Author’s note: this piece is about my experience as a child, then later as an adult interfacing with the school system. I am speaking only for myself and my direct experiences.
I fell for it, but then again I was only about six years old. The letter to my parents, crisp and official and on a pale goldenrod copy paper, which I unfolded and read: “Kelly has been accepted into the Gifted And Talented Education Program”. I can still smell the eucalyptus and feel the terrarium heat as we walked down the sun-whitened walkway from Kettler Elementary in Huntington Beach California.
Gifted And Talented. Wow. Wasn’t I special? Something momentous had happened!
I’ve been told I was smart all my life. People still tell me I’m smart. I’m in my fifth decade on the planet and I still don’t know what to make of this label, not really. We all have aptitudes and difficulties; “smart” seems to be something we say when someone has a cognitive or mental prowess that we either admire or envy.
I’ve been hearing I’m “smart” all my life. (As a young person I used to hear I was “mouthy”, and you’ll get a taste of that here.)
“Smart” isn’t quite a problem per se, it’s our cultural valuation of “smart” at the expense of the “not-smart”. Even at six it was obvious I’d done something very pleasing to the grownups in my life, so I went on to prove I was Smart for a chill K-through-12 years. I received straight A’s, I participated in math and science contests, I beat the running year-long trivia game in fifth grade (record holder still, I believe), and assembled a few plaques and medals. Upon graduating high school I received a full ride scholarship in Engineering and got the Engineering degree.
See – I’m Smart! People tell me so.
By then, though, cracks had appeared. “Smart” wasn’t doing it for me. I struggled with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and a dispirited work ethic. I began to suspect maybe I was just like everybody else (the horror!). And now – since being Gifted & Talented was clearly superior than being a “regular” kid – well when everything fell apart my self-esteem took a pretty big hit.
For a few years.
Do I believe there are “Gifted” children and adults? Of course!
However even the slightest examination of the “Gifted” label and the whole charade falls apart. All children, when given the nurture they deserve and that is our responsibility to provide, are gifted in some capacity. Each of our “gifts” comes with a price, unique manifestations, doesn’t always fit the mold. The problem with “Gifted”as a label is it’s almost always conflated with institutional praise and is almost always based on performance to institutional or capitalistic conformity – or a culture of entrenched expertise.
As long as we prioritize compliance and achievement while raising and schooling children, we risk raising young people with a warped sense of self, with capitalist priorities, with limited empathy and lacking a sense of personal, vibrant responsibility for themselves and the more vulnerable.
“Gifted” is often shorthand for, “Thanks for making it easy on us to manage you.” “Gifted” didn’t provide me with a jot of life skills.
“Gifted” didn’t teach me how to be tough, and I was going to need to be tough.
Let me tell you a little story.
My oldest kid spent one year in compulsory public school: kindergarten. They were on track for that “Gifted” life and I could see this future clear as day; it’s a big reason we decided to unschool after the year was up. Nevertheless, in that kindergarten year I volunteered in the classroom twice a week (along with precisely one other parent), and truly these are beautiful memories. I like being around children.
One day during art class I was at a table helping six kids make a project – a black construction paper book, with pre-cut shapes assembling some kind of story or vignette. Helping six kids when I’m used to just my two, was a challenge.
I moved about the group and snipped scrap paper and affixed glue and finally turned to the last child at the table.
He’d made a huge, unintelligible mess.
Shit. I’d been told above all, to make sure each child finished the project just like the example.
“Oh Andy,”I said before I could stop myself. “Yours doesn’t look like everyone else’s!”
He looked at me right in the optic nerve and shrugged and said, “Meh!”
I was like, Damn son. You are right.
And hell now that I’m thinking about it this isn’t even Art. This is assembly.
Because these “gifted” programs for kids are a lot like the “art” programs in school. They are based largely on conformity, ease-of-administration, and institutional and capitalist indenture. They are based on adherence to the school system, which needs kids’ compliance in order to function. This culture enacts explicit and implicit requirements: don’t bully, don’t let yourself be bullied (??), speak only when the teacher wants you to, behave yourself, snitch when you’re supposed to – but don’t stand up for justice when you’re not supposed to! – don’t play sex games in the closet with the other kids. Don’t pick your nose and wipe it on the desk. Wait your turn for the bathroom.
Strive for those grades! Oh good lord, those grades. How good does it feel to have your laminated report placed above all others as the Best? (Abraham Lincoln report, fifth grade, the most pages of any of the Presidential reports and this was before you could fake that with font size!) How good does it feel to be top of the class, to be the captain of the Knowledge Bowl team and be selected to run the science project? Et cetera.
Being Gifted is being Chosen, but there are pitfalls. If you’re a Gifted kid and you get a B – what “wasted potential!” You could have done better.
Everyone is special – but you, Gifted Child, are a bit more special than the rest.
Gifted children thrive on praise. And praise felt so good for so many years! But about the time I started falling apart I also began to deeply see that praise wasn’t shit. Praise isn’t usually about me in any case; it’s about what people want from me. When as adults we praise children, it is almost always when they make themselves more manageable, when they make us look good as parents or teachers, when they are the best at glueing that construction paper book together, when they uphold the very structures we need because we have no idea how we’d live without these structures.
I learned a thousand and one ugly lessons from being labeled Gifted.
I learned getting the “A” was the aim, so if it was easy to get the A, I didn’t need to challenge myself. I learned it was better to fit in and be praised, than to speak out against unfairness. I learned I was in some way better than the other kids. I learned that as long as I could comply and succeed, life would be easy for me.
I mean… yeah, a lot of that didn’t hold up.
Regardless of aptitude, genetic or familial background, and socioeconomic status, children need what I needed: nurture, safety, and consistency from the adults who cared for us. What I needed was adults who took care of their personal shit, and didn’t use children to live their dreams vicariously through the limitations of a white supremacist, Industrial-Capitalist worldview.
What I needed was parents, carers and teachers who challenged inequities fearlessly, and protected children while they did it.
What I needed was adults who took responsibility for their unresolved traumas and committed to action on them.
I didn’t need Gifted & Talented programs.
In seeking to write this piece I am not complaining; merely offering up my experience, and my current analysis. My desire is for those like me who found similar limitations and harms in “Gifted” programs, can find voice, and acknowledgement, and some comfort.
What was done to us – or not done for us – is past. We have the opportunity for recovery and I feel a personal responsibility to shoulder that commitment – willingly, gladly.
Because in that recovery, swims the spirit of Possibility.
Want to join me?
Think of it as a worthy group project.
A group project where we’re all on the same footing.