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Gifted

By , pflugerville, TX
When you're a little kid in America, usually right when you start third grade, you take a test. This test is supposed to gauge just how intelligent you are; whether or not you're 'Gifted and Talented' (GT) material. Passing the test and becoming GT will sometimes put you in special after-school programs or make you have more schoolwork. Its results can make-or-break your scholastic career up until High school. Teachers and other adults will raise their ideas of your abilities much higher than they would normally be if you do well, sometimes far above your head.

Many GT kids benefit from the increased expectations of their teacher, parents, and school, when the program is used in a way that helps children embrace their gifts and talents. I am not one of those kids. I don't actually know very many who are. Looking back on my public education and considering all the GT kids I know, a pattern emerges that is nothing short of frightening. A pattern that we in the business of jaded teenager-hood call GTS – Gifted & Talented Syndrome.

In Elementary school, when I moved home to the U.S. after spending my early school years abroad, I was branded GT before my parents or I could blink. I did well in school, I was considered bright. I loved to read, and exceeded my peers in that field by a margin that was comically large. I understood most concepts easily, and had a real love of learning. People told me I was smart. Brilliant, even. I was polite, respectful, and creative. I was original and interesting and wise beyond my years. People say things like that to you when you're a kid, especially if you're a particularly intelligent kid, and you don't know any better than to believe them. How many times can you hear “You're so smart, you could do anything!” or “She just doesn't even have to think about it, does she? Wow!” before you start thinking that it's the truth? I am so smart, I could do anything. I don't even have to think about it. And it's not that far of a leap from there to 'I don't have to work hard. My smartness will take care of it for me.'. But I'm getting ahead of myself there. Let's zoom in a bit. Elementary school – let's call this place Autumn Flats Elementary, good ole AFES, located in scenic Unicorn City – third grade. I take the test. I pass with colors that aren't so much flying as soaring majestically through the sky. No, seriously, I didn't miss a single question.

Anyway, I think it's important to make a quick point here. None of what happened to me in the public education system is through any fault of my parents. They are wonderful, amazing people who fought tooth and nail against a long succession of faculty who turned a deaf ear. After all, they're only the parents. They aren't trained in teaching. What do they know? And, due to the fact that I went through the “My Parents are idiots” phase earlier than most, I'm afraid that that was an opinion I shared wholeheartedly for much longer than I'd like to admit.

The first of these fights I can really remember is the one against bumping me up a grade. It's been a recurring theme over the years, and not just for me. A lot of bright kids fall prey to this shiny, glittering 'opportunity'. You see, many elementary schools have classes of over thirty kids. How are a minority of GT children supposed to receive enough attention and one-on-one time with their instructors to feel challenged? It's just not feasible. If there's a real solution, it wasn't in place at Autumn Flats. So, they decided to make do by trying to shunt me into harder classes with older kids.

I can recall standing in the lunch line that year. We had lunch with the fifth graders, and as I shifted from foot to foot, wryly wishing that the food was better, I noticed a tiny, blonde girl nervously fidgeting ahead of me. When I got back to my table, I asked who she was, and my new friend Islington just kind of gave me a sad look. When she finally told me what was up, I learned that the girl was supposed to be a second grader, but she was so smart that she'd skipped to fifth. Every day for the rest of the year, I watched her sit sadly alone and pick at her food, looking tiny and vulnerable. I still can't get the image out of my head.

The core of why leap-frogging through school is such a bad idea was best explained to me in seventh grade, at Unicorn Middle School. My science teacher, the insane but brilliant Mrs. Hippopotomus, had a philosophy that I will now boil down to one key doctrine. Ability to Learn does not equal Abilities Learned. Just because I was good at figuring things out didn't mean I had all the things figured out. What do you think would have happened if I'd gone to fifth grade without fourth grade math? I wouldn't have known my multiplication tables. How the heck do you learn to divide when you don't know how to multiply? You just can't. They don't teach both in the same year. So, skipping a grade was a bad idea. And that's not even really getting into how messed up it'd have been to try to cope with making friends who were older than me on top of the culture shock and general panic I was already experiencing as a result of moving to Unicorn City in the first place. Happily, UCISD couldn't exactly force my parents to sign the papers to shove me up a grade, and I stayed put.

So I slowly floated through the quagmire that is grades k through 5 in relative peace and contentment, confident in the fact that I, regardless of my parents' objections, was infallible. I was intelligent. I knew words like 'intelligent'. I was better than other people. Better even than grown ups. Yes, my friends, conceit and arrogance, at least when coupled with the blissfully ignorant naivety not to know any better, make one of the most comfortable rafts on the market. Comfortable, but not known for holding together. In seventh grade, or thereabouts, it all comes crashing down.

Middle school, horrible pit of putrid, cannibalistic pubescence that it is, was clearly designed by some cruel-minded person to be the one place where nearly every GT kid on the books could fall on their rear ends and not be alone. Dear goodness, seventh grade. What a wretched year. That's generally when you're twelve or thirteen. When things as previously predictable as your own body and emotions have started flying off the charts in new, confusing ways. The perfect, and perhaps inevitable, time to discover just how fragile my concept of scholastic reality was. And, joy of joys, that was about the year when UCISD really started going downhill.

I hit a wall that resisted everything I threw at it in seventh grade. People were still telling me that I was smart, that I was the best and brightest, but I was falling short of the bar more often than I was meeting it. I would look around at my friends, and at people who weren't my friends but who I was accustomed to competing with, and what I was seeing wasn't quite a sink-or-swim situation, but it was close. A lot of us were sinking, one or two were swimming, but the vast majority were in this in- between state. We were drowning. Drowning in work, drowning in swiftly rising self-loathing as we came to the general consensus that, since people were still telling us we were smart, it must be us and not our smartness that was the problem. There was something wrong with us, something we didn't understand, but since it was our fault we must be pretty terrible people. That may seem like connecting dots that are spaced like planets, but when you're 12, going through puberty and really doubting yourself for the first time it isn't that far.

I can remember sitting in science class, Mrs. Harrison's science class at Unicorn Middle, and copying math answers from a buddy of mine, who shall here be named Geraldine. I was sitting there, carefully transcribing the results of her equations, fudging a bit of work every now and then for good measure, and the futility of what I was doing struck me like a battering ram. I knew her answers were wrong. Geraldine was never the greatest mathematician in the world, and the surface area of 3D objects was something she didn't understand any better than I did. But what really hurt, what really made an impression was the knowledge that I could understand. That some part of me could still tap into the smartness. That it was still possible for me to be OK, to live up to being this beautiful person that people told me I was. I looked down at my smudged math paper, ran my thumb over the tape keeping the two problems I'd ripped off in frustration the night before attached to the rest of the document. Thought about the lies to my parents. The lies I'd told so that I didn't have to watch them watch me fail. So that there would be someone who I wouldn't disappoint, if only because they had no way of knowing that I was disappointing them.

I didn't cheat any more after that. I took the SAT and did really well. Got into the Duke TIP program. I was out sick for the standardized testing that year, but you don't actually have to pass or take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in order to complete seventh grade as long as your class grades are ship-shape. Mine were seaworthy, if only barely, so I made it through. My parents pulled me, battered, weathered, exhausted but alive out of public school and onto unfamiliar but relatively solid ground at a charter here in Unicorn City. Things have picked back up by the second semester of my Freshman year. From what people have told me, this is a pretty regular pattern. That depression and fear in middle school is what GTS is – the result of the GT program, some say. Perhaps the whole idea and system of GT is flawed. Maybe children shouldn't be told they're gifted or talented. Maybe they should be told they're hard working, good problem-solvers or that they've thought really hard about something instead. So they value effort rather than latent ability. Maybe teachers should try harder to understand parents. Maybe parents should try to work more closely with teachers.

There are a thousand 'if's 'and's and 'but's in GTS. It's not a scientific term, its just what those of us that have come through the other side call it. I know a couple of people who were clinically depressed by the situation, regardless of loving, supportive and involved parents. On some level, there's not much you can do as a parent, but on another there's plenty you can refuse to allow to happen. Don't let your kids skip grades in elementary or middle school, if you aren't 100% sure that they know everything they could possibly need for the trial by fire that will likely come with the hop. Don't be afraid to remove your children from a situation that is scholastically unhealthy. They may not thank you for it now, but when they compare their experiences before and after, the gratitude will materialize. You just have to manage to put up with them until then.





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