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My Son the Genius

Barbara Bensoussan

“Precocious.” “Gifted.” “Top of his class.” It seems that every Jewish parent can lay claim to a “wise son” or two. But parents of true prodigies — the kind who can play a piano backward, analyze the newspaper before their third birthday, or write sci-fi novels when their friends are just making sense of paragraphs — say that the gift of genius can be a bewildering burden.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

When Jeff Helmreich, now in his 30s, began to speak at the age of seven months, his parents acknowledged he was a bit ahead of schedule. He was their first child, though, so when at age two he began singing nursery rhymes and picking out the tunes on a toy piano, it didn’t register as unusual. Finally, a friend exclaimed, “Are you guys crazy? Two-year-olds can’t do that!” By age three Jeff was playing Mozart, and could listen to a symphony and play it back. Pianist and composer Lauren Hollander told his parents: “Your son is not just a prodigy. If you had a room of 50 prodigies, he’d be the top one.” Sociology professor Dr. William Helmreich, his father, remembers that Jeff could “sit under the piano, facing outward, put his hands on the keys backward, and play.” In addition to music, Jeff excelled at math and chess; at the age of six he could hold his own against chess experts during family vacations to the Catskills. Marcia S.’s son David was barely two years old when he took note of the letters painted in parking spaces and asked his mother what they meant. When she explained they were letters used to make words, he asked to learn all of them. A friend of Marcia’s lent her some beginning children’s books; three months later, he was reading them. A few months after that — it was 1979 — Marcia was in her kitchen when David came in with the family copy of the International Herald Tribune (the family was living in Switzerland at the time). “Ima, why did they blow up that man?” he asked.  “Lord Mountbatten had just been blown up by the IRA,” Marcia remembers. “David hadn’t even turned three yet. I had a meltdown. I thought, I can’t keep anything from this kid!” That was the end of their newspaper subscription. ForMarcia and her husband, as for the Helmreichs, it was the beginning of a challenging adventure: raising a son whose abilities ran way ahead of his chronological age.

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