NEARLY everyone has a favourite prodigy horror story: the small girl,

once the toast of kings and queens, now gone mad through brilliance and

boredom; the little boy, once hailed as successor to Mozart, now working

as a fast-food chef in downtown Croydon.

In fact, hardly anyone these days will admit to being a prodigy, to

having been a prodigy, or even to being the parent of a prodigy. The

exception, perhaps, is the family of Ganesh Sittampalam, of Surbiton,

Surrey, who might find reflected immortality through Ganesh's entry in

the 1992 Guinness Book of Records as the youngest undergraduate in

Britain. Last October, at the age of 11 years and eight

months, he began a B.Sc course in mathematics.

There are echoes here of the staggeringly clever and demurely pretty

Ruth Lawrence who, also aged 11, enjoyed mathematics tuition from Oxford

scholars. Gaining a first-class honours degree by the time she was 13,

Ruth today is among those academics understandably lured to the rich

plains of the American campus. Not yet 20, she has already completed a

visiting-lecturer stint at Harvard.

This breaking away may yet prove her best achievement, for Ruth's

early story, in many ways, exemplified the prodigy's plight. She never

went to school, her parents believing that intelligent adult company

provided the most fruitful environment for a gifted child. Since infancy

she had

been addressed as a grown-up,

and apart from playing with her younger sister, who was training to be

a concert pianist, Ruth encountered relatively little contact with those

of her own age.

Very probably this accounted for her curious quality of pedantry mixed

with wistfulness. She possessed that certain priggishness which often

accompanies the exceptionally gifted. Yet she also favoured a storybook

appearance with her long and meticulously brushed hair, Alice band, and

straw hat ringed with roses. And she had her father, a justly proud

mentor but so over-vigilant he might well have inadvertently stored up

emotional problems for the child.

There was no doubt that Ruth belonged to a loving home. Even so, the

Lawrence pattern of living recalled nothing so much as the words of

another child genius, Jean-Paul Sartre, who announced: ''I was adored,

therefore I was adorable.'' In time, like so many infant gods grown old,

Sartre was to dismiss that sentiment with all the finality of a curse:

''I loathe my childhood and all that remains of it.''

History has often recorded the prodigy's discontent. Mozart, who began

composing before the age of five, always endured a sickly, impecunious

existence, while the young Beethoven had to submit to a music teacher

who didn't even recognise his simmering brilliance. ''As a composer, he

is hopeless'', the master railed.

But there is a point. Would any of us recognise a prodigy if he were

our pupil, our child? Einstein couldn't speak before he was four years

old, couldn't read before he was seven. And yet, according to the

gifted-child specialists, a large, accurately used vocabulary -- plus

the ability to read before entering school -- are two of the

characteristics of genius detected before kindergarten.

Others include the ability

to concentrate better than one's peers, the early discovery of cause

and effect, proficiency in drawing, music, and other art forms, and a

preference for older playmates. Occasionally, however, the quest for

perfection becomes the cruellest challenge. And because such a child

can't really share with those the same age, the prodigy emerges a social


But when held back, the gifted may find nothing good to do. Boredom is

the vice of frozen intellect; boredom which can terrorise with tantrums

both parents and school. However, brilliance encouraged may also turn

into a freak show. An eighteenth-century German genius, Christian

Heineken, could speak Latin by the age of three. Little good it did him.

At four he was dead. Philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill proved a

more durable talent: he lived to be 67 and could write Greek with his

left hand while writing Latin with his right.

Some proteges, notably musical ones like Menuhin, Rubinstein, and

Segovia performed at high levels well into their late years, enjoying

successful, happy lives. But others confirm the prodigy horror stories,

ending up as mediocrities or failures, such as William James Sidis, a

promising mathematician who entered Harvard in 1911 at the age of 11 but

later drifted through mundane jobs and died penniless at the age of 46.

Precociousness, then, is no guarantee that the extremely clever will

fulfil their potential. Some, in fact, grow into superannuated brats

often unable to sustain mature relationships. And some turn out to be

those especially verbal egotists you meet at parties. Trembling with

bright, encyclopaedic information but ultimately glib. It is such

shallow spirits who have helped to give prodigies a bad name. The rest

of us take comfort in that, yet we also can be too smart for our own

good. No-one in journalism should ever forget that it was a newspaper

editor who fired Walt Disney for turning in bum ideas.