An open letter from the editor
Dear CTYers, parents, faculty, administration, former students, potential donors, and especially those who are considering the CTY program for future years,
My name is Max Wang; I'm a former CTY student, having attended the program from 2005-2008, as well as the editor and maintainer of RealCTY. I'd like to ask for a few minutes of your time today so that I can share with you some of my thoughts about, and both my joy and my sorrow for, the CTY program. I implore you to read my words in full, and I sincerely hope they are of some help or use to you, in some shape or form.
As the longtime editor and maintainer of this unofficial wiki on the student culture at the Center for Talented Youth (CTY), and as a former, four-year student of the program, I have had the very special opportunity and privilege to examine and understand firsthand the ways in which CTY has served the many kids, teenagers, and young adults who attend its summer program each year. CTY has a rich history and is a very special place in the hearts of many of its former students. Despite its summer sessions occurring only twice a year, and each lasting only nineteen days, the program attracted flocks of new and returning students year after year, who were reliably greeted by a pervasive and nurturing social and developmental culture, brought about by the students' collective community.
CTY has had a long, enduring, forty-year history of serving talented youth. It has changed a lot in those forty years, however, and I believe that, sadly, the trend of these changes, especially in recent years, has been surely for the worst. The Center for Talented Youth is in a truly unmatched position to serve the youth who attend its summer programs. There is a lot that CTY could be doing in the present time—as it did in the past—to foster and encourage significant growth among these young adults. And by growth, I mean not only academic growth in the classroom. I mean social and personal growth also; in particular, I mean growth in all areas (academic included) via free, open, and broadening interactions with peers which help facilitate the development of self-confidence, communication, trust in others, and countless other invaluable personal virtues. In recent years, I have seen CTY continually act to inhibit this sort of free environment most conducive to interpersonal learning, and in doing so, it does all its students, and potential students, a significant disservice.
When I first attended CTY, I was a relatively introverted person (although I have since learned that, with some confidence, I am naturally quite the opposite). In my first week, I called my parents every day, and I cried when I couldn't reach them via phone on the first weekend. I didn't have any friends back at school and I didn't know what making friends meant, so I felt rather alone. My experience the very next week, however, taught me that I was wrong. One day after class, for the first time, it consciously occurred to me that people were waiting outside the dining hall for me before lunch. I had a minor epiphany—I wasn't alone. These people weren't just passively tolerant of me; they wanted me around enough to give up their precious time and wait for me. I went to CTY that year because I wanted to take the philosophy course I'd signed up for, and though class did positively impact how I thought, I very much hope we can all agree that the other lesson I learned was more important. I learned that I wasn't alone.
I also learned, that year and in the years after, not to be afraid. One of the longest-lasting student traditions at CTY is that of cross-dress day (at my site it was called "Second Saturday," after the day of session on which it fell). This tradition is believed to have started in the late 90s, when a boy who wanted to wear girls' clothing was forced to cease his expression of his identity, and the other students, in support of him, dressed in drag along with him. Even a decade later, the tradition continued to carry the same strong message: never be ashamed or afraid to express yourself as you choose. It was about realizing that you can grow closer to others by dropping your guard, sticking your neck out, and trusting good people not to take advantage of your vulnerability. It was about all the things you can get out of life by not being afraid; it was about being confident—even in the more hostile environments back home or at school—in order to get the happiness you wanted.
These are some of the lessons I learned through my experience at CTY. I was smart before I went to CTY, just like all the students who qualify, and my four years at CTY did not make me smarter. What it did was make me better. I learned how to laugh and speak openly and recognize the good in other people. I learned how to communicate and how to empathize. I learned how the best experiences come by letting people get to know you and by trusting the people who support you. I learned how to pursue the things that made me happy and to take control of how I lived my life.
It is because of this—of what CTY was able to provide me and my peers in the past—that I ask the parents, students, potential donors, and any others looking into the CTY program for future years to consider other options for yourselves or your children apart from CTY, or else to demand first that the program's leadership elevate CTY again to the high standards of its earlier days.
The creativity, confidence, and compassion for one another that CTY students can come to demonstrate is immense and incredible. The students, especially the older students who have undergone significant growth, are thus very capable role models for younger generations. The cross-dressing tradition is a great example of this. The particular choice of expression is secondary to the point; rather, the point is that the students independently chose, and continue to choose, to express themselves in this manner as a display of creativity, confidence, or simply comfort with themselves and their identities. Seeing other students express themselves so freely and confidently is of great benefit to the younger generations. There is little that makes you desire more to step out of your shell than to see people like you who have succeeded in doing so.
These older students hold the vanguard in the student culture. They are unmatched in their ability to teach the younger students how to grow into themselves, and to become as sure of themselves as their older peers. By restricting the ability of these older students to teach the younger, what is perhaps the most important learning experience of the program is lost.
The most poignant example of how CTY has—perhaps unintentionally—restricted the ability of students to learn from each other and to teach each other lies in its censorship of a student discussion group that has become popular since its debut in 2007. This is the GLOW (Gay, Lesbian, Or Whatever) discussion group, in which both students and staff, regardless of sex, gender, or orientation, can gather in a safe environment to discuss the issues of sexuality which challenge them every day. Especially in recent years, the social pressures surrounding sexuality can be a hindrance to the growth of any young person. Some become bullied; some become bullies; some learn to become passive in the face of others' disagreeable actions. This space, where older students and staff—who had already grown into themselves and who had the wisdom and confidence to guide younger students—was an indispensible place of personal learning and teaching.
Sadly, this wonderful forum has since been held back and hampered by the program administration. Neither students nor staff are any longer allowed to share personal experiences at GLOW. Instead, they may only discuss issues of sexuality in the abstract, without the context of their own real life problems, and the discussion is determined in advance of each period and overseen by program administrators. Students are now unable to use this discussion session to learn from each other the sorts of lessons you can only learn from your friends and peers in an environment of open and equal communication. Instead, the space has been reformatted—again, perhaps unintentionally—to resemble that of a classroom.
Perhaps the most startling issue here for me is the serious lack of trust that the program administrators have for the talented youth that attend their program. As parents, students, and even staff, you know, I hope, as well as I do, that CTYers are good people! They are bright, understanding, compassionate young individuals on the whole. Even if there had been an isolated incident of unsafe or harmful discourse in GLOW—and there have not been any such incidents—it should not be a reason to impede the ability of students to learn from one another.
GLOW is not the only area in which expression has been restricted. An annual student tradition known as the Last Supper, which draws vaguely from the Biblical event, in which students gather to share a final meal with one another and sometimes give speeches is under watch due to its use of religious symbolism. Religion, like sexuality, is certainly a sensitive topic. Perhaps typical middle or even high school students may not be prepared to grapple with these issue. But the talented young people at CTY are not typical. To nurture their talent is to allow them to grasp these issues as they choose, to express themselves freely through the context of these issues, and ultimately to develop, alongside one another, the maturity and understanding of these issues that we should trust them to discover.
This is an important theme: I believe that gifted youth can grow best in an environment that supports self-expressive interactions with peers; an environment which allows them to face real-world issues on their own terms and to discuss and to determine, collectively, how to deal with these issues. These issues include not only big topics like sexuality or religion, but also simpler things like empathy and social norms and trust, all of which may challenge these bright students at their homes and schools. But this demands that we provide these young people the freedom and opportunity to express themselves creatively. This is not to say that CTY should be a rule-free warzone of arbitrariness. No, rather, I think the Center for Talented Youth needs to let its kids play in the dirt more. Parents often try to protect their kids by keeping them germ-free, but by doing so, they disservice their children by depriving them of the opportunity to develop their immune systems against real world diseases. Similarly, without giving these gifted youth the necessary freedom of expression, CTY deprives them of the ability to approach and find their own resolutions to real world challenges.
CTY's restrictions also affect the ability of students to form close friendships and connections with one another. For instance, students have for many years and at many sites been prohibited from lying in the grass. While grass may not appear to be the most effective learning space, we can all imagine how, at a young, highly developmental age, a lazy weekend spent talking openly and freely with friends out under the summer sun can be an invaluable—and irreplaceable—experience. Particularly for those less confident youth who are may at times avoid socialization, restricting the opportunities for such casual and beneficial social interactions with peers can be highly detrimental.
Returning students often rise to arms when they hear that their traditions have been ruled against. With my CTY days far behind me, I view these administrative choices far less personally. I see them not as an affront to the precious traditions I celebrated five years ago. Rather, I see them as a passive, but serious, disservice to the present students—who bear the responsibility for the program's community—as well as a disservice to those students yet-to-come. It is some small tragedy that the youth of this year and next, and the years following, who come into the program with success in the classroom as a prerequisite, will not be provided with a full breadth of other opportunities to learn. Instead of being provided an environment to learn from peers in such activities as GLOW, they will either have to struggle to find such modes of learning, or resign themselves to more traditional formats. But these traditional formats offer far less benefits, since the classroom is the place these youth already excel. The students' opportunities to learn about themselves through free peer interactions grows more restricted, and the program's restrictions will make it harder than before for students to develop the same tight bonds and close friendships that their predecessors were able to make.
It is worth noting that peers need not refer only to agemates, but to anyone who sits at equal level with the students. Twenty or thirty years ago, instructors and teaching assistants might spend free time in the students' dorms. They might hear students discussing an academic topic and join in on the conversation; the conversation might then turn to other issues, and the instructors could contribute their wisdom of experience. Similarly, some other gifted programs across the country facilitate communication between current students and alumni of the program who wish to offer their guidance to the gifted youth of today. To my knowledge, CTY has never constructed any such medium for students to connect to the wide and untapped network of potential peers that are the alumni of the program. Regardless, the key is that these young people learn best through sharing and a push-and-pull, learn-and-teach experience with those they consider peers. As gifted, smart, mature individuals, they do not need the rigorous, regulated format that we see in schools, but instead can benefit much more from an open environment of peers.
Indeed, public and private schools have, since CTY's inception, become much better at serving the academic, in-classroom needs of gifted youth. If CTY continues to limit the diversity of opportunities for learning—and especially those for learning from peers—then it loses its sparkle. It becomes no more special than any decent high school, for which most potential CTY students will be headed anyway. It's not that it's become bad: I'm confident that CTY is still much better in many or most ways than the typical sixth through ninth grade classroom experience. Rather, the problem is that by restricting students' self-expression and interaction with peers, the Center for Talented Youth falls sadly short of its potential. CTY has essentially no competing alternatives. As such, by failing to offer the broadening, free environment of learning that it could offer, it does a disservice to its current and future students.
It's really a shame that so few compelling alternatives to CTY exist (certainly none of CTY's scale); but they will continue not to exist unless you—parents, students, staff, and anyone invested in the talent of youth—urge them into existence. This is why I ask you to consider alternatives to CTY for your or your children's next summer, or for your financial support. Look for the fledgling programs which you think offer not merely the best classroom environment, but the freest, most diverse environments in which to learn and grow and self-express, especially through interaction with peers. At the very least, before committing anything to CTY—your time, your children's time, or your support—call up and remind the Center for Talented Youth of the environment these youth deserve: an environment where they are free to learn and free to fully express their growing confidence and creativity. Remind the program's administrators that they need to trust the talents of the coming generations; to trust in the kindness and goodness of the students who attend their programs, and the ability of those students to teach the generations of students to come.
There is no better nourishment for talented youth than the companionship of peers; of developing close bonds with like minds. The first aim of any program like CTY should be to provide as many channels as possible for learning through companionship and community. I implore you, whatever you do, not to tolerate anything less for your children or for yourselves. Whether it be through CTY or through an even better service, please, seek out—no, demand!—the programs, places, or institutions most willing to support every mode of learning. Limits must not be placed on the opportunities for talented youth to learn and grow. Doing so is a disservice to the generations of gifted minds to come.
Thank you for your time, and please feel free to email me or to discuss these issues at will here on RealCTY.
CTY Lancaster '05-'08
Wednesday, June 20, 2012