Is It a Cheetah?
By Stephanie S. Tolan
© 1996 Stephanie S. Tolan
It's a tough time to raise, teach or be a highly gifted child. As the
term "gifted" and the unusual intellectual capacity to which that term
refers become more and more politically incorrect, the educational establishment
changes terminology and focus.
Giftedness, a global, integrative mental capacity, may be dismissed, replaced
by fragmented "talents" which seem less threatening and theoretically
easier for schools to deal with. Instead of an internal developmental reality
that affects every aspect of a child's life, "intellectual talent" is
more and more perceived as synonymous with (and limited to) academic
The child who does well in school, gets good grades, wins awards, and
"performs" beyond the norms for his or her age, is considered
talented. The child who does not, no matter what his innate intellectual
capacities or developmental level, is less and less likely to be identified, less
and less likely to be served.
A cheetah metaphor can help us see the problem with achievement-oriented
thinking. The cheetah is the fastest animal on earth. When we think of cheetahs
we are likely to think first of their speed. It's flashy. It is impressive. It's
unique. And it makes identification incredibly easy. Since cheetahs are the only
animals that can run 70 mph, if you clock an animal running 70 mph, IT'S A
But cheetahs are not always running. In fact, they are able to maintain top
speed only for a limited time, after which they need a considerable period of
It's not difficult to identify a cheetah when it isn't running, provided we
know its other characteristics. It is gold with black spots, like a leopard, but
it also has unique black "tear marks" beneath its eyes. Its head is
small, its body lean, its legs unusually long -- all bodily characteristics
critical to a runner. And the cheetah is the only member of the cat family that
has non-retractable claws. Other cats retract their claws to keep them sharp,
like carving knives kept in a sheath --the cheetah's claws are designed not for
cutting but for traction. This is an animal biologically designed to run.
Its chief food is the antelope, itself a prodigious runner. The antelope is
not large or heavy, so the cheetah does not need strength and bulk to overpower
it. Only speed. On the open plains of its natural habitat the cheetah is capable
of catching an antelope simply by running it down.
While body design in nature is utilitarian, it also creates a powerful
internal drive. The cheetah needs to run!
Despite design and need however, certain conditions are necessary if it is to
attain its famous 70 mph top speed. It must be fully grown. It must be healthy,
fit and rested. It must have plenty of room to run. Besides that, it is best
motivated to run all out when it is hungry and there are antelope to chase.
If a cheetah is confined to a 10 X 12 foot cage, though it may pace or fling
itself against the bars in restless frustration, it won't run 70 mph.
IS IT STILL A CHEETAH?
If a cheetah has only 20 mph rabbits to chase for food, it won't run 70 mph
while hunting. If it did, it would flash past its prey and go hungry! Though it
might well run on its own for exercise, recreation, fulfillment of its internal
drive, when given only rabbits to eat the hunting cheetah will run only fast
enough to catch a rabbit.
IS IT STILL A CHEETAH?
If a cheetah is fed Zoo Chow it may not run at all.
IS IT STILL A CHEETAH?
If a cheetah is sick or if its legs have been broken, it won't even walk.
IS IT STILL A CHEETAH?
And finally, if the cheetah is only six weeks old, it can't yet run 70 mph.
IS IT, THEN, ONLY A *POTENTIAL* CHEETAH?
system that defines giftedness (or talent) as behavior, achievement and
performance is as compromised in its ability to recognize its highly gifted
students and to give them what they need as a zoo would be to recognize and
provide for its cheetahs if it looked only for speed. When a cheetah does run 70
mph it isn't a particularly "achieving" cheetah. Though it is doing
what no other cat can do, it is behaving normally for a cheetah.
To lions, tigers, leopards -- to any of the other big cats -- the cheetah's
biological attributes would seem to be deformities. Far from the "best
cat," the cheetah would seem to be barely a cat at all. It is not heavy
enough to bring down a wildebeest; its non-retractable claws cannot be kept
sharp enough to tear the wildebeest's thick hide. Given the cheetah's tendency
to activity, cats who spend most of their time sleeping in the sun might well
label the cheetah hyperactive.
Like cheetahs, highly gifted children can be easy to identify. If a child
teaches herself Greek at age five, reads at the eighth grade level at age six or
does algebra in second grade we can safely assume that child is a highly gifted
child. Though the world may see these activities as "achievements,"
she is not an "achieving" child so much as a child who is operating
normally according to her own biological design, her innate mental capacity.
Such a child has clearly been given room to "run" and something to run
for. She is healthy and fit and has not had her capacities crippled. It doesn't
take great knowledge about the characteristics of highly gifted children to
recognize this child.
However, schools are to extraordinarily intelligent children what zoos are to
cheetahs. Many schools provide a 10 x 12 foot cage, giving the unusual mind no
room to get up to speed. Many highly gifted children sit in the classroom the
way big cats sit in their cages, dull-eyed and silent. Some, unable to resist
the urge from inside even though they can't exercise it, pace the bars, snarl
and lash out at their keepers, or throw themselves against the bars until they
do themselves damage.
Even open and enlightened schools are likely to create an environment that,
like the cheetah enclosures in enlightened zoos, allow some moderate running,
but no room for the growing cheetah to develop the necessary muscles and stamina
to become a 70 mph runner. Children in cages or enclosures, no matter how
bright, are unlikely to appear highly gifted; kept from exercising their minds
for too long, these children may never be able to reach the level of mental
functioning they were designed for.
A zoo, however much room it provides for its cheetahs, does not feed them
antelope, challenging them either to run full out or go hungry. Schools
similarly provide too little challenge for the development of extraordinary
minds. Even a gifted program may provide only the intellectual equivalent of 20
mph rabbits (while sometimes labeling children suspected of extreme intelligence
"underachievers" for NOT putting on top speed to catch those rabbits!)
Without special programming, schools provide the academic equivalent of Zoo
Chow, food that requires no effort whatsoever. Some children refuse to take in
such uninteresting, dead nourishment at all.
To develop not just the physical ability but also the strategy to catch
antelope in the wild, a cheetah must have antelopes to chase, room to chase them
and a cheetah role model to show them how to do it. Without instruction and
practice they are unlikely to be able to learn essential survival skills.
A recent nature documentary about cheetahs in lion country showed a curious
fact of life in the wild. Lions kill cheetah cubs. They don't eat them, they
just kill them. In fact, they appear to work rather hard to find them in order
to kill them (though cheetahs can't possibly threaten the continued survival of
lions). Is this maliciousness? Recreation? No one knows. We only know that lions
do it. Cheetah mothers must hide their dens and go to great efforts to protect
their cubs, coming and going from the den under deep cover or only in the dead
of night or when lions are far away. Highly gifted children and their families
often feel like cheetahs in lion country.
In some schools brilliant children are asked to do what they were never
designed to do (like cheetahs asked to tear open a wildebeest hide with their
claws -- after all, the lions can do it!) while the attributes that are a
natural aspect of unusual mental capacity -- intensity, passion, high energy,
independence, moral reasoning, curiosity, humor, unusual interests and
insistence on truth and accuracy -- are considered problems that need fixing.
Brilliant children may feel surrounded by lions who make fun of or shun them
for their differences, who may even break their legs or drug them to keep them
moving more slowly, in time with the lions' pace. Is it any wonder they would
try to escape; would put on a lion suit to keep from being noticed; would fight
This metaphor, like any metaphor, eventually breaks down. Highly gifted
children don't have body markings and non-retractable claws by which to be
identified when not performing. Furthermore, the cheetah's ability to run 70 mph
is a single trait readily measured. Highly gifted children are very different
from each other so there is no single ability to look for even when they are
performing; besides that, a child's greatest gifts could be outside the academic
world's definition of achievement and so go unrecognized altogether. While this
truth can save some children from being wantonly killed by marauding lions, it
also keeps them from being recognized for what they are -- children with deep
and powerful innate differences as all-encompassing as the differences between
cheetahs and other big cats.
That they may not be instantly recognizable does not mean that there is no
means of identifying them. It means that more time and effort are required to do
it. Educators can learn the attributes of unusual intelligence and observe
closely enough to see those attributes in individual children. They can
recognize not only that highly gifted children can do many things other children
cannot, but that there are tasks other children can do that the highly gifted
Every organism has an internal drive to fulfill its biological design. The
same is true for unusually bright children. From time to time the bars need be
removed, the enclosures broadened. Zoo Chow, easy and cheap as it is, must give
way, at least some of the time, to lively, challenging mental prey.
More than this, schools need to believe that it is important to make the
effort, that these children not only have the needs of all other children to be
protected and properly cared for, but that they have as much RIGHT as others to
have their needs met.
Biodiversity is a fundamental principle of life on our planet. It allows life
to adapt to change. In our culture highly gifted children, like cheetahs, are
endangered. Like cheetahs, they are here for a reason; they fill a particular
niche in the design of life. Zoos, whatever their limitations, may be critical
to the continued survival of cheetahs; many are doing their best to offer their
captives what they will need eventually to survive in the wild. Schools can do
the same for their highly gifted children.
Unless we make a commitment to saving these children, we will continue to
lose them and whatever unique benefit their existence might provide for the
human species of which they are an essential part.
Note: please disseminate this article widely if you find it useful. Proper
attribution would be appreciated, however -- Stephanie S. Tolan
©1997 Diane Scanlon