Genius May Be A Very Common Condition (If it weren’t for schools, it could become an epidemic.)

Genius May Be A Very Common Condition

(If it weren’t for schools, it could become an epidemic.)

K. Titchenell

The 27-year-old Beethoven wrote his first piano concerto for his own performance. The first movement includes an extensive and spectacular cadenza with which he could demonstrate his prowess as a performer. When 9 year old Marc Yu took the stage to perform it with the California Philharmonic, I felt nervous for him, just as I did whenever I or any of my students went on stage, but I quickly realized that his mastery of the instrument and the music was so consummately flawless, that I could simply relax and absorb the beauty and brilliance of the composition and its interpretation. After an unbelievable musical experience, enthusiastic ovations and curtain calls, he followed up with a short but technically challenging encore as if to say “No, it’s not just a fluke; this is who I really am.”.

Marc Yu in this performance of the first Beethoven piano Concerto with the California Symphony.

Marc ( is a very unusual child in far more ways than one. Yes, he showed musical aptitude at a very early age, has perfect pitch, and an indefatigable drive to further his pianistic expertise, but, perhaps a far more significant factor behind his achievements was his mother’s ability and willingness to nurture his talents, to provide him with the opportunity to progress at his own pace, and her courage to do so as a single parent in an environment that discourages homeschooling and makes it extremely difficult even for a two-parent family.

Marc’s mother, Chloe Yu, is well educated and had to abandon her work toward a master’s degree in child development in order to devote herself to Marc’s education. In common with many children, Marc was already reading and doing mathematics far beyond his grade level when the time came to go to school. However, unlike the parents of so many such children, Marc’s mother recognized the disservice that public school would do him, were he forced to spend several years going over material he had already learned, and she was unwilling to inflict that upon him. She was also told that the school would not consider allowing a student to skip a grade until at least grade three, and that consistent all-day attendance was absolutely mandatory, regardless of extenuating circumstances such as rehearsals, concerts and practice. Chloe decided, despite the privation and other difficulties involved in homeschooling, that it was their only option.

How many children are there who do not exhibit quite the unmistakable brilliance of a Marc, who, when starting school, are working perhaps only a year or two above their respective grade levels in only one or two subjects, and whose parents do not see a pressing need to provide an alternative to public school? Unfortunately, these children, who are probably very numerous, will be made to fit, however uncomfortably, into the mold that regulates the time they will spend all day, every school day, the subject matter they will be expected to cover, and the pace at which they will be covering it. Unlike that of the concert pianist, many fields are not open to the young budding genius. Talents in a child that cannot so easily be demonstrated and which do not lend themselves to early professional success are unlikely to distinguish a child in ways that will allow for the individual attention his or her talents deserve. Our society does not permit 10-year-old physicians, architects, or engineers to qualify or practice. Nonetheless, in all probability, many (perhaps the majority of) children have potentials which are wasted, which remain unregarded and undeveloped, and by third grade, the point at which skipping a grade is considered, there is likely to be little left of any inspired excellence that might have existed earlier.

It takes a great deal of dedication and determination to be a single-parent or even an isolated two-parent homeschooling family, but Chloe Yu has undertaken it with superb results. Of course, Marc has excellent expert instruction in music, but even this was found only after trying, wasting time with, and rejecting the more pedestrian pedagogy of an institution unprepared to adjust to Marc’s insatiable drive and determination. Though Chloe is clearly capable of handling all of Marc’s basic educational needs and has taught him both Cantonese and Mandarin as well as English, she was also able to realize that input from a native speaker of English was indicated.

I have had the honor of being Marc’s English teacher in between his many travels and concert tours, often in an online classroom, and, when possible, face-to-face in our small college preparatory English class designed expressly for homeschoolers at Excellence in Education in Monrovia, CA, where a number of classes are offered to provide homeschooling families with a bit more specialized expertise and a greater mix of intellectual perspectives than is generally possible in a purely parental homeschooling environment. Collaborative homeschooling is a much underutilized alternative to traditional homeschooling as well as to public school,. The usual criticisms levied against homeschooling — paucity of social interaction, reduced pool of intellectual role models, etc. — are easily set aside by the paradigm of multiple families cooperating in the educational process. The burden of having one stay-at-home parent, normally a significant barrier to homeschooling, is also mitigated to some extent by collaboration.

Marc is a wonderful student to have in a class, attentive, meticulous, imaginative, with a deep appreciation for humor, irony, and metaphor, but he’s very much a boy, who delights in boy things, sometimes to the discomfort of fastidious elders (Mozart did the same thing incidentally). He remains untainted by the aversion to education so common throughout the media and popular culture, and he has a profound desire to learn, rising to whatever challenge he encounters and reveling in those considered too difficult for him.

Over the years spent as a collaborative homeschooler, I have seen with pride many of my homeschool students go off in a number of directions, including a few (my daughter, Fiona, for example) who went on to distinguish themselves in college at the age of 10 or earlier. Some, however have not been inspired to pursue college degrees. Homeschooling depends principally on the parents and is not a guarantee of excellence, though, unlike standard public education, it is not guaranteed to prevent it. No, not all homeschoolers are like Marc; he is a rather special case, but there is no question that, given the opportunity to excel and to bypass the drudgery and popular distaste for intellect that pervades most schools, every child is a special case; every child has special promise in one way or another if only it can be identified and fostered — a very compelling reason not to educate them as if they were all the same. There are few things we do in life that are more important than raising and teaching our children. Perhaps we can’t all approach the level of what Chloe and Marc are doing; perhaps our efforts will not result in outstanding excellence, but we can open the door for genius.. At least, with homeschooling, mediocrity is not mandatory.