There was a movement back at the end of the last century between mainstreaming children with special needs, actually implementing The Americans With Disabilities Act in schools and changes in college prep tests that somehow lead to the creation of the Gifted and Talented Program. Parents of children who were "identified" as qualifying for the G&T program were highly pleased that young Billy or Sally would be getting extra attention and given special opportunities. This was started in kindergarten and first grade. Parents were supposed to attend monthly meetings to discuss objectives and guidelines, instead they wrote checks to assuage their guilt. They had no clue the budget for this was staggering.
You needed a Van de Graaff generator or a micron wafer fabrication unit? No problem. You wanted a private bus to the Guggenheim Museum and a behind-the-scenes tour of the Museum of Natural History with catered gourmet lunch boxes from the Windows on the World restaurant? Done. A self-taught ornithologist who started The Raptor Trust in his own house and materials for dissecting owl pellets, plus a lecture complete with live raptors? Easy. A day with Steven Spielberg? Just say the words. George Marriner Maull explaining instruments & conducting? Full house reception, parents included, mid-day with fine wines and rare cheeses. Petit-fours and Belgian chocolate dipped strawberries for refreshments. Photos with the Maestro? We had the money and the connections.
These little six, seven, and eight year olds loved it all but would have been just as happy with a peanut hunt around the classroom, back when no one on the entire planet had peanut allergies.
I was asked to volunteer to be on the parent advisory board, though I felt the whole thing was too elitist. So, I added creative writing workshops, trips to the local Great Swamp, and the making of death masks, a big hit with the kids, but not the parents. What did I care? I at least attended the meetings.
My own kids opted out of the program after the first G&T end-of-year event, like a Science Fair only more spectacular. There was much more at stake. A scholarship to Yale University or MIT or Vassar in their little futures. We actually hired judges, former Nobel Prize winners, former US Presidents, all costing a considerable fortune. Ribbons were awarded; solid 24K gold trophies, too heavy for the little hands, but happy parents then. A TV crew filmed and interviewed all the winners. One of the major networks, back before cable existed as we now know it.
However, from that debacle of excess, the beast that ate children's happiness, emerged a group of four unlikely kids; each a loner for different reasons, who developed a bond that would later become legendary.
The appellation Gifted and Talented fell out of fashion, to be replaced by the more inclusive and politically correct, Enrichment Program, which in due time was offered to all students. The original dynamo behind all of this, got married, pregnant, went on maternity leave and never came back.
She was replaced by two women who, according to the remnant of kids in the original G&T group, "We hate Miss Lori and Miss Julie. They want us to do their ideas their way, not ours. They want us to make 3-D poster boards about Shakespeare and Acid Rain."
I left the advisory board in a huff of epic proportions but kept up with the four lone rangers, as I affectionately called them to myself, even offered my basement as a meeting place. Since they were getting to that age that annoys and confounds most parents, adolescence; the parents were only too glad of this arrangement, despite it being somewhat off the books.
The four needed little guidance. The hyper-talkative one, who in larger groups got on everyone's nerves but had great ideas, calmed down and was better able to express himself. Rocco. The slightly-overweight but highly perceptive one who could differentiate others' strengths and delegate tasks took on the role of leader. Axelrod. The only girl in the group still vacillated between giggly lightening the mood, getting the laughter going, then coming up with a totally different approach to whatever plan they discussed - she was 12. Aura. The last of the four watched and listened, then came out with the most profound one-liners. Livio, from Latvia and fluent in 15 or 16 languages.
Supplying the usual junk food kids that age require: cheese doodles, yodels, dunkeroos, pizza, rice krispie treats, Jolly Ranchers and bubble gum, I drew the line on soda or anything with artificial sweeteners or caffeine. Got no complaints, just empty wrappers and happy kids.
Maybe I was too lenient but the only rules I had regarding the meetings were that they needed to give updates on their process and planning, in addition to a list of needed materials. By school year's end, I told them they were expected to have a completed project. When they asked if the exact nature could be kept secret, even from me, I said, sure. Top secret.
Unbeknownst to them, I had convinced the school board of the importance of this endeavour and had received generous funding. In return, the school officials asked me to submit quarterly reports, which I can admit now were dummied doublespeak.
September: The four musketeers ask for a sound system, as they work better with blaring music, as well as blow torches, welding equipment, and various rare earth metals in large quantities, plus a lock for the basement door with four keys. And a refrigerator so they don't have to bother me. They've begun eating fresh fruit!
Report to the school: Planning session went well. Students identified necessary safety equipment, detailed list of materials needed to begin and complete year long project in a timely manner, and delegated tasks equally. Music appreciation system added for cultural benefits. (Estimated cost approximately $150,000.00) Itemized invoice to be submitted tri-monthly, as per stipulated in initial funding agreement.
October: I leave a house key in the potting shed out back so the four ninja turtles, I mean gifted and talented scholars, can get in if I'm not home. They bring their own music and are somewhat good at taking turns. They decide everything by rock, paper, scissors. Right now I think I hear a Viennese waltz. Aura happens to be a precociously talented dancer. All three guys are half-afraid of her and half-in-love with her. No requests this month, except for a $12,000.00 Clivus Multrum composting toilet and military issue walkie-talkies, five including one for me.
November: The heat from the basement is great! Warm floors and no need to turn on the house thermostat. Livio has drawn up architectural plans to add a handicapped accessible ramp. He shows it to me proudly; looks wide enough for a tank, but maybe my reading glasses need to be stronger.
Report to the school: GT Team working with enthusiasm and minimal supervision, following projected timeline and ahead of schedule. The addition of music seems to be both beneficial and educational. Request commendation from the Governor and/or the DoE for expanding the lab area, addressing environmental concerns, instituting and adhering to proper OSHA issues, as well as attention to building code regulations regarding handicapped accessibility. Proper permits filed with township clerk.
December: Okay, so the whiz kids need a little nudging as winter break approaches. Thanksgiving came and went; they all opted to stay here and help prepare the feast. They continue to make decisions using the tried and true rock, paper, scissors method, but have on occasion resorted to arm wrestling and/or coin tossing. Heads or tails, best out of three. (I will put this in the school report as marked improvement in decision-making process among team members.) Just before Christmas, like two days, they are bursting with excitement; music of the season is rocking the house and they want me to see their progress. I have to pinky swear, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die-stick-a-needle-in-my-eye promise not to tell anyone, before they drag me downstairs.
Later, I contact an old friend in the CIA and a former lover in the FBI to find out how to protect the kids' creation, and in no uncertain terms I state if they tell anyone I'll have to kill them, plus I want the kids protected. The four creators are back with their families for two weeks, mostly for my sanity and to catch my breath. It's alternately a great feeling and an oh-my-god-what-have-I-gotten-myself-into feeling. This doesn't last long. School is officially closed for the month of January so I'm off the hook for reporting.
January: The quirky quadrumvirate has returned. How can they all have grown taller and older in a mere fourteen days? Then I remember they're in adolescence. Rocco and Livio have noticeable stubble. Axelrod, who now goes by Ax, is taller, slimmer and tells me he got a workout bench with weights for Christmas. I tell him not to take the costly, unhealthy supplements and powders. He flexes his biceps in response. Aura has chopped her hair and dyed it purplish blue with black streaks, pierced her eyebrow and one nostril herself. I tell her she looks great. She is now into jazz and hiphop.
I tell them we need a sit-down to renegotiate. They all look at me warily. "Nah, we're cool," I start, "it's just that I want to protect you and your project so I've enlisted the help of two people I know I can trust in the government."
Aura blows a huge blue bubble gum bubble, then lets it burst before any of the guys can do it for her, "oh, is that all?" she remarks.
Livio makes some joke in Albanian, which he roughly translates as, "Don't trust anyone over forty or in the government."
The other two shrug their shoulders, politics and the concept of adulthood not yet on their radar. They all look at each other, "So we have like another list and want to like get back to work, like now."
I don't even try to battle about the over-usage of "like", instead respond with, "Like, okay. Give me the list." They head downstairs, laughing and I hear some old jazz bands begin playing. I immediately get on the phone and order the first thing on the list: 10 pizzas, 4 pepperoni, 4 all veggies, and 2 tofu with mung bean sprouts (I'm guessing Aura on the last 2.)
Then I requisition the following: 4 RV solar panel kits at $2000.00 a pop, a military HMMWV without tires which lessens the cost somewhat (the guy was vague about the price...it was either $140,000.000 or $500,000.00), five lightweight Water Purification System units (here the kids wrote something about electronic dissolved oxygen generators but reverse osmosis or any chemical flucculation coagulation not acceptable). The guy on the phone paused, so I added 4 BlackoutTM Infrared Filter kits at $300.00 each. They wanted positive displacement pumps, centripetal pumps, RTDs or RTGs, and a list of components to modify the diesel to biofuel....this was scribbled in the margins, so I think I got it right.
Report to the school: Despite winter break, the GT Team chose to continue work. Group decided knowledge of more than two languages is a necessary asset. I realise this does not fall within the scope of the original project, but am in agreement. High degree of interest in mechanical engineering as well as environmentally sound alternatives. Note: This will no doubt appeal to various government agencies, as well as the world population as a whole, given the current climate challenges. Obviously, this will boost their individual self-esteem, look good on college applications, future resumes, not to mention, reflect well on the school. Regarding expanding their foreign language proficiency, I propose a series of field trips to countries in which total immersion shall be a small part of the cultural experience. Schedule to follow after necessary arrangements have been made re: inoculations, passports, parental permission slips, health insurance, etc. With fluctuating airline prices and current state of the economy, I cannot even make a rough estimate as to final cost, but will submit all receipts.
I contact the crew in the basement via walkie-talkie, tell them pizza has arrived and I need a print-out of their summer plans as I'm arranging a field trip around the world. Jazz has blended with blues; Livio responds in French, which I vaguely get the gist of, then add, "oh, I need a list of all the languages you know and if you can, start teaching the others, on and off, as you do whatever it is you're doing down there. By the way, requested materials arriving tomorrow."
"Si, mamacita," he signs off.