Me and My Gifted Child: Trying to Find a Voice When You Want to Scream at the Top of Your Lungs.
"You're so lucky!" People's Misconception about Raising a Gifted Child
Reaching out to people for support on having a "gifted" child sucks. Yeah, that's right, it sucks. Why? I blame the terminology...gifted. It certainly doesn't feel like a gift. If I could find the gifted community, if I had a moment to get on a soap box outside of writing this article, I may do something about that word. Whenever I start to explain my situation and use that term, people automatically tune me out, like I'm complaining about the burdens of becoming a million-dollar lottery winner. They don't realize a few months ago I was trying to stop imagining myself packing my son's clothes in his Transformer's backpack to send him to military school. People say they think it's a "good problem" to have. I disagree. In order to help my child, I have to educate myself on how he learns. How do you figure that out about somebody? I couldn't figure that out about myself until after college, actually not until I was well into my thirties. Even if I do figure it out, how do I explain it to him? His teachers? How do I find the right school, or system that suits his learning style? Do I attempt to home school? All of these things are big decisions that can affect every aspect of his life.I think sometimes that If I had receipt, I would return this gift because it doesn't fit. It's just too big. I can't, and wouldn't of course. There are plenty amazing things that my son will do regardless of his formal education but because of his talents. I know that, but can we fast forward to that point? Please? I guess we shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. Whatever that means.
The Gifted Myth: Far From Perfect!
My son was writing jokes at age 3, mostly wordplay and puns. He taught himself how to read at age 4. He could count to 100 in preschool. Okay, not super-outstanding, heck, I was a gifted kid growing up and I didn't feel like he was doing anything differently than I did.He wasn't building robots out of my toaster or doing elaborate formulas in his fingerpaint, I figured he'll take the same path I did; school would be so easy for him that the his talent would be evident. He'd get tested for giftedness and the appropriate adjustments would be made in his education. As his preschool teacher gushed about how smart and personable my son was, I beamed a smile, recalling the memories of my own gifted beginnings. I was tested, moved into an open classroom environment, was pulled out of my "smart class" to go to my Academically Talented class a couple times a week. Reading Chronicles of Narnia, playing on the computer (the size of piano then), teacher's pet, the lot. I envisioned him thriving, appropriately challenged, loving school and happy, like I was.
Then elementary school began and there were some issues that came up. According to the teacher, my son was disruptive in class. The teacher often verbally changed the instructions printed on the worksheets to suit the needs of the class.Because my son could read, he would point out to her the fact that the directions read differently which made him confused on what to do. Eventually he stopped asking her, because he would get in trouble, and instead would follow the instructions on the sheet and get the assignment wrong. She said that he got distracted easily, had a wild imagination, would not participate in class discussions, talked too much, and that he was more interested in the social aspect of school than the work.Since it was kindergarten, I chalked it up to his trying to adjust to a newer, more structured school environment, or maybe a simple personality conflict between he and his teacher. "First grade," I told myself, "that's when it starts to count! Then we will see what happens. I was identified in first grade. It'll get better."
Finally, first grade came along. I was happy to have moved on from kindergarten, partially because of my own personality conflicts with the teacher! However things did not get better, in fact they got worse. My son got caught cheating on a spelling test. Cheating! This child never had to even study for a spelling test. It was absurd! The school did not take it lightly. He had to go to see the principal. I was devastated! Who is this child? My well-behaved, well-mannered, loving sweet boy turned into a...cheater??? I spoke with him about it, he told me point blank that he wanted to see if he could "get away with it." "Oh great, I have a deviant on my hands." I thought as I poured a glass of wine and picked up the phone to call his father. I eventually got to the bottom of it. He had been reading books that were at a fifth grade level, some of the content was not age appropriate. He was well past See Jack Run, but the books he was reading were for tweens or preteens and cheating was a topic in a particular book he was enjoying. His emotional maturity did not match up with his vocabulary, an ongoing issue with reading material among the gifted, I found out, after the criminal act was already executed.
The teacher and I had to put Skyler on a daily report system that measured his performance in a few specific areas; work ethic, attention, behavior. He would get a plus or a minus in each category and I would get the report in his regular homework folder. This system put both me and my son under a great deal of stress. I would pick him up from the bus, my heart pounding, hoping that he had a "good day." The stress on him manifested itself into him forging his daily report. He took a pencil and turned the behavior minus into a plus on the bus-ride home one day. The teacher had used pen, so he was caught. "Am I looking at juvey for this kid?" Another glass of wine, (okay, it was two) and another call to his father.
During a parent-teacher conference around that time, the teacher said she was worried about him in second grade. How could this be? My son, who was using a computer to look up Greek mythology in his spare time, held back? "Wait, what is happening here? He's supposed to be thriving and school is supposed to be easy for him, like it was for me. The teachers are supposed to dial in and pickup on his giftedness. They are professionally trained, right?" This was all running through my head. "Isn't the system working? Was I wrong? Is my son not gifted? Does he have ADHD?" I panicked, and took him to an independent learning center to be tested.
The learning center experience was great for my son. He even asked me when he could go back and take more tests. He scored extremely high, His vocabulary was a 12 year old level, he tested overall at 99.99% on the CAT. They were impressed with his social skills as well, speaking to adults with a calm confidence as if he were one of their peers. I was both relieved and frustrated. Now what?
I asked the evaluator what he thought my next steps should be. He began by telling me to to get a private evaluation of my son's IQ immediately. "Unfortunately, I can't do anything exclusively for you here," he said. His concerns were that if my son were to come to the center afterschool, without having the necessary arrangements made at school to assist him in his regular primary education, he would just become frustrated and more disassociated from a traditional learning environment. The evaluator explained the importance of advocacy for my child, explained some of the intricacies of navigating the local school system, talked about options like magnet schools, discussed the country-wide problem of underfunding for gifted programs that put children like mine in predicament. I was going to have a fight on my hands, no doubt about it.
I will always have deep gratitude that meeting at the learning center. The evaluator was generous enough to reveal his own personal story with me. He had grown up as an unidentified gifted child, and the struggles that he faced were still very much a part of him now. He shared how misunderstood he felt. He had gotten in some trouble as well. When it finally came to light that he had a high IQ, he independently researched unidentified giftedness and it's consequences. Often it results in dropping out of school or, in worse scenarios, criminal behavior. Just like that I withdrew the money I was saving for eventual legal fees, lest my son wind up in front of a judge, and spent it at a therapist's office that specialized in gifted testing. Just as the evaluator suspected, my son tested in the highly gifted range, with specific superiority in the processing speed subset of the WISC test. Ahhh....now I have DATA! To the internet!
For the next two weeks of my life, I did nothing but research. I felt like I was studying for the most important exam of my life. Poor Google search engine was so overwhelmed by my attack on it for information regarding giftedness, that when I went to search for a recipe to make Beefaroni, one of the top search results was a recipe for tacos, referenced in a comment deep inside a homeschooling website. (way to go Google algorithm!). During this time, a friend sent me a link to an article from the Giftedguru.com entitled "Top Ten Ways to Annoy a Gifted Child." The article itself was an important read, it gave me an insight to what my son may be facing at school, now and in the future. The article was less than 2 pages long, but I picked up the 85 pages that printed out. There were 83 pages of some of the saddest stories I had ever read located in the comments section. Woeful tales of unidentified and identified giftedness and the emotional torment that these people bore, either due to their own experience as gifted or as a parenting to a gifted child. Tears spilled as I wept for all of them, I wept for my son, I wept for my younger gifted child, I wept for myself as a parent of one. Clearly, I thought to myself, this is not just a matter his education, but his emotional well-being! Okay, I drank three glasses of wine that night, and called his father crying. He didn't get it, I knew he never would. I felt alone, and I cried even harder.
After that, I reached out to friends, family, members of my community. Met with some of the same reactions. Some people could relate, adding to the mounting number of stories of feeling lost and misunderstood. Most didn't get it, some tried as I tried to explain the challenges that I was facing. The community of gifted families is small, and they live primarily on an island by themselves. I wonder if it is because so many children are NOT identified as gifted. I wonder if, like myself, you just don't talk about being gifted, like it's Fight Club. You know the people that are not in it, won't understand it. The ones who are in it, don't want to talk about it.All the while fighting with school administrations, with teachers and guidance counselors, with the government for funding, fighting to win one of the few scholarships for private schools, and worse and most of all, fighting to have a voice with the public that doesn't understand the problems. People tend to think you are bragging when you reveal your situation. Their eyes glaze over, or worse roll up in their head. "You are so lucky!" Yeah, I think that to myself all the time! Especially while I cry into my empty wineglass. So freaking lucky.
What People Say When I Talk About My Son's Giftedness
- "You are so lucky to have a gifted child!" Huh, really? I don't feel lucky, I feel burdened. For all intents and purposes, my child has special needs. Needs that are misunderstood, have a lack of funding to support them and is such a small part of the overall community that I feel like I am on an island.
- "Wow! He'll probably become a doctor, a lawyer, an astrophysicist!" Okay, yes, I would love for my son to become the next Neil deGrasse Tyson (I have a MAJOR crush on him) but like any parent, I want my child do whatever makes him happy. He may decide to become a Rockette, not a a rocket scientist, self-actualization is more important to me than anything. I am afraid to formally educate him, I am afraid to not formally educate him. I think that there is so much pressure people that are gifted to become somebody famous or do something outstanding, or at least be successful in the eyes of society. Just because you have a car that drives 100mph on the autobahn, doesn't mean that the driver doesn't prefer to do 25mph on a country road. My son should have the life that he wants. That makes him successful in his own eyes, whatever that is.
- "You should put him in private school." If the odds of this kind of giftedness is less than .01% of the population, what are the odds that those children are also wealthy? Private schools are expensive. We can't afford private school. Period. Which leads people to ask #4 in the list.
- "Can't you get a scholarship for him with those kinds of test results?" When I found out my son was gifted, I thought the same thing. Wow, schools are going to be lining up! Well, that's not exactly true. In order for him to even be considered for acceptance into the schools that I looked into, he has to have a teacher recommendation and be doing exceptionally well in school. My son's track record does not reflect the ideal student, (what with the cheating and the forgery and all). The importance helping him negotiate his school life now is critical to future applications to schools. Not to mention that the two tests that my son took are just the beginning. Private testing for some of these applications are expensive. The WISC test, including a follow-up test for ADHD (which came out negative) and a full written report was $1000. There are at least 3 other tests that I came across that he needs to take in order to apply to those scholarships, and most of the scholarships that I came across are only partial anyway.
- "Can't he skip a grade? and what about gifted classes?" Grade acceleration is not offered in my child's school, neither is subject acceleration. The gifted program doesn't start in schools in our state until 3rd Grade, and even then, it is only a pull-out program for less than an hour at a time. We are only offered differentiation within the classroom itself at this point. Luckily, his current teacher is one of the best in the school, and he is definitely doing better this year, than last in my observations. I also recently learned that gifted teachers in our area are not required a specialized training in giftedness. In our state, there is no mandated Gifted Individualized Education Plan (GIEP) available.
- "What about 'no child left behind'?" That's what I thought! Until I found out that the federal government does not include or exclude giftedness in the definition but it's ambiguity prevents proper funding (read more here). It seems to me that the attitude has been, "your so smart, you'll figure it out." What a shame that a portion of our society with that kind of intellectual potential is not deemed worthy enough by our government to provide financial investment in their education. Sad that this is such a contributing factor in the emotional stress that our best and brightest face, holding them back from realizing their full potential.