Is It A Cheetah?

By Stephanie Tolan.

A Speech Given at the Hollingworth Conference for the Highly Gifted, 1992.


It’s a tough time to raise, teach or be a highly gifted child. As the term “gifted” and the unusual intellectual capacity to which that term refers become more and more politically incorrect, the educational establishment changes terminology and focus.

Giftedness, a global, integrative mental capacity, may be dismissed, replaced by fragmented “talents” which seem less threatening and theoretically easier for schools to deal with. Instead of an internal developmental reality that affects every aspect of a child’s life, “intellectual talent” is more and more perceived as synonymous with (and limited to) academic achievement.


The child who does well in school, gets good grades, wins awards and “performs” beyond the norms for his or her age is considered talented. The child who does not, no matter what his or her innate intellectual capacities or developmental level, is less and less likely to be identified, less and less to be served.


A cheetah metaphor can help us to see the problem with achievement-oriented thinking. The cheetah is the fastest animal on earth. When we think of a cheetah, we are likely to think first of its speed. It’s flashy. It’s impressive. It’s unique. And it makes identification incredibly easy. Since cheetahs are the only animals that can run 70 mph, if you clock an animal running 70 mph, it must be a cheetah!


But cheetahs are not always running. In fact, they are able to maintain top speed only for a limited time, after which they need a considerable period of rest.


It’s not difficult to identify a cheetah when it isn’t running, provided we know its other characteristics. It is gold with black spots, like a leopard, but it also has unique black “tear marks” beneath its eyes. Its head is small, its body lean, its legs unusually long–all bodily characteristics critical to a runner. And the cheetah is the only member of the cat family that has non-retractable claws. Other cats retract their claws to keep them sharp, like carving knives kept in a sheath; the cheetah’s claws are designed, not for cutting, but for traction. This is an animal biologically designed to run.


Its chief food is the antelope, itself a prodigious runner. The antelope is not large or heavy, so the cheetah doesn’t need strength and bulk to overpower it. Only speed. On the open plains of its natural habitat, the cheetah is capable of catching an antelope simply by running it down.


While body design in nature is utilitarian, it also creates a powerful internal drive. The cheetah needs to run!


Despite design and need, however, certain conditions are necessary for it to attain its famous 70 mph top speed. It must be fully grown. It must be healthy, fit and rested. It must have plenty of room to run. Besides that, it is best motivated to run all out when it is hungry and there are antelope to chase.


If a cheetah is confined to a 10×12 foot cage, though it may pace or fling itself against the bars in restless frustration, it won’t run 70 mph.


Is it still a cheetah?


If a cheetah has only 20 mph rabbits to chase for food, it won’t run 70 mph while hunting. If it did, it would flash past its prey and go hungry! Though it might well run on its own for exercise, recreation or fulfillment of its internal drive, when given only rabbits to eat, the hunting cheetah will only run fast enough to catch a rabbit.


Is it still a cheetah?


If a cheetah is fed Zoo Chow, it may not run at all.


Is it still a cheetah?


If a cheetah is sick or if its legs have been broken, it won’t even walk.


Is it still a cheetah?


And finally, if the cheetah is only six weeks old, it can’t yet run 70 mph.