More Life With Max
by Patti Estes
One warm summer's eve, Max came home from working on his uncle's farm. Simple so far. Max's father said, "Max, you'd better roll up the windows in the car, it looks like rain." "And what if one of the windows can't roll up?" replied Max. (Things are beginning to get complicated.)
To which Max's father, who never likes to play word games with anyone after having just worked twelve hours, said loudly,
This conversation continued to waft from the yard into the living room where I was visiting with Kathi Kearney. Over the years, Kathi has had a way of appearing at our home when Max has needed her most! Like the time she just "happened" by when Max was in the fifth grade and had repeatedly flunked a math test that he had been given several opportunities to pass. I was completely exasperated, but Kathi asked the one right question:
Max skipped a grade six weeks later.
As the conversation between Max and Dad began to overwhelm our own, I excused myself to go outside to the driveway, where it didn't sound like anything was getting resolved. The first thing I heard Skip say was, "Max, what were you thinking?!" It took them some time to bring me up to speed.
It seems that an empty hay trailer needed to be moved from the top of Uncle Tim's long, sloping driveway down to the road where it could be picked up later. Apparently, they "never use a tractor" to do this. It is a three-man job; but when one of the three men was having a sandwich? no problem! Two teenagers decided that they alone could guide a squirrelly hay wagon by its tongue past several parked cars, two dogs, eight horses and assorted toddlers and right into the door of Max's car.
The sixteen-year-old Max replied that it was "no one's fault." When pressed, we discovered his reason for this conclusion was that "no one" could have predicted which way the wagon would turn. The twenty-five-year old Max (the one that Kathi has always told me is lurking somewhere inside), quick to assess the bottom line, spoke up, " No one was hurt and I can replace the door myself."
Useless in bringing this discussion to a quick resolution, I had to get back to Kathi and keep her from talking to Skip. She had just been explaining to me, before the interruption, that Max had been stopped for speeding because he was acting his age. But when he backed up into his sister's boyfriend's prized truck just ten feet away, he was acting gifted: he was bored with the "mundane tasks." Well, steering that hay trailer past all those obstacles, animals and children by hand certainly could not be called "boring!" I didn't think Max's dad would consider it particularly "gifted" or as amusing as Kathi saw the whole thing.
(As I've said, Skip was in no mood for word games with gifted guests, either.) Before Skip was finished, he felt compelled to share what could be a teaching opportunity with Max's younger brothers, who were in bed by now. I called them out and after some explanation, Skip said,
Luke would have understood it better had I called it what it really is, the Domino Theory of Family Dynamics and Explosives.
Asynchronous Behavior Meets Flight School
A year later, Max was one flight away from getting his private pilot's license. All he had to do was land at a large airport and communicate with the control tower. (That he was only concerned with the first part about landing at a large airport kind of reminds me of the young man who flew in under Russian radar to land in Red Square!) Apparently, Max did not have a good radio connection with the tower at the Portland International Jetport. He landed anyway, because, he reasoned, he knew that they could see him! He got his license.
More Stories, Fewer Solutions
Max is now twenty-two and a freshman at Brigham Young University. He spent two years serving a mission in the Philippines. I have found that the working definition for identifying gifted children that Kathi Kearney gave me years ago still works! She summed it up in the simplest of terms: "Patti, these kids are 'too'! They are 'too' active, 'too' consumed by issues of fairness, 'too' argumentative, 'too' awake, 'too' emotional, 'too' able to see through the games of life and 'too' unwilling to play them!" Max still sees the Big Picture, has Big Feelings and Big Commitments and the details of life can be just a distraction. The summer after graduation from high school, Max was working thirty miles away from home. He often had to ride his bike, but just to make life more interesting he'd play "beat the clock" and would allow himself very little time to get to work. Apparently, the rule to be at work on time takes on new meaning once one leaves the yard. And the rule to not ride one's bike on the turnpike is of no consequence, until one is stopped by a state trooper!
In high school Max was voted "Adrenaline Junkie" of his class! I think that refers to his great love of life and may have something to do with his fairly regular habit of rolling down a snowy hill at school, sans shirt! At graduation he surprised the attending 4500 parents and students by turning a cartwheel on stage after receiving his diploma! What was he thinking?! He's six feet tall, in a graduation gown, has a cap on and his hands full! He pulled it off quite gracefully, even as the crowd gasped and then cheered! Life has turned a bit more serious for Max. When he was in the Philippines he not only experienced the powerful typhoons, but also the resulting floods that follow. Inexperience is no excuse to sit still! He and another missionary went wading through waist deep water to check on families that they knew. These people turned out to be fine, sitting in their homes, astonished to see these two American young men in their window! The Filipinos know that the water goes up and the water goes down and they just wait. Max is not a good sitter!
He must have seen much there that touched him deeply. He had been home for a couple of days when I was cooking soup stock. When he saw the pile of limp, blanched, boiled vegetables in the trash he went into a panic. What I had just thrown away could feed a Filipino family for a couple of days! Max stared at me. He was appalled; it literally took the wind right out of him. I tried to gently remind him that I had gone nowhere for two years and that I would be more careful about what I threw away in front of him in the future. But there were those Big Feelings, still.
Max's Big Commitment for two years was one hundred per cent and he was given much responsibility while he was on his mission. I worried about him finding matching socks, but his Mission President responded to a different Max by giving him very serious assignments. Elder Estes more than met the challenge and fell in love with the people that he taught and helped. Coming back to "civilian" life was not exactly seamless for him and it was hard to watch as he now adjusted his sense of commitment and focus to his life.
Max also focused on his brothers' lives. Nathan was too tired after working in the warehouse to go to all of the meetings Max thought would be tons of fun for them. And he forgot that his own taste in music was allowed to evolve over the years. Max can be moved to tears by beautiful music and knows now how uplifting it can be. But Luke, at fifteen, could have cared less. In fact he didn't like Max's music and the feeling was mutual! So, for several months we had Music Wars; hymns at one end of the house and alternative rock at the other end. Good grief! Being the Mom-Peacemaker, I could see all sides and just wanted everyone to get along! But everyone was not always happy; Max was still very committed to teaching!
More of the Same
These young people will bring a new kind of creativity to bear on the issues of our times. They lead with their heads and follow their hearts. I see them developing sensitive solutions with high standards. They won't be involved in just the Peace Corps or just Wall Street, but some new combination of the two. Max and his peers not only have the Big Feelings, but also Big Ideas and Big Plans that they know are possible!
I watch Max wrestle with the fact that he and the world are at odds over what's worth worrying about. I feel the frustration he has as this slows him up. Mr. Berry (another junior high teacher) observed that Max was the "moral conscience for the group. Any group!" As he studies the field of Family Science, our society needs the solutions Max can offer. But Max will need patience with the timetable.
The problems of the gifted child become the problems of the gifted adult: how to fit yourself into a world where almost everyone but you seems to be living with their heads in the sand! After all, fair is still fair and right is still right!
Max's joie de vivre gets snagged by the boring things of life. This was more apparent after he returned from his mission.
Max was already to defend himself (again) in traffic court, reasoning that the judge would understand that he ran the red light because he's been driving in the Philippines for two years, where no one pays attention to traffic anything! The assistant DA convinced Max to just pay the fine, because he reasoned "the judge can only go up from here."
Distance is no protection. In the middle of Luke's sixteenth birthday party, Max called from Provo. After wishing Luke a happy birthday, he asked for Dad. The next thing we heard was Skip saying, "What do you mean 'What is my car insurance status?'" No one was hurt. At least at twenty-two he still calls. We love him intensely.
Originally published in Highly Gifted Children, Winter/Spring 2000, Vol. 13,
No. 2, pp. 34-38. ©2000 Patti Estes