Teachers and parents frequently fret over why some children, amazingly talented in elementary school, seem to lose their drive during adolescence. Do the physiological changes of puberty inhibit performance? Do friends interfere with concentration? Does financial hardship eventually take its toll on spirit?
In his book "Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success & Failure," Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of human development at the University of Chicago, attempted to answer these questions by analyzing why certain students in a group of about 200 highly gifted youths continued to develop their talents over five years while others didn't. He concluded that the successful teens enjoyed unusual powers of concentration and internal drive as well as support from "a great number of individuals and institutions."
Last Saturday more than 400 talented kids in seventh through 12th grades got a giant dose of such support at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. As they took the stage to receive the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, they entered the ranks of thousands of winners of the 76-year-old national competition, including such celebrities as Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath, Andy Warhol and Richard Avedon.
Three high school seniors from Maryland -- Christopher Fitzwater, Lesley McTague and Lauren Whaley -- were among the top winners of the group, claiming the coveted gold portfolio awards. Through their individual stories we get a glimpse of the internal and external factors that Csikszentmihalyi and others say promote talent.
When Chris Fitzwater, an artist, started ninth grade at Poolesville High School, he dreamed of doing nothing more with his life than drawing body tattoos.
In sixth grade, he had illustrated the cover of his school literary magazine and two years later he was paid $75 for sketching a pen-and-ink of his mother's church for the front of the church bulletin. In high school, however, "I started to rebel," he says. "I wore leather jackets, became a punk rocker."
Drawing became "something I could fall back on." By the time 12th grade arrived, "I was doing bad in school." Then he met the school's new art instructor, a 26-year-old named Walter Bartman. "Mr. Bartman opened the world of oil to me and now I'm obsessed."
Fitzwater's encounter with a mentoring instructor characterizes almost all of the competition's winners, says B.J. Adler, executive director of the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers, which administers the contest. "The kids get into a studio or a writing workshop and the whole distinction between kid and adult disappears," she says. "They're dealing with a colleague, can challenge each other."
Fitzwater, in fact, enjoyed the encouragement of several adults growing up. His father, a school custodian who pursues art as a hobby, taught him how to shade when the young Fitzwater was 8. He was "pretty good buddies" with his elementary school art teacher. His mother kept him from flunking out of school, enabling him to eventually meet Bartman. His grandmother painted landscapes and "gave me a feeling about art."
Like a slowly maturing Treasury bond, these personal investments paid off. At his easel today, Fitzwater enjoys what Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow," a total absorption in what he is doing. "Let's say I go out with my friends on Friday night and come back at 1 a.m. I might stay up until 5 painting, and if I'm on a roll, it will rule the next day. I have to finish it, for myself." The experience of flow, Csikszentmihalyi found, predicted more than anything whether his subjects continued to pursue their talents.
Lesley McTague, an artist from Cockeysville, in Baltimore County, remembers the comfortable feeling of holding a pencil when she was 3 or 4 and sketching "little girls with big, doey eyes." By middle school, obsessed with the idea of becoming a Disney animator, she was writing and illustrating stories about heroines who bore striking resemblances to Disney's Ariel, Belle and Jasmine.
McTague stayed with her art for the sheer pleasure of it at first, encouraged by her dad, Mark, a professor who believes parents should "actively support whatever the child loves doing. It's important to live what matters to you." Art also bestowed an identity. "I kinda made a name for myself at school as the girl who could draw really well," she says. "I wasn't known any other way."
Like many of the teenagers in Csikszentmihalyi's study, McTague says she didn't spend a lot of time hanging out with a big group of friends. She felt awkward socially until ninth grade when she was accepted into the Carver Center for the Arts and Technology, a magnet school in Towson.
"My passion started then," she says, almost breathlessly. "We had an incredible staff and really amazing teachers. I developed a direction and a focus. I began to understand the purposes of art, the process of searching for and finding out the truth about yourself. It sounds like an amazing spiritual search and in a way I guess it is."
At Carver she found friends who not only loved art but loved to talk art. Composition, light, color, space, the relationship between figures, were parts of everyday speech and motivated her to try new approaches to her art.
Magnet schools like Carver "are where you see these kids make great strides," says the Alliance's Adler. Adler says she hopes the Alliance will soon be able to launch a virtual community on the Internet for budding artists and writers who attend regular high schools and may feel unappreciated.
Lauren Whaley, who won her Scholastic award for writing, attended a public school, Towson High, that strongly supports the arts, according to her English teacher and writing coach, William Jones. Jones, a poet himself, organized readings of his students' work at school and in area bookstores and co-sponsored the school's national award-winning literary magazine, Colophon.
Whaley, editor in chief of Colophon this year, worked until midnight for many nights overseeing the writing, editing, layout and design. Such commitment and effort characterize successful teenagers, the Csikszentmihalyi book says.
Whaley suspects she poured herself into Colophon partly as a way of taking her mind off the death of her mother. Sharon Dwyer, says Whaley, had been "totally about her kids" and kept four journals going herself. She died in an airplane crash on Thanksgiving Day of Whaley's junior year.
But Whaley also worked long hours because "I'm obsessed with making things perfect," she says. Kids like Whaley "are very much their own judge and harder on themselves than anyone else could ever be," says the Alliance's Adler.
While some talented teenagers obsess over one pursuit, others stay open to new obsessions. Whaley is one of the latter. In addition to writing and editing at Towson she painted oils, played varsity field hockey, was vice president of her senior class and maintained top grades. "She chose many areas and excelled in all of them," Johnson says. "This is a student who will work and work when she puts her mind to it."
Artwork by the Scholastic winners is on exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW (202-639-1700), through July 19.
CAPTION: Lesley McTague, Christopher Fitzwater, and Lauren Whaley, right, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The trio were among the Gold Portfolio winners in this year's Scholastic Art & Writing competition.