I was once in the room when a prodigy went insane. This young man had been home-schooled and had mastered an enormous — yes, prodigious — amount of knowledge by the age of fifteen. His parents and siblings were rightfully bursting with pride and greatness of all sorts was predicted. That great bubble of love and hope and dreams and aspirations burst that day when I watched him throw off his clothes, run out the door and leap off the porch. It was not high enough off the ground, so he is still alive today, a heavily medicated shadow of a person. His family, in the aftermath, imploded into a jumble of disintegration.
All of this came jarringly back into eyeshot for me on March 20 when I read of the tragic suicide of Brandenn Bremmer at his family’s home in Venango, Nebraska, near the Colorado border. He was 14 years old.
This was the young man who had graduated high school at age ten, breezed through college courses at the University of Colorado, composed and recorded music, won adult piano competitions and performed classical music for audiences of hundreds without a hint of stage fright. He was remembered by all as a fun-loving boy and no one had seen signs of depression.
Every time some disaffected kid shoots up his homeroom we hear a loud chorus exhorting us to learn lessons that will prevent a recurrence. Should we do any less because this sweet lovely child had the decency to keep his anguish contained within the borders of his own persona?
I think not. I find it urgent that we all commit, as I committed that day twenty-seven years ago when that boy cast off the moorings of sanity, to keep our children as close as possible to the studies and activities that apply to their age level. The human mind is a force of roaring strength and whimpering fragility all at once. It needs to be stretched and massaged and developed and… yes, babied.
Growing up is hard enough to do for people of ordinary skills. In high school, the lookers are trying to mark the studiers as losers, while the athletes try to eclipse the artists. The tensions and conflicts are a veritable obstacle course for the best-adjusted child; tampering with this balance by pushing people intellectually ahead of their age and socially behind their classmates is a recipe for disaster.
Those familiar with my own life are aware that I completed high school at age fourteen. The next four years for me were a time of zany fun seasoned with profound misery. College was too daunting to try before sixteen, so two years were spent in the public parks of Brooklyn; thank God for basketball, handball, and stickball. Then I started college at sixteen, and although I did well scholastically, the dislocation of age was an ever-present oppression.
This moment is scalded forevermore into my consciousness: telling the nineteen-year-old girl with whom I had fallen madly in love that I would like to spend some time with her and having her disdainfully dismiss my entire existence with the phrase, “But you’re only sixteen.” My pen was mightier than my sword, thankfully, so instead of killing myself I wrote a short story in which I was a miserable old bachelor who accidentally met her in the street with her grandchildren, mumbling, “You look beautiful. Oh, yes, everything is fine with me. Just fine.”
When Chief Rabbi Herzog of Israel visited the Truman White House, he was collared by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who asked him what Moses means when he says (quoted by David in Psalm 90:10) that a normal lifespan is seventy years but by “strength” it can be extended to eighty. What constitutes strength in this context? Rabbi Herzog answered: the strength to confine yourself to age-appropriate activities.
Childhood is a time for childishness. We are witnessing how Michael Jackson’s lack of a childhood destroyed him in one way and how the Olsen twins are being niggled at by demons of their own. My children are no less gifted for their ages than I was but I insist that they stay at their grade levels. Sure I graduated at 14, but I did it with an 80 average. My daughters, by contrast, had the confidence-building experience of serving as valedictorians.
We close with a happy tale of achievement. A loyal reader of this column, Miss Claudia Monteverdi of Argentina, direct descendant of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), one of the most important composers in the history of music, was recently crowned Miss Latin America on the eve of her sixteenth birthday. The judges vouched for her beauty; you can vouch for her exquisite taste in literature; I can vouch for her sparkling wit and personality. Our congratulations come with today’s caveat: don’t jump too far ahead, Claudia, everything in its good time.
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