Fast-tracking provided valuable life lessons for former senators
By Tim Smith
Being fast-tracked through the education system wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be for Thaao Dill and Andrew Simons. Classmates at West Pembroke Primary School at the age of 4, the pair were quickly identified as too advanced for P1 and switched up a grade to sit alongside children closer to their academic level.
The acceleration process continued throughout their school years – skipping P6 altogether – so that young Thaao joined Warwick Academy at 9 and graduated at 14, while Andrew went through Berkeley Institute alongside classmates at least two years his senior.
On the face of it, it’s worked out well: Mr Dill was manager of a group of radio stations and a high-profile Progressive Labour Party senator by his mid 20s; Mr Simons is an underwriter who sat in the Senate for the One Bermuda Alliance in his early 30s.
But while both acknowledge their acceleration was well meant by teachers and administrators, they reflected it did not come without a cost. Mr Dill, now 38, said he found it emotionally and socially difficult to be positioned as a child prodigy and separated from children his own age.
“In Bermuda, it’s really easy if there’s something unique about you to be recognised at the national level. That can be very isolating,” he said.
Classmates at Warwick were kind but viewed him as an intriguing novelty, and the feelings that triggered have never completely gone away.
It further accentuated the sense of isolation and oddness, like I was something set apart,” he said.
“It’s baked into my identity. I always feel a little uneasy. I don’t realistically attribute the entirety of that sense to my academic experience in my early childhood. I don’t know how much of it is how I’m wired versus what I experienced.”
His status as a high-flyer gave him better access to good jobs during his media career. But Mr Dill warned: “I would suggest, based on my experience, to be particularly careful about social and emotional development of academic acceleration.
“Particularly when they are little, if there’s another way to hold them close to their peer group, while still ticking their academic boxes – try that first to see how that goes.
“The lifespan of people nowadays is in the eight-decade territory. Any benefits of graduating at 21 instead of 18 won’t affect them long term.
“When they are 45 that will never matter again. The consequence of that process going wrong can hang around forever.”
Mr Simons, now 39, the son of the former education minister Gerald Simons, recalled of his time at Berkeley: “I got in trouble with teachers – I had a big mouth. I was 10 and there were students who were 18 still at school.
“My experience was atypical for many reasons, not just my age. My father was still Minister of Education. I was younger, smarter, coming from a privileged background.
“Because I was physically smaller than everybody, a lot of my classmates remember me having a sharp tongue.
“I came back years later and I was a different person. It took me a long time to get over myself.
“Your identity is wrapped up with this idea you are someone who skipped grades. But skipping grades at the age of 5, 6, 7 or 8 really has very little bearing on your abilities as an adult. It also doesn’t have a whole lot of bearing on your competence in any individual discipline.
You should enjoy your childhood and have other experiences. I can’t emphasise enough how little people care at university about whether you were smart as a child.”
Mr Dill, now the recruitment officer at Bermuda College, said that the College’s Dual Enrolment Programme can give the best of both worlds.
Under the programme, high school students can enrol in college-level courses at Bermuda College to earn credit towards an associate degree while still attending their respective high school.
Ultimately, it means they will be able to get their baccalaureate degree in two years instead of four.
He said: “I’m so grateful for the Dual Enrolment Programme because it satisfies students that are academic high performers while still not completely disconnecting them from their peer group and social development opportunities baked into the high school process.
“At the very least it keeps their extra curriculum activities going and their friend groups maintained.”
Students on the dual course aim to graduate from college and from their high school simultaneously. Most are academically high performers trying to accelerate the overall process and improve their resume and their student profile. Some, however, are genuinely gifted students that need the higher-level model in order to feel satisfied and inspired. “These are the ones I can relate to,” Mr Dill said.
“At that stage in a young person’s life, when you are 15 or 16, there’s a lot of room to make a whole bunch of unnecessary, unforced efforts. Creating conditions that just genuinely satisfy them and interest them and focus them in a way that matters to them intrinsically is endlessly valuable.”
Phyllis Curtis-Tweed, the vice-president of academic and student affairs at the College, noted full-time College students have limited time to spend at high school.
But she said: “It’s possible to merge those worlds so that they can really by engaged and be involved. Some are still prefects and athletes at their schools.”
Dr Curtis-Tweed said of the programme: “It gives students an opportunity to have college experience, to go ahead and acquire enough college credit to really get a jump on their next step, to acquire a baccalaureate degree.
“These students tend to be described as high-flyers. They are serious about their academic work, and they do well. It really is impressive to anyone looking at how many credits they have earned at that age.
“It opens the door in terms of scholarship opportunities.” Dr Curtis-Tweed said some students who completed the programme had finished their master’s degree by the age of 21 or 22.
“It gives them a headstart all round,” she said. “It also opens doors and shows a sense of commitment.
“Most employers really welcome an employee who can achieve that.
“I think any parent should be encouraging their child if they can to try and get on the Dual Enrolment Programme.”
For more information on the Bermuda College Dual Enrolment Programme, visit: www.college.bm/index.php/academics/dual-enrolment-programme