#25: Misunderstood Gifted Students

“What was it like to be gifted?” a teacher asks me.

“It felt like being an adult trapped in a child’s body. I felt like an outsider most of the time for this reason. It felt fun and exhilirating to be creative and to think deeply, almost effortlessly. But then I’d feel bored. Or guilty that I was learning without having to work. I’d feel at one moment so normal and then in another moment so confused and lonely.”

“I bet you loved learning and hated school,” he said.

*      *      *

I was gifted. There, I said it.

Even saying that feels strange, because it sounds elitist or overly intellectual. Somewhere in college, I had adopted the mindset that giftedness was a modernist myth created by the 20th century need to classify and judge and rate one another. So, I declared it to be false – just like freedom in free markets, democracy in America and other myths that I had discarded. Now I’m coming to terms with the fact that giftedness is real and it’s not about judgment or comparison. It’s about a reality that can’t be ignored, not unlike special ed.

I’ve been going through a gifted training and it’s been surprisingly difficult, at times almost painful. I’m comfortable in my own skin now. But I’m reliving memories, rehashing stories and I feel like there’s this piece of the plot or perhaps setting that I never fully understood. My parents downplayed the gifted concept because they were scared we would turn impractical. Both of them had been gifted, my mom a language maven and my dad a math whiz. Neither were all that geeky and were a little scared of us turning socially awkward. I don’t blame them. On some level, I really appreciate it.

But I feel like I have this filter that helps make sense out of the confusion of youth.

I’m realizing that I wasn’t a serious child, just a thinker. I wasn’t a child who had no sense of humor. I just preferred adult humor in all its sarcasm and innuendo and wordplay. I wasn’t an angry child, per se, but I had a strong sense of justice in a way that turns out to be really common with gifted children.

I’m realizing that there was nothing wrong with “getting it” the first time. In college, I never took notes. I never re-read a textbook for that matter. I never studied for a single test in my life. People sometimes ask me why I write so many blog posts and that’s the thing. There is no “down time” mentally. There is no “can’t we just have shallow conversation.” It’s not how I’m wired.

I’m realizing that I came across as pretentious when I was curious, disrespectful when I was thinking critically, off-the-wall when I was lost in thought. I’m realizing that my inability to care about grades probably terrified a few teachers who had no idea that if they just got to know me they would have found me tolerable in the least and maybe even pretty interesting, compassionate and kind.

I’m realizing that I wasn’t being lazy when I didn’t want to go through an insane amount of pre-writing or editing or when I refused to do packets of repetitive algorithms or when I wanted to know when, in real life, a person could find the square root of a negative and create an i (apparently Steve Jobs is all over that one). I was being myself. I took a stand and I was more than willing to pay the price for it.

So, back to the question of how it felt to be a gifted child. It felt confusing, terrifying, exhilirating, fun, boring. It felt the same way that life felt for all the other students. Except on some level, I get the sense that I felt it deeper – as if the highs were higher and the lows were lower. And I felt those emotions in a way that didn’t match those around me. I didn’t march to the beat of a different drummer. It was as if the class was drumming and I was trying to keep cadence with a sitar.

*     *     *

The danger in being a gifted-student-turned-gifted-teacher is that I tend to see giftedness through my filter.  So, when I have a hyperactive gifted student, I struggle to motivate him.  Toward the end of the day, I warn him about keeping his volume down and he explodes.  I didn’t try to provoke him, but I didn’t do much to work with him.

I stop him this morning and ask him some questions.  I get nods and grunts but mostly he just stares off into the playground.

“It’s hard to interact with authority when you don’t care so much about their power, huh?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I don’t understand why I have to be quiet if I learn well when it’s loud?”

“What about others?” I ask.

He’s quiet.

“I thought about it afterward.  It’s like I replay everything on repeat. Like a broken DVD that just skips.”

“I know what you mean.”

“People think that if you’re gifted you can just act good all the time.  I try, but sometimes I just lose it and I don’t know why.”

“Well, regardless of what happens, you have a place in my class and we need you around. I want you to realize that.”

I don’t pull the “I was a gifted student, too” card here.  Instead, I tell him to find reading material he’s passionate about and run with it.  I remind him of the independent projects we do and suggest that a few structures are what allow him to experience freedom.  Somehow the paradox of safety and freedom leads to World War II and he grows loud and passionate and begins to gain respect for me when I talk about the books I read on the subject.

“Can we do a mural about World War II?”

“If the class goes with the idea, yeah.  But you’ll have to sell it to them.”

“And maybe we could get some old soldiers who would be interviewed.  You know they’re dying and once they die, that’s it.  They’re just dropped into the dark where they’ll decay and who knows if there’s a Heaven but on earth there voice is gone.”

I’m not sure if he respects me because he knows I care or because I was willing to listen or because I know about FDR and the Holocaust and Pearl Harbor.  But when I didn’t fight against him, he worked with me.

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