An Unexpected Gift

Tonight I listened to a psychologist give a speech about gifted children. I went to learn more about my son, who is in Austin ISD’s program for gifted kids, also known as the “GT” program. I smugly doubted I would learn anything I didn’t already know, being the avid googler that I am. By the end of the evening, however, I realized I did indeed have a lot to learn—not only about the subject, but myself.

First off, let’s just get this out of the way: It’s a ridiculous word, gifted. It sounds about as pompous as a word could sound. It’s no wonder the school district decided to use an abbreviation in its program title. “Gifted,” as if some deity used a magical sword to bestow an array of knightly abilities on your head. When in reality, the set of characteristics that comes along with being gifted can seem more like something to hide than a box wrapped in a big red bow. (The words of the fictional detective Monk come to mind: “It’s a blessing . . . and a curse.”)

Back in the day, when I was a shorter, quieter version of myself, I took such a test, and I too was proclaimed “gifted.” I then never spoke of it again . . . until today.

The woman who packed a gym tonight with Austin parents was Linda Silverman, Director of the Gifted Development Center in Denver. Her research over the years has been on the social and emotional development of gifted kids. While she is definitely a cheerleader for the gifted crowd, her overall message tonight was that being gifted can be a lonely, difficult road to travel, even going so far as to title her presentation, “Highly Gifted Children: A Population at Risk.”

Apparently, if a child is gifted, there’s a good chance the parents are too, and the siblings. So as she was speaking, she would often switch from talking about our children to talking directly to the adults in the room. The first time she got my attention was with this zinger: “Do you remember the moment when you first realized you were not like the other kids?” Gulp.

In first grade, my teacher moved my desk to another part of the room so that I could focus on highly important alphabetizing projects. Every day she had me trudge outside in the Iowa snow by myself to read the temperature and record it. First-grade science! I don’t remember her demeanor, but looking back as an adult, I imagine she must have been fond of me. She chose for these tasks because she saw some sort of potential in me. As that young girl though, these were the first of many painful moments I would experience in school. “Special” meant “different,” and as Linda Silverman said tonight, a child like this often interprets “different” to mean “strange” and “unacceptable.”

According to Silverman, a gifted child who does not have exposure to true peers will feel isolated and rejected, and if this continues, will ultimately be wounded emotionally. I can just see my husband rolling his eyes when he reads this. He loves phrases like “wounded emotionally.” But seriously, this describes my pre-pubescent life perfectly. I was very happy at home, but depressed in school, despite my academic success.

My misery hit its low point in the 4th and 5th grades. I was friends with a popular girl in my class. She was the second child from a family of nine children, adopted from Colombia. (My little corner of Iowa was so white that no one knew what to do with her brown skin. Some people even called her the n-word, revealing both their bigotry and their ignorance all in one fell swoop.) But she was outgoing, and a leader, so sadly for me, there were other girls involved. Her other friends did not understand why I was always there, hanging around. I wasn’t like them. I was weird.

Now that I am older I realize that the things I see are not as apparent to other people, or they don’t really care that much. But for me, when someone isn’t happy with me in some way, it might as well be stamped in bold on a placard hanging from their forehead. “I don’t like you!” “You annoy me!” “Why are you so wimpy?” It’s hard to act normal with these harsh words staring you in the face. As a young girl, these forehead signs would command all my attention, and I would find it difficult to speak clearly, if all all, in their taunting presence.

If you asked me whether I would rather relive the 4th and 5th grades or the year of abandonment/betrayal/devastation that led up to my divorce, I would choose the pre-divorce era every time. At least then I had a self to be laid flat, like one of those giant, pop-up punching bags—you can knock them down to the ground, but they will ultimately pop back up again. And in retrospect, my unchecked egoic self needed a little knocking around by the time I reached my early thirties, just as a general wake-up call to life, so there were some good outcomes from the experience. But in the 4th and 5th grade, I was a self in a yet-to-be-inflated state. No public “me” had been formed yet, so there was no me to push over (and thus no way to bounce back up). I was just living life along the ground, popping up only for brief moments of joy to dance around my living room in the presence of my loving, accepting parents. I was just a series of thoughts that had yet to become a voice. That seems so sad to me now, that little mute, uninflated version of me.

When my daughter was born, I took comfort in my conviction that she would be just like my husband. I knew it–she would play soccer, she would love science, she would be cool-headed and rational. But it’s looking like I was a little hasty in my judgment. She hated soccer in our local rec league, and she hates it in our backyard. She likes science as much as any other topic, but it’s unicorns, fancy pink dresses, and happy endings that really light her up. She seems to have inherited at least some of my emotional sensitivity, but the question is, how much? Will she repeat the same struggle? I’m OK now, but I fully anticipate problems with projection when she reaches some tween age that produces that volatile concoction of potentially toxic girl interactions. My only hope is that I will become fully enlightened by then so that I can rise above the internal storm of sending my daughter out into that hurricane. (One of my best friends had a terrible time when she was in first grade. When her son was starting first grade, she was afraid that her own rehashed issues would overflow onto him and cause him unnecessary anxiety, so she asked her husband to handle all school interactions for his first few days of school. Wasn’t that admirably self-aware and a genius move on her part?)

Silverman says gifted children need true peers who appreciate them in order for them to appreciate themselves. In 6th grade someone (a mother?) started a “talented and gifted” program at my school. One afternoon a week, a handful of kids from grades 4-6 were pulled out for a special class. I can still remember the topics! We studied mummies—how the ancient Egyptians pulled the dead person’s brains out through their nose with some sort of knitting needle-type device. And we had a special research project at the end of the year–I studied Dr. Seuss. I still have the red and white Cat-in-the-Hat hat my mom made out of felt for my presentation.

The freedom I experienced during this one afternoon a week is difficult for me to express in words. It’s odd in some ways, because I am a person who values my individual relationships more than any group participation, and this was definitely a group experience. But when we stepped into that classroom, it was like all the rules were instantly suspended and temporarily realigned. In the regular classroom, you could not be interested in learning. You could not speak up. You could not stand out. The confident, the bold, the savvy ruled. But for this one afternoon a week, there was a silent agreement among our subset: we’ll be excited about learning in here, we’ll treat each other with respect, and no one will tell anyone about it on the outside.

Those experiences breathed the first few breaths of life into my public self, and the years that followed brought me closer and closer to full size. Puberty brought with it the appreciation of boys, which truly was a lifesaver. In recent years I’ve wondered how hard my teenage years would have been without that ego boost. Boys, it turned out, didn’t play by the same nuanced nano-rules that girls did. Then came honors classes in a suburban Austin high school, and then college, when more and more of my peers were smart and creative and engaged. And finally, of course, adulthood, when I finally gained the ability to see my situation and those of others from more than one limited perspective.

As different as I felt growing up, I would never change a thing about that part of me. I love who I am. I don’t even think the 4th grade version of me would have changed the part of me that was so different. I would have just preferred to not go to school. I would have rather spent my days among the plants on the hill in front of my house. Or in the woods, writing poetry. Or in my room, under the covers with a flashlight, with my books. Of course, if I had been allowed to hide out like that, I never would have done the hard work of slogging my way through all those painful social interactions, developing the callouses my sensitive self needed to be able to interact with those who don’t love me unconditionally.

That young, oh-so-tender version of me is long gone. But tonight, listening to a child expert talk about the difficulties of growing up different, I realized I was still dragging that snakeskin behind me in the dirt. Harville Hendrix says that being married gives us the opportunity to work through our old issues by bringing up our painful past. I think raising kids presents the same opportunity. One second I’m taking notes on how to better understand and relate to my son, the next moment my eyes are filled with tears from some long forgotten memory of my childhood. Yes, we have the potential to put all our crap on our kids, without them knowing the first how or why about what we’re doing. But we also have the chance to look at that old story, that old self, and give ourselves a break. We get a second chance to look at the whole thing from a less intense, more compassionate perspective. We have the opportunity to let it go.

That’s what I love about writing. I can write these things down, sometimes shedding tears as I type, and it’s like the old story physically leaves me as I write. Some people stick letters in bottles. Some release balloons into the stratosphere. Some (you know who you are) hold burning ceremonies in the park. Although I am by no means above doing those things, for me, it’s writing. I write, and I shed those old skins. I almost don’t remember what I wrote afterward. It’s a cathartic act, one which I’m hoping is making me a better person. Good night!

© Amy Daniewicz and Beneath the Trees

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