Being a child prodigy does weird things to you. Your sense of perspective gets messed with constantly as soon as the label is attached to you. Once you're old enough to realize what it means, it's an unending tug-of-war for your identity.
Parents often have it worse. My parents went way into debt to enroll me in an elite college prep boarding school, you know, the kind where future Senators and military flag officers go. The kind where the campus looks like Texas A&M and the extra-curriculars include a summer glider school. The kind where you have to be careful to even admit you went to depending on the crowd.
My specific area of "prodigy" was art, though I was always one of those kids who sped past their peers academically in almost all subjects (in my case, chemistry was my weak point. I didn't and still don't get it at all.) I was on the debate team, chess club, etc. My parents wanted to send me to a conservatory, though that would mean even more debt.
I realize I haven't exactly painted a picture that invites pity, but in retrospect I don't think all the pressure was good for me. It certainly wasn't good for my parents. I suppose in the end it all worked out for the most part, but there's one experience from this setting that makes me uncomfortable to think about to this day.
Junior year was the point where all the students at my school were supposed to start finalizing our goals for the future. We spent a lot of time meeting with college and company recruiters. During that time we were also bombarded with notices of various opportunities related to our specific skill sets. I was given a lot of fliers for various summer art programs, for example, and we all got materials for various "leadership" programs of the type that cater to rich kids.
It was in this hyper-competitive environment that I was introduced to the Zodiac Institute. When the juniors were invited to take a "personality test"after school I almost didn't find it worth my time. I was juggling a lot of these different "opportunities" and I horded every moment of free time I could get after school. But the constant pressure I was under to excel demanded that I never let a chance at success pass me by, so I decided to see what this personality test was all about.
So I got the test proctored for me at our testing center (yes, our high school had a large exam center of the kind normally only found at colleges). Of course, it turned out to be more than a personality test, it was a full intelligence test in all but name. It was stranger than an IQ test or SAT, however. Questions involved math problems where the rules of arithmetic were change upfront, short essay questions that involved interpreting very obscure literary themes, and visual puzzles that literally hurt to look at. It was all so weirdly esoteric that I finished the test convinced I had done very poorly.
There were a fair number of normal personality and career interest questions as well, though. Well, normal except for the fact that the questions tended to envision loftier goals than a normal career interest inventory would. Questions such as "Would you rather be the CEO of a large company or a federal politician?" for example.
The test was all paper and pencil. Not even our school had computer testing, for this was during the early 1980s.
Two weeks later I received the results. I had by that point almost forgotten about the test. The document was handed to me during our home room period by one of the students who had the volunteer "job" of delivering stuff.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had not done poorly as I had anticipated, and in fact had placed in the top percentile of those who had taken the test.
Some time later I was called to the principal's office and informed that the Zodiac Institute had invited me to submit a portfolio of my artwork. I agreed, now growing intrigued as to what this institute was all about.
In addition, they wanted me to make detailed drawings of various scenes described in text. The scenes ranged from rush hour traffic over a bridge to massive battles. There were also prompts to draw vaguely described character portraits, such as "a devious but charismatic man."
It was the most fun I'd had drawing in a while. I submitted the portfolio to the assistant principal who would give it to the Institute representative.
Next was a geopolitics exam. I was informed that I would have two weeks to prepare by researching. With the Web 1.0 still a few years in the future, all I had to go on were almanacs, encyclopedias, and periodicals. Luckily, our school library was well stocked and had all the latest editions.
The test was easier than I expected. There were questions about the Vietnam War, the recent Falklands campaign, the current stages of the Cold War, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, etc. However, much of it was just naming people and places, and most of it was multiple choice. There was also a blank world map for me to fill out as many countries as I could.
I didn't hear again from the Zodiac Institute for several months. During that time I was up to my neck in various projects and studying. A few weeks before finals, I got another letter from the same messenger girl. I was next invited to apply for the Zodiac Institute's summer leadership program via essay application. The essay prompt was simple enough: how would I change the world?
I came up with something about changing the world through public art projects and programs and sent it in. I got a letter some time later informing me that I had been selected as an alternate for the program.
Fate has a funny way of working. It could have ended there. I could have remained an alternate, gone to some other summer activity, and possibly even forgotten about the weird Zodiac entrance tests by this point in my life.
That's not how things turned out. I was not selected for any of the other programs I applied for that year (perhaps I had aimed too high for all of them, given that they were all programs that catered to students from "elite" schools), and one student, for whatever reason, could not make it to the leadership school.
Did he or she get selected for another program with an overlapping time commitment? Did something come up in his or her personal life? Who can say, but I have not stopped wondering since that summer. The opportunity thus became mine, and I accepted. The die was cast.
That summer, dozens of students from my school, and many thousands more across the nation, went to extra-curricular programs. Band camps, trips to the US capital, service academy seminars, you name it. They'd come back with stories, memories, and maybe some new friendships. My experience would be different.
They sent me a package, a single book which was to be my sole reading material prior to the activity. It was a primer text on critical theory from the 1950s. Pretty bizarre for a high school program. Pretty bizarre overall.
They arranged first class plane tickets for me to fly to their location. The flight was to Dallas, where I was to meet them and be transported to wherever the thing was being held. No exact address.
I'd flown once before, for another summer activity the last summer. This would be my first time flying first class though.
There's no point in describing the flight except for the fact that I ended up being seated next to another kid who was going to the same activity. Turned out he was a math prodigy. He'd done the same weird admission tests as I had, except the last one for him was to do complex math problems by hand.
He didn't know anything more about the Zodiac Institute than I did. We spend a lot of time speculating. Like me, he was from an elite high school, a Jesuit school in his case. Like me, this was just one of many activities he had been recruited or applied for.
When we landed at DFW, it was still early in the afternoon. We were greeted by someone holding a sign with our last names, who was apparently hired by the Zodiac Institute but not actually a member. He couldn't tell us anything about the leadership program and was just there to help us with our stuff and escort us to the next terminal. Apparently we were supposed to fly again to someplace else. That was not disclosed to us in the itinerary we were given.
We met some other kids in the waiting area who were all booked for the same activity. There were maybe a dozen when we got there but more continued to trickle in over the next few hours until there were exactly 400 of us in total. Talking with each other, we quickly learned that our two things in common were that we were all upperclassmen and that we were each a prodigy in one or more areas. Most of us were also from elite prep schools like myself, but not all. There was a homeschool kid there who said he had been recruited for this activity after winning some arcade tournament, this being a time when such things were first becoming really popular. His area of prodigy was computers and he wanted to be a video game designer, again, this being a time when not many kids could say they knew computers.
There were also three or four of these sign holders who were apparently also there to be chaperone over us, although they pretty much let us do whatever we want until it was time for us to board our next flight.
As the group grew larger, it became progressively harder to mingle. I drifted in and out of the smaller social groups that formed, spreading out to eat at the food court or watch the planes taking off and landing, which were pretty much the only two things to do really.
Our plane didn't arrive until the late evening, a DC-6 bearing the brand of a now-defunct charter airline. That really should have been the first major sign to me that something was off. The admission fee my parents paid for this thing had been pricey, but it wasn't that pricey. Not enough to cover a charter flight and still have enough for whatever our rooming arrangements would be.
Our chaperones led us into the turboprop, letting us all choose our own seats. I sat with the kid who had accompanied me on my first flight, aisle seat.
I remember being really uneasy as we taxied to the runway. We didn't have cell phones, and I'd only had a brief conversation with my parents over a pay phone at the terminal letting them know I was flying again, which they seemed confused but not alarmed by. Where were they taking us that required them to charter a DC-6?
As we launched into the night sky, I had the feeling that I'd gotten into something I might regret. I began wishing the kid I was subbing in for was here instead of me. Our chaperones had gone back to the terminal without telling us where we were going, and there was no one else on the plane besides us and a single stewardess.
I was lulled to sleep by the hum of the turbines and woke up what felt like minutes later, though my seatmate said it had been about two hours according to his watch. We were preparing to land.
We didn't get off at another passenger terminal. Instead, we sat on the apron for about 30 minutes and then were taxied into a hangar illuminated by overhead lights, where we sat inside for another 30 minutes with the hangar door open before deboarding, I guess to make sure the engine fumes were aired out or something.
I could barely see anything out the hangar door as we were herded through a set of double doors through a dingy hallway by someone who came out to greet us, whom we never saw again after that point. The hallway ended in a lobby area, barely large enough to contain all 40 of us and our luggage.
After some more waiting, we were then directed through another hallway leading to another room to have our stuff searched for contraband and to be in-processed. We were directed to take our stuff up to the third floor where our rooms were.
The elevator terminal listed 12 floors, but all above 5 were access-restricted. This was my first clue to how big the building was.
Our rooms were all single-occupancy with no windows, no television, radios, or phones, but they did have private bathrooms.
It was already past midnight according to the alarm clock. We were all directed to meet in the auditorium, on the first floor.