Using Biography to Counsel Gifted Young Men

By Thomas P. Hébert.

Abstract High achieving young men in secondary schools and universities face important social and emotional issues throughout their adolescence and passage into adulthood. This article focuses on four issues confronting bright young men: underachievement, self-inflicted pressure in athletics, cultural alienation, and father-son relationships. The author proposes the use of biography as a counseling strategy through which bright young men may gain helpful insights to deal with the problems they face. The article then suggests biographical works available as well as various ways professionals might use this approach to counseling.

“Every boy wants someone older than himself to whom he may go in moods of confidence and yearning. The neglect of this child’s want by grown people is a fertile source of suffering.” — Henry Ward Beecher Eyes and Ears

Heath Heath signed a long, desperate sigh as he looked out the window overlooking the campus quad. Seated in his college advisor’s office, Heath explained his problem to a new professor assigned to him for academic counseling. Heath explained he had been involved in rather interesting escapades with other freshman males in his dormitory and the good times had gotten him into some trouble academically. Heath had arrived at the University of Alabama in the fall from a suburban high school, having achieved a strong academic, athletic, and extra-curricular record filled with excellent grades in advanced placement courses, involvement in his high school orchestra, and a distinguished career on the varsity football, wrestling, and track teams. Heath explained to his advisor that his first semester grade point average was a pitiful 1.6, and that he was dissatisfied with courses in his major area of study. He also explained he was no longer involved in sports and had not been lifting weights, something he had done religiously throughout high school. He admitted that during high school he was much busier with an active athletic and extra-curricular schedule, which had forced him to manage his time wisely and required him to set aside time for rigorous studying.

Overwhelmed by his rather lackluster beginning as a college students, he turned to his advisor for help.

The university professor listened attentively to Heath and then reached for a book from his office collection. He suggested that Heath read the biography of Bart Conner, in which the Olympic gymnast shared his philosophy of sports training and how he had managed to keep athletics and academics in perspective throughout high school and college. Heath became intrigued with the discussion about the Olympic champion’s biographical work, and he promised to read it. The two men agreed they would meet again soon to discuss the book.

Jamal Jamal spent one day each week at a regional resource center in Alabama where he was provided a program of educational enrichment experiences for high ability students. Jamal enjoyed the camaraderie of his sixth grade peers in the gifted and talented program. With them, he was comfortable discussing Shakespearean plays, painting original examples of surrealism, conducting research for debates on emotionally charged topics, performing on his electronic keyboard, and excelling on the baseball diamond at recess. During that one day each week, Jamal was excited about the wide array of opportunities offered to him by his G/T resource-room teacher. Jamal was the only African-American student in the classroom, yet he appeared not to notice, for this charismatic, multi-talented teenager had the respect of teachers and the adulation of his peers. Although Jamal’s parents were delighted with his involvement in the enrichment program, during a parent-teacher conference, his mother expressed concern for her son when she stated, “He enjoys his time here, but he is going to have trouble with his own people some day.”

Jamal’s teacher was upset by his mother’s remark, and in hopes of providing Jamal support in dealing with the issue of being “alone within a culture,” she began to accumulate a collection of biographies for the G/T resource room. Included in the collection were a number of powerful biographies and autobiographies of gifted African-Americans who faced adversity in their lives. His teacher hoped to have Jamal read the biographies to discover insights which might help him address the cultural alienation his parents believed he might eventually face with his peers.

Adam Adam and several of his junior high friends sat in their counselor’s office looking rather grim. Events in the gymnasium the previous afternoon had been upsetting for Adam and his peers, and together they were called to the office at the request of their counselor. The school’s coach had announced the results of the basketball team tryouts; Adam and his friends had not made the team and were disappointed and angry. The basketball coach was concerned about how the boys would handle their disappointment and had requested the assistance of the counselor. Once the boys were settled, the counselor picked up a worn copy of a paperback and began to read the following passage to the group of young men who felt so let down:

For about two weeks, every boy who had tried out for the basketball team knew what day the cut list was going to go up. We knew that it was going to be posted in the gym, in the morning. So that morning we all went in there, and the list was up. I had a friend — his name was Leroy Smith — and we went in to look at the list together.

We stood there and looked for our names. If your name was on the list, you were still on the team. If your name wasn’t on the list, you were cut. Leroy’s name was on the list. He made it. Mine wasn’t on the list. I looked and looked for my name. It was almost as if I thought that if I didn’t stop looking, it would be there.

I went through the day numb. I sat through my classes. I had to wait until after school to go home. That’s when I hurried to my house and closed the door of my room and I cried so hard. It was all I wanted — to play on that team.

My mother was at work, so I waited until she got home, and then I told her. She knew before I said anything that something was wrong, and I told her I had been cut from the team. When you tell your mom something like that the tears start again, and the two of you have an aftercry together. (Greene, 1992, pp.44-45)

The counselor sat back in his chair and slowly revealed the cover of his paperback. The sports biography by Bob Greene entitled Hang time had provided the you