And what a strange phrase - almost an oxymoron. Why not "wonderfully gifted" or "exceedingly gifted"?
"From the start, it appeared to Cassidy and me that when Michael was not allowed to learn new things, he was actually in pain," Kevin said.
During a checkup at two weeks of age, Michael, wearing Cabbage Patch doll clothes, held his head up and turned himself over. The doctors expressed disbelief. In addition, Michael didn't sleep as much as other babies, and he wouldn't take naps.
When he was just two months old, Michael was communicating with hand signals. At four months, he was saying "Daddy," and "Mama" and "eat." A month later, he was using four-word sentences and became an avid video-game watcher. At six months, when Cassidy took Michael to the Navy pediatrician and inquired about the baby's problem, little Michael chimed in, "I have a left ear infection."
"We were more relieved than pleased at his behavior, because I was still concerned down deep that Michael would be mentally deficient," Cassidy stated, "and that it was all my fault."
At eight months, Michael became a TV game-show "fanatic." Every day at 10:00 a.m., says his mother, he would yell, "Channel five - come on down!" During the contests Michael would jump up and down with delight when contestants won a refrigerator or car.
At ten months, Michael knew all his numbers and letters, and could read numerous product names that he picked up from watching TV commercials. In the supermarket, he would point and say "Campbell's." He especially liked spotting sale items: "Hey, Mom, look - pears 49 cents a pound. Why don't we get some?"
If the Kearneys had finally conquered any misgivings about their son's mental health, the couple had no idea what battles lay ahead with a medical profession that was too obsessed with categorizing and labeling to admit that Michael defied categories and labels, with an educational establishment that was unyielding in its enslavement to form and procedure rather than to learning; and with people who refused to be enlightened through education and understanding. Even family members accused Kevin and Cassidy of pushing Michael for their own ego gratification.
Puzzled shoppers thought Kevin and Cassidy were ventriloquists. A baby in a shopping cart couldn't possibly articulate the names on the cereal boxes! "How did you do that?" the would ask. get her shopping done, Cassidy finally had to ask Michael to stop talking in front of strangers.
On another occasion, when Michael was about 18 months old, he told a group in a Jacuzzi that two would have to get out because the sign said only six were allowed in it at one time. Again, the parents found themselves in the dilemma of apologizing for their very honest, very communicative child.
This is the quandary the Kearneys still face. Should they let their gifted son just be Michael, or should they suppress his advanced abilities so that he will fit in socially?
The Kearneys define the typical characteristics of a "severely" gifted child as moral courage, reflective judgment, responsibility, and a genuine sense of ethical behavior.
"We anguished over letting Michael be himself or teaching him to hide his early talents from view," Kevin said. "Do you hide your light under a basket, or do you let people understand or refuse to understand?"
The Kearneys found that using books was an effective way of disciplining Michael. He would do anything to get his hands on a book. When he misbehaved, the most effective punishment was to take them away. Good behavior resulted in more books.
The severely gifted, because of their extreme sensitivity, often leap to startling conclusions and act on them. So when Michael's sister, Maeghan, was born in July of 1985, it was important that Michael know he wasn't being replaced.
The Kearneys were living in San Diego at the time and enjoyed the family support of Kevin's parents. However, the Navy reassigned Kevin to Newport, Rhode Island. They would have to move away from their invaluable support system. Their anxiety only increased when it became evident that Maeghan, too, was displaying advanced behavior.
The next few years included more transfers across the country and new journeys for Michael's insatiable intellect. When Michael was three, he was absorbing third-grade workbooks, reading at a fifth-grade level, and tinkering with algebra. Because five years old is the legal school age in America, Kevin and Cassidy had to find a private school that would accept him.
When Michael demonstrated his reading ability for the teachers and principal at the nearby Montessori School, they concluded that Michael must have memorized the book. They also felt that Kevin and Cassidy were living out their own lives through Michael.
The Kearneys had to supplement Michael's early schooling with their own at-home instruction. Schools are not equipped, they discovered, to take a child beyond prescribed expectations. Once a child consumes all there is at a certain grade level - that's all there is! At home, Kevin and Cassidy weren't pushing Michael to learn - Michael was pushing them.
Over the next year, the Kearneys came to realize that very little was known about the severely gifted. What was known and published was often misleading or incorrect. There were no schools or programs for children like Michael. Cassidy's early education had been in Japanese schools, where teachers stressed parental involvement and built upon a foundation of skills and knowledge already laid down in the home. In America, parents were not invited to be involved in their child's education.
In 1988, the Kearneys were transferred to San Francisco. They took Michael to the University of San Francisco Child Development Center, where the psychologists and sociologists doubted children could perform on their own at an advanced level.
"If you don't stop teaching him, he will be pathological in ten years," they warned. Kevin challenged them to produce even one study that showed pathology as the result of accelerated learning. They couldn't.
By age four, Michael was progressing at three grades per year. He finished fifth grade at home while Kevin and Cassidy continued to search for programs for gifted children. Concerned about Michael's physical skills, they encouraged him to play team sports. Physical activity helped Michael to rest his brain.
By the time Michael was five, he was learning at a rate of four grades per year with more than 90 percent retention. When he completed the eighth grade, the Kearneys enrolled him in high school, if only to cut down on their own book expenses of $300 to $400 every few months. But in high school, the pace proved too slow for him. Michael was frustrated and growing bored.
Kevin left the Navy to be home more often. The family moved to Santa Rosa, California, where they tried to place Michael at the local high school. The school was not receptive to enrolling a six-year-old. "We have no facilities," the Kearneys were told. Finally, Michael was permitted to enroll. Nine months later, he received his diploma, becoming the youngest high-school graduate in history (his first Guinness Book of World Records title).
Now the family faced a new future - college. While Kevin and Cassidy explored college options for Michael, daughter Maeghan, now four, was being homeschooled in lessons at the third-grade level. She was suffering, however, from the "second-child syndrome," meaning that because Michael excelled in academics, she wanted none of it. She withdrew into a shell and refused to display her unusual abilities.
Kevin and Cassidy placed Maeghan in public school. An insensitive first-grade teacher noticed Maeghan was small for her age and told her she was too young to read. Maeghan went home in tears, convinced that she was too young to learn. The Kearneys found themselves repeating the same conversations with educators that they had about Michael.
At six years and eight months, Michael enrolled in Santa Rosa Junior College and earned an Associate in Science degree (his second Guinness title). Although Michael was accepted at the University of California, Berkeley, after a closer exploration of the campus atmosphere, Kevin and Cassidy decided it wasn't the right environment for their son.
The Kearneys searched for a less-expensive area of the country and decided on Alabama. Michael was accepted as a transfer student to the University of South Alabama, and in December 1992 the family arrived in Mobile. Michael would begin his junior year at USA the following January.
In 1994, at age ten years and four months, Michael graduated with a B.S. from USA, majoring in anthropology with a minor in geography-geology (this third Guinness title).
Michael was recently asked what he thought was the most difficult thing about being a prodigy. "All the water fountains were too high," he said, revealing a keen sense of humor.
The Kearneys now live in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a 50,000-plus community southeast of Nashville. Michael is pursuing courses in science and mass communication, with the dream of one day becoming a game-show host, a college professor, or an actor. (He may become all three.) Maeghan, almost 11, is being taught at home on a high-school level.
"I like being homeschooled," Maeghan says, "because my mom makes it fun and I can go at my own pace."
The Kearneys have accumulated a wealth of knowledge about rearing, loving, coping with, and educating severely gifted children. Kevin and Cassidy always chuckle when people want to know how they, too, can create a genius. The Kearneys believe that intelligence results from nature and nurture. Children such as Michael and Maeghan are widespread. Many are not fortunate enough to have parents who recognize advanced intellect and nurture it while battling the elements of economic limitations, indifference, ignorance, and social pressure.
The task facing parents of gifted children, Kevin found, is to provide a comfort zone between excessive pressure and outstanding performance. Parents should reach to where the child is, reinterpreting the world in ways that are meaningful and fun.
The Kearneys call Michael a prodigy, rather than a genius. A genius, they say, is an individual who creates a whole new area of human endeavor or knowledge - Einstein, for example. A prodigy is a child who performs in an adult field at an adult level.
"Since Michael has not yet contributed anything to the sum of human knowledge," Kevin says, "he's not a genius."
Contemplating Michael's potential on one level, yet not grasping it at all, leaves one wondering just when and how his genius might manifest itself and affect all of humankind.
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|Title Annotation:||includes related information on scholarship presentation; gifted child Michael Kevin Kearney|
|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Date:||May 1, 1996|
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