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For Isabella and Calista Stone
When you are eighty years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices.
-Jeff Bezos, commencement speech at Princeton University, May 30, 2010
In the early 1970s, an industrious advertising executive named Julie Ray became fascinated with an unconventional public-school program for gifted children in Houston, Texas. Her son was among the first students enrolled in what would later be called the Vanguard program, which stoked creativity and independence in its students and nurtured expansive, outside-the-box thinking. Ray grew so enamored with the curriculum and the community of enthusiastic teachers and parents that she set out to research similar schools around the state with an eye toward writing a book about Texas's fledgling gifted-education movement.
A few years later, after her son had moved on to junior high, Ray returned to tour the program, nestled in a wing of River Oaks Elementary School, west of downtown Houston. The school's principal chose a student to accompany her on the visit, an articulate, sandy-haired sixth-grader whose parents asked only that his real name not be used in print. So Ray called him Tim.
Tim, Julie Ray wrote in her book Turning On Bright Minds: A Parent Looks at Gifted Education in Texas, was "a student of general intellectual excellence, slight of build, friendly but serious." He was "not particularly gifted in leadership," according to his teachers, but he moved confidently among his peers and articulately extolled the virtues of the novel he was reading at the time, J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.
Tim, twelve, was already competitive. He told Ray he was reading a variety of books to qualify for a special reader's certificate but compared himself unfavorably to another classmate who claimed, improbably, that she was reading a dozen books a week. Tim also showed Ray a science project he was working on called an infinity cube, a battery-powered contraption with rotating mirrors that created the optical illusion of an endless tunnel. Tim modeled the device after one he had seen in a store. That one cost twenty-two dollars, but "mine was cheaper," he told Ray. Teachers said that three of Tim's projects were being entered in a local science competition that...