Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Nerdliness Further…

It’s a snowy day, of the type that used to be typical for our area – school’s been called off because we’re expecting several inches of snow, the wind is treacherous, and drifting makes driving extremely hazardous. Temperatures are expected to drop into the sub-zero range tonight. Good thing I knit!

I am, therefore, at home with a full complement of nerd offspring, namely, my own kids. I didn’t set out to make them smart, I didn’t do anything in particular other than love them and read to them and talk to them and play with them and holler at them and drag them to the park. I gave them books of their own and let them read mine, too, and all that other Mom stuff.

But, nevertheless, they turned out smart. Go figure.

I suppose the reason I’m revisiting my own past is because my children are going through similar situations to those in my history. All three of them are having issues from being gifted, some good and some bad. That sends me scouting back through my memory to see what I can dredge up to help, assist, use for advice, find to investigate further to deal with their situations, and so forth.

I know they have it easier on the home front – this is an unabashedly intellectual household. You’ll trip over books, not footballs, in our rooms, and visiting adults have been stunned speechless when one of my kids wanders through with a polysyllabic question on literature or science or mathematics. I didn’t have that kind of a household as a kid – no books, but at least there was no scorn for being bright.

Schools are different. I grew up on the east coast, where intellectualism is tolerated and even celebrated to a greater degree. Possibly the most significant time of my teen years was when I attended the precursor to what is now known as the Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology. Back then, in the mid-seventies, it was a school for the gifted within a regular school. We were segregated out with separate teachers; separate gifted only classes, a separate lunch hour, a separate locker area, and so on. We could, if we wanted to, participate in sports, theater, various clubs, and classes which were not on the gifted curriculum.

The director, a fantastic man who “gets it” had rounded up gifted teens from a variety of feeder schools, and, along with the kids who were being bused for racial integration purposes, the gifted kids were being sent to the same school, regardless of home school district. It was a brilliant maneuver, and timed well for public acceptance. It worked out well for me, too.

I remember my interview with him. He sat behind a large, scarred wooden desk, and I slouched unhappily in my chair. I’d just been through a series of years where there was some light for smart kids, which dimmed over time, then thrown back into the soup with other students who were actively hostile towards anyone who showed a glimmer of above-average intelligence. I was told I was in honors classes, and I was bored shitless in them. The teachers couldn’t keep up with my questions and asked me to tone it down again. I got spat on for acing tests, shoved into lockers for getting fed up and shooting verbal insults at bullies, and socially shunned for “making others look bad” by knowing the answers in class or turning in work that I was happy with, which, incidentally turned out to be used as examples by teachers in several classes.

There is no way to tell the above without it sounding like bragging to someone who hasn’t been through it. Let me assure you, it is not bragging. I’m not proud, nor am I pleased, nor do I feel superior to the other kids I went to school with. I just wanted to be myself without my performance being taken as a hostile act towards others. I am who I am because it is what I am and it has nothing to do with anyone else unless they choose to read hostility or aggression into it.

I also, as an aside, have always loathed the implication that I am openly smart in order to shame or humiliate someone else. I am openly smart because it is who I am and there is no reason to hide, mask, or cover it up. I’m not cruising through life looking for people to run over. It is insecure people who waste their time hating gifted folks. I did not become gifted at someone else’s expense.

So, I was cynical. I figured he was going to try to sell me another line of “you’ll be challenged in OUR honors classes” which is always a huge lie. I assumed that at some point one of the school counselors was going to do what they always do, and try to take charge of my gift and tell me what to do with it, and then chide and deride me when I expressed other opinions about what ought to be done with the matter between my ears.

His opening line was predictable, “This is a new program for gifted students here, and it is not going to be like any program you’ve been in before,” he said. What followed was very, very different and got my attention. He told me that I would be challenged, and he said, “possibly for the first time since you started school.” He said that I would no longer have to put up with a day filled with wasted time, bad teachers, abusive fellow students, or stupid assignments. He literally said, “stupid” assignments.

I looked at him and said, “No more ‘What I Did On My Summer Vacation’ essays?” He smiled, a wide, charming grin and said, “No. Not under any circumstances.” And then he won my conditional trust by leaning across the desk, stabbing it emphatically with his finger as he said, “And if one of my teachers does give you a stupid assignment, I want you to come and tell me about it. Don’t be afraid to speak up and tell me. I need to know because I will NOT have it. Will you do that?” I said “OK” and he looked me in the eye and asked me if I was willing to join his gifted program.

I asked again, “No stupid assignments?” “No,” he said, “none. Tell me if you think you’ve been given one. You may still have to do that one until I can come up with an alternative, but I will make sure that there are no more.” I liked that he was realistic and honest. Still not believing what I’d heard, I asked, “No more wasted time?” And he looked at me, with compassion and understanding and stern resolution, as someone who understands what purgatory it is to the heart and soul of a gifted child who has spent 6.3 of every 7 hours in school for 10 straight years, waiting for others to catch up, and he said, “No. I will not waste your time. No one here will waste your time ever again.” I took a deep breath and said, “OK, I’d like to do it.” He smiled and said, “Good. Be ready to work hard on the first day.” And we smiled at each other like co-conspirators.

He did get it. He really, really got it. It was, in fact, a school for gifted teens. Everyone else in my classes was smart as hell, and those who had gotten there on high-achievement or because of pushy parents soon chose to move to a different series of classes. We worked hard, we laughed together, we were our own community, we didn’t care what the rest of the school thought because for the first time in a long time, there were plenty of us, all in one place at one time, with one purpose – to learn what we wanted to learn as fast as we wanted to learn it.

It was a new experience for the teachers, too, having a full day of gifted students and having to develop lesson plans that outstripped several years of teaching mainstream students. We found out that we weren’t each going to continue being the best student in all our classes, and rather than that being cause for upset, it was a huge relief. Finally, there was someone better than each of us at something, someone to ask questions of, a worthy study buddy, a peer to admire and respect for accomplishments that deserved it.

We had some hitches, and I had to make good on my promise to the director. Our English teacher assigned us “My Favorite Holiday” as an essay preparatory to a debate contest. Every other assignment in that class had been deep, serious, clever, interesting, but this one was just not right. I protested in class and several of the other students joined in, a wonderfully unique experience in and of itself, agreeing that they were told they wouldn’t get any of these types of assignments either. The teacher was flustered and told us to do it anyway. We did, and I left a message for the director, who was out of town.

I did mine in protest, choosing the dumbest, most ludicrous holiday I could think of, Groundhog Day. I knew all about Punxsutawney Phil before he hit the big time. I got a B because even I, digging through the library, couldn’t find enough information or create enough verbiage to stretch a Groundhog Day essay to three pages.

The director came back after the assignment had been handed in, graded, and handed back. (In those days, that was the remainder of the week.) I took my paper down to show him. I walked into his office and handed it to him, without saying a word. He asked me if I was upset about the grade. I said that I was not, and I asked him to look at the title. I could see his face change as he read each word – at “My” he sat forward in his chair, at “Favorite” his jaw tightened and he started to grimace, and at “Holiday” he stood up and said, in a very angry voice, “I don’t BELIEVE it!” He was shaking, and either he was a hell of an actor, or he was truly angry. He took a couple of deep breaths, and said, “I’ll take care of this. Thank you for coming and letting me know.” I left, feeling like I had finally found a school official I could trust.

He followed, through, too. The teacher tried to read me the riot act and I stood right in the hallway and gave it back. I told her I didn’t care about the grade, I just didn’t want to waste my time on any more dumb assignments, that I would do whatever work she expected as long it I was learning something of value from it. And I reminded her that I was promised no more stupid work. She was purple with anger, but she said “FINE” and stomped off. Some of my classmates bought me lunch and thanked me. No one blew me any shit.

And we all relaxed and learned to trust again because we were finally home. This was were we could take off the blinders, stretch out our necks and run like we’d always wanted to run because now there were people clearing the track in front of us to make sure we neither stumbled nor crushed anyone inadvertently, nor ran off the track. It was a blissful, rewarding, unique, and wonderful period.

I did have to leave before graduating high school. My home situation became dangerous again, and leaving was possibly the hardest decision of my life. I didn’t want to leave the school that I had waited for all my life; I cried and cried and cried. I had to go though, or there was a significant chance I wouldn’t see graduation day at any school, so I did.

I moved to Chicago, and life has rolled on. But I have gifted children, and I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it is not weird, or wrong, or a hostile act to be gifted. I know that the problems gifted children have socializing tend to evaporate overnight when they are with their intellectual peers, that there is a very large body of crap pop psychology and pabulum that states that “everyone is gifted” and that G & T programs are elitist and that gifted kids are always snobby and arrogant and act superior. I have heard it all, I have lived a serious majority of it, and I can smell the crap of it from a mile away.

The public school system has no collective idea of how to deal with educating gifted children. Individual teachers may, magnet schools may and often do, but by and large, gifted children are still waiting for others to catch up, and dreading that they will spend the rest of their lives waiting, too.

I have never wanted that for my children. I have asked them every year if they want to be home schooled, if they’d like me to seek out a gifted school where they might need to live away from home, if they’d like me to do anything in particular to make their educational experience better. Most of the time, we have worked around the problems, or they have learned to deal with them, or they have chosen to deal with them. I’ve tried to show them the options, and above all, I have let them know that there is nothing wrong with them. I have offered them the hope of college classrooms, which is where most gifted children are finally able to be the rest of themselves without shame or embarrassment or threats.

And, most of all, I have worked to make sure they have a home where is it safe, and where it is normal to be as smart as you want to be, all the time. Gifted children need to be able to come all the way home, too.

1 comment:

fiberfanatic said...

I understand. I didn't feel that acceptance until I sat in on a class of my then fiance's when he was getting his Masters, while I was a freshman in college. It was so much fun that day!