Phillip Meng, a high school rising senior and winner of the prestigious Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation Scholarship, is one of only four in the nation. The scholarship comes with a full ride for four years to the college of his choice. Around six years ago, Phillip started the International Association of Young Geographers, now an institution in geographic education serving students and educators on every continent. A local newspaper, the Columbian, quoted Meng as saying, “History isn’t books on the page. It’s the people.” (Wednesday May 30, 2018) I met Phillip when he was five years old and wrote to him after reading that front-page article:
Once upon a time, when I was an administrator of the EXCEL program in Evergreen School District, Vancouver WA, I got an afternoon call from Illahee Elementary asking me to take a look at a boy in Judy Kutch’s kindergarten class, and then meet with the boy’s parents. I knew Judy well – we had once taught together in the same building. The timeline given me was tight, so I called her right away and asked if I could visit her class the very next morning because I also had an appointment with Phillip’s parents around 10:00 that day.
Before school started the next morning, Mrs. Kutch handed me a tall stack of small books – books I was told Phillip had written. They were wonderful in terms of the writing itself – and so were the grammar, punctuation, and handwriting. There was a curious lack of pictures from such a young child. Clearly this was the work of a prolific writer. I knew Mrs. Kutch well enough to know these books were genuine; she hadn’t done a lot of coaching or fixing of the product. That simply wasn’t her style.
Soon after the children arrived, a buddy class joined them. So I was sitting there with about fifty five-year-olds as we began to hear Mrs. Kutch read a story. Suddenly she stopped and complained of a sore throat and wondered if someone would finish reading the story for her. The kindergartners, being a helpful and enthusiastic bunch, all raised their hands! I knew most could not read that particular story, so I wasn’t surprised when she picked Phillip to do it. I proceeded to watch him hold the attention of the fifty kindergartners for about 15 minutes without interruption – except when Mrs. Kutch chimed in to explain a word to the group. As I sat there, I was saying hopefully to myself, “I could do that…” Of course I had over twenty years of teaching experience!
I arrived back at my office just in time to welcome two young parents who spoke with thick Chinese accents. I wondered if Phillip spoke Chinese at home. (Yes.) Were there children’s books in Chinese at home? (No.) Could Phillip read Chinese? (No, but he was reading Chinese billboards on a recent two-week vacation to China by the end of the trip.) I suggested some books in Chinese wouldn’t hurt since being literate in Chinese is a good thing, and Phillip could probably get there without instruction. I asked if he liked school. (Yes; he loved Mrs. Kutch.) What were their concerns? (They knew their son was ahead of the others and might need more as time went by.) I suggested he stay in Mrs. Kutch’s morning kindergarten class for the last part of the year, but go into the first grade class in the afternoons. Then he could do second grade the next year – essentially skipping first – and there would be an Excel program [for gifted children] for him in second grade. They agreed, and I informed the school. I think this idea had been tossed around before I ever got called to come in; the school just wanted some validation and back up.
This past week I had one look at the May 30, 2018 newspaper and just sat down to read about you getting the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation Scholarship. Then I started to cry! I remembered the uncertainty of your sweet, young parents and the little boy who could hold the attention of fifty five-year-olds with a story. But the tears weren’t really about that. They were about having a tiny hand in helping someone with so much potential along on his way – and finding him as a young man who was all about using his remarkable talents and passion for making the world a better place. For all of that, thank you. I hope that passion stays with you throughout your life in whatever you do.
Sincerely wishing you all the best,
Charlotte A. Akin
Phillip is brilliant, yes. And worthy. But he is also extremely fortunate. Too many states and school districts do not have programming for their gifted students. Most teachers and administrators in our state and nation have had no training at all in terms of the needs of gifted children. Frequently acceleration is not allowed. While Phillip is rare, he is not alone. We know it is a myth that gifted children will thrive because they are gifted. What about the others? We must continue to advocate our gifted children – among our friends, in our schools, in our states, and in our nation.