This story of a whiz kid who vanished
July 6, 2000 10:12 AM   Subscribe

This story of a whiz kid who vanished raises all kinds of questions. Sufiah, a 15-year-old student at Oxford University, disappears; then, her father receives an e-mail, supposedly from her. The e-mail claims that she ran away from her father's abusive high-pressure learning techniques; the father claims that she must have been kidnapped and brainwashed. The police aren't sure how to handle this situation, as there's no way to prove that the mail is really from the daughter. Finally, the father has called in the media to present his side of the story, since Sufiah has threatened to go to the media with hers.
posted by harmful (11 comments total)
It's not the first time that things have gone badly wrong for an "underage" student at Oxford, as I mentioned in another thread. My hope is that the college authorities get a bollocking for accepting Sufiah in the first place (when she was 12) because there's no way for someone so young to fit into college life, even at somewhere like St Hilda's.
posted by holgate at 11:53 AM on July 6, 2000

And a few numbers, to explain why Oxford is no place for a 15-year-old to be studying.

Age at which most people start their courses: 18
Legal drinking age: 18
Percentage of Oxford colleges with on-site bars: 100
posted by holgate at 11:57 AM on July 6, 2000

A teenage girl running away from home and dating a boy whose politics her father doesn't approve of? Heaven forfend! This would never, ever have happened if it weren't for (the torrents of mental abuse he inflicted on her/the vast conspiracy that wants to learn her father's pedagogical techniques).
posted by snarkout at 2:13 PM on July 6, 2000

I would guess that we haven't heard the full story from either side. The dad sure sounds like a nutjob, though...
"Heaven forfend?" Who are you- Monty Burns?
posted by dogwelder at 2:24 PM on July 6, 2000

Yeah. I ain't heard anyone "forfend" anything in *years*...
posted by baylink at 2:47 PM on July 6, 2000

Her father sounds terrifying:

"We are going to defeat their agenda and redouble our efforts to defeat them by producing more Sufiahs. From our perspective this is the end of the story for Sufiah."

His daughter disappears-- he claims she's been brainwashed by conspirators-- and his response is oh well, "this is the end of the story" for her? 'I can make more human beings exactly like her at any time'... after all, kids are totally interchangeable cogs, right? That dehumanizing, callous attitude seems like it could only come from an abusive parent.
posted by wiremommy at 3:03 PM on July 6, 2000

I'm somewhere in the middle on this one. I was an early-entrant to college, although I did it by skipping my senior year in high school, not graduating early, and there turned out to be massive paperwork hurdles (what? college doesn't have gym class?) that forced me to get a GED the next summer (state law said you couldn't get it until your class had graduated, go figure).

On the one hand, I was having a miserable time in high school among the non-geek plebes (q.v. JonKatz, Hellmouth, Columbine, etc.), and I was capable of handling college material. On the other hand, the "educators" who ran the school district and opposed my leaving had a point: that there were social benefits to the high school environment. As an adult, I understand this more profoundly than you can imagine.

I read a number of accounts of these "young geniuses" back when it was topical for me. An astonishing number of them had parents who pushed, pushed, pushed, to the point where close friends and relatives thought they were obsessed and inhumane -- while the parent insists they are only doing what's best for their prodigy child.

Compare, for example, the story of the Polgar sisters, female chess prodigies of recent years. Their parents even wrote a book called "Build a Genius!" Violinist Rachel Barton was home-schooled from an early age so as to devote as much time as possible to her craft. Articles in local papers (not archived on her website) have alluded to a difficult relationship with her parents in adulthood. There's another one I can't recall the name of right now.

Anyway, I almost wish I *had* been pushed a little harder than I was. But maybe not as hard as this girl was.
posted by dhartung at 3:21 PM on July 6, 2000

dhartung: Ruth Lawrence is the most famous case here, and seems to have gone through the same estrangement from her father, now that she's married and has a baby.

These fathers push and push so hard that the kids eventually get away from them, And that's the fine irony of it.
posted by holgate at 4:34 PM on July 6, 2000

I just wanted to point out that a 15 year-old making boyfriend decisions her parents don't agree with and running away from home isn't uncommon, supergenius or no.

And how different is this sort of behavior from the classic stage-mother or tennis-father syndrome, where the parent pushes the child to success (and maybe even convinces the kid that success is what he or she has always wanted) only to watch him or her burn out a few years later? Jennifer Capriati, anyone? And we all know that not every child star goes on to be a Jodi Foster (or even a Will Oldham). The question seems to boil down to whether parents can back off enough to let their children make their own decisions--and whether they can encourage their children to not push as hard, if they don't think it's healthy.

Don't get me wrong--a family friend got his PhD in mathematic at 19 or 20, and he's as stable and well-adjusted as mathematicians get. This is the right choice for some people--just (obviously) not Sufiah. The Westinghouse whiz kids profiled in the NY Times Magazine a few weeks ago creeped me out, and not just because they're so much more talented than I was at their age (or, for that matter, now).

I'll forfend when I please, thank you.
posted by snarkout at 4:51 PM on July 6, 2000

i'd like to second the "right choice for some people" sentiment... I graduated high school a little early to get a head start on college myself, rather in spite of my parents than because of them---no one pushed me. And I cannot imagine how frustrated I'd've felt if ever someone had tried to put a slowdown on my education because of something so arbitrary as my *age*. In fact, my reading list was about the only thing my mother ever stood up to my stepfather on, on one occasion when I was still in middle school, and she screwed up a lot of stuff but I'm damn glad she did that for me.

They say the younger you are the more you're able to learn... you hear about things like parents starting their kids on foreign languages when they're 2 and 3, because the brain will retain so much at that age... is that "pushing" or is that giving your child the gift of language at a time when it may be very well easier to pick up than high school, which is the first time most American kids get a second language? I sort of wish I'd had something like that as a wee youngun... I was reading English at 3 and loved it fiercely, so why the heck not?

Sure, there are limits... and when you get into competitive academics or athletics I think there's a greater potential for danger... but if it's about knowledge, not achievement, and right up until the time when/if the kid says "you know, mom, dad, I'd like to try being a normal slackass kid now" (and the lines of communication should be open enough that the kid would feel comfortable saying that), I have no problem with it.
posted by Sapphireblue at 8:31 PM on July 6, 2000

ack... realized how miserably long that was and tried to go back to make a probably futile attempt at condensation, and the original posting page had forgotten everything i'd typed... sorry sorry.
posted by Sapphireblue at 8:32 PM on July 6, 2000

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