Weekend Herald - Canvas
On Tuesday, TVNZ airs the first of a twopart documentary looking at the lives of gifted children. Greg Bruce meets one of its stars, Tristan Pang.
When Tristan Pang was 2 years old, his writing was not very good but it was good enough for his mother to understand he was already better at sudoku than she was. Around the same time, he began doing basic algebra.
That year, she bought herself the best-selling logic puzzle Rush Hour, a sliding block game marketed at ages “8 to adult”. The game has 40 different configurations that get progressively more difficult and the many reviews on Amazon testify to the fact that adults find the higher levels extremely difficult. He took it, she says, and did all 40 challenges in one go.
By the time Pang started talking he was able to read — his parents realised when he began telling them about the contents of books they would leave in his cot.
It was obvious, even when he was a baby, he was different. On a car trip with his mother, he started screaming and pointing and she realised he was telling her she’d missed a turn. He was just 1 year old and had been to their destination only once before. This was not about memory, he says now, but about his visual-spatial skills.
“Even now when we are driving to a new place, my parents seldom use a GPS,” he said once in an interview with Mensa’s magazine. “I am their GPS.”
At 9, he scored 97 per cent in the Cambridge international exam system’s IGCSE mathematics exam, which is for year 11 students (15 or 16-year-olds). He was the country’s youngest ever candidate.
In his last few years at primary school, his teachers left him to teach himself, his capabilities already far exceeding their own. By then, so much of his spare time was spent working on maths at home that class work was hardly relevant anyway. His parents had to force him to go to bed at night so he wouldn’t stay up for hours working on problems.
“We were actually doing the opposite things from other parents,” his mother, Elaine Pang, says. “We were always asking him to go and play and watch TV.”
Peter Crompton, principal at Ficino School where Pang was head boy in 2014, has taught at many educational institutions, including Oxford University, but when asked if he’s ever had a
In his last few years at primary school, Pang’s teachers left him to teach himself, his capabilities already far exceeding their own.
student like Pang, he says: “No. I’ve never come across anybody like that before.”
Crompton says giftedness often manifests in one area and looks like failure in another, but with Pang, that was never the case. “He was different in the sense that he was functioning across all areas, even socially.
“He was content, I would say. That was a mark of him all through school — his contentment and openness. That often is a frustration with giftedness and he didn’t seem to have that. That was quite remarkable.”
After his final year at Ficino, aged 12, Tristan skipped the entirety of high school and enrolled at the University of Auckland where, because he was still a child, his mother had to be with him on campus at all times. At 14, he became a tutor at the university, teaching students years older than him. Last year, aged 16, he finished his Bachelor of Science degree with no grade worse than an A and a score of 100 per cent in one of his final exams.
Genius is a difficult thing to explain because its manifestations are so far beyond our comprehension but sometimes you can get glimpses. For instance, in the office/studio at his home, where he works and records interviews for his Planet FM radio show and accompanying podcast, Youth Voices with Tristan Pang, he has completely filled the two large, wallmounted whiteboards with terrifyingly long and
impenetrable mathematical proofs.
On the day I visited, I noticed at the bottom of the board, separate from the rest, a smaller equation, that went like this:
“B3 - X3 - Y2 + X[indecipherable]
1+2 = 3
1+3 = 5
Hence 1=0 and BOOM!!”
I asked him what the equation meant. He looked embarrassed and said it was just a joke. He started rubbing it out. It was embarrassing for me also, because nobody likes to miss a punchline and I could conceive of no world in which I would have intellectual access to that joke.
He says he likes looking at patterns and seeing how things fit together. When he starts on a challenging problem, he says, he has no idea what he’s doing or why he’s doing it. “But once I keep working on it, I suddenly realise there’s actually a reason behind this problem — or the result is actually quite beautiful — and it’s at that moment I understand why we’re doing maths. We’re doing maths because it’s useful, it’s fun, it’s beautiful.”
In an article he wrote for the publication Tall Poppies, he talked more about that:
“I believe that maths is an art and we should let our imagination flow to ensure we can create beautiful pieces of art. I have never really needed to memorise anything for maths. Once I see the full picture and understand the concept, I can just work problems out and apply them.
“I don’t find maths difficult because I didn’t learn it at school. I explored maths myself out of curiosity. I could see ‘maths’ everywhere from a very young age.”
Pang is officially classified as “profoundly gifted” — a label given to the top 2 per cent of the population, which is a ludicrous underestimate because that would make him one in 50, when the reality is, New Zealand has never seen anything like him before — even Ernest Rutherford went to high school. This is not to say there has never been anyone like him in this country, because our attitude to and approach to dealing with giftedness has improved since the days when Rutherford had to rote-learn his times tables.
Giftedness, though, is a broad concept and Pang’s particular gift is only one small part of it — the stereotypical view: genius beyond comprehension, typically in mathematics.
More broadly defined, giftedness is the potential or ability to perform beyond your peers, seen as the top 10 per cent in any given domain. In this country, we’re good at recognising that level of giftedness in sports but not so much in other fields, says Brooke Trenwith, head of the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children. “Unless you’re standing out in the way Tristan is,” she says, “we don’t want to know about it.”
It’s hard to know how many gifted children have been crushed under the one-size-fits-all