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Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Dark Side of Excellence

Andrew and Elvis at our cabin getaway

This post is a bit more serious and much darker than my usual posts, but it's something close to my heart, so I hope you will bear with me :)

This week we learned the very sad news that a child at Andrew's school had committed suicide, and along with the police investigation at the school; there was some reflection on "what went wrong". Tonight my thoughts are with this dear child's parents; losing their child at such a young age (only 8th grade) and under such circumstances is the greatest pain that a parent can experience.

This tragedy has made me reflect on the unique challenges that "Gifted" children face, although it's not talked about much. The assumption is of course, that gifted children have an advantage in life, a leg up on others, and as such, have no struggles at all save which school to go to, one of the Ivy Leagues, or MIT. This is simply not true. Technically, children who are "outliers" in either direction have a much tougher road that the children that fall effortlessly into the mainstream. Here are my children's stories:

When Andrew was born, we knew almost right away that he was "different". He talked at six months and walked at eight. When he was 9 months old he was walking like he had done it his whole life, saying "hi!" to everyone. As a child who was "gifted" myself, I dreaded him going into school feeling different. Because of that, I specifically and purposely avoided educational material and the flash cards that I was "supposed" to expose him to. At that age (only 19 myself), I thought that maybe if I didn't draw attention to it, nobody would notice Andrew was highly intelligent. When he was 5, I enrolled him in a regular Kindergarten and took a deep breath, hoping he would fit in. Not so! Within a month of school I was informed that he was headed to the Gifted program. But not yet. They didn't have the resources to test/teach children younger than second grade. I had never taught Andrew to read, and he COULDN'T read entering Kindergarten. But somewhere between September and January of Kindergarten, Andrew taught HIMSELF to read, and by the end of  Kindergarten read at high third grade level. Great. The gig was up! We made arrangements for Andrew to go through the rigorous testing that precedes a child entering the gifted program and all the extra help that entailed. I was torn between hoping he would meet the requirements and hoping he wouldn't. He did. He scored in the top 2% nationwide and at the tender age of seven years and one month, was sitting down with a school psychologist to have his IQ tested. I hated that part, and his IQ (which is high) will never be revealed to him as long as I have breath in my body. I didn't want him to be chained to a number for the rest of his life. I actually cried when I got the report; but this was (to me) the best part: When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, Andrew; my baby seven year old, answered that he wanted to be a "pizza delivery man like his Daddy" (James worked a second job delivering pizza at the time). That answer is so Andrew! I thought to myself then that this kid was going to be fine.

Going to school as a gifted child marks you. You are expected to be (as one parent said at one of my early meetings with other gifted parents) "the best of the best!", and yet you are not allowed to talk of your accomplishments for fear of "bragging" or making "normal" kids feel bad about themselves. It becomes a whole subculture, with the egos of the parents and the funding of the schools combining into an unholy brew. When I became initiated into this club, as a 26 year old mother, I showed up at the first support group meeting hoping to meet people who could help me guide my son through this process. What I found was that I was by FAR the youngest parent of the group, in fact probably half the parents could have been MY parents. Why are there so many older parents with gifted children? Is older DNA superior? What I found was that among the parents of gifted children in our area, I was a statistically outlier. For Andrew to have been born to teenage, high school educated parents and then end up in the top echelon of children was almost unheard of. Why? As I learned, these were nearly all extremely well educated, highly motivated parents who would not accept any less than the best from their offspring. By sheer force of will and constant work, they were molding their children into being "the best of the best". I have to admit I was more than a little disillusioned and slightly horrified to hear 8-year-olds being discussed in terms of their IQ and future earning potential.

It wasn't just the parents, though. The teachers, gifted facilitators, principals, and school districts all benefited directly and indirectly by these children's high achievement. Not to vilify the parents, nor the administrators, it's human nature to want our children to do well in life; I KNOW that these parents all love their children fiercely, but many get caught up in the achievement hoopla. In the end, I felt nothing in common with the other parents, and my desire to let Andrew be a kid for as long as possible, rather than enrolling him in infinite extracurricular activities has meant that I'm an outsider. I fear for him all the time, knowing that kids in school are often unkind to "nerds" and "brains" and that he and other children like him are subjected to bullying and ridicule. What does the school do about this? Not much; I knew a parent who had the experience of speaking to a school administrator and comparing the plight of gifted children with that of special needs children, in that they are both deviations from the norm, and both conditions should be supported by school officials. The school administrator became visibly angry at this comparison, saying that it's not acceptable to compare highly gifted children (who are often socially awkward) with special needs children, reasoning that "at least gifted children do well in school".  So often, "normal" children are given leeway when they humiliate a "brain" because the school (and parents) must be understanding of the fact that "normal" children might lash out because they feel bad about themselves by comparison. Hogwash! If I could push a button and make my child lose 30 points in IQ so that he would be happy all his life; I'd do it in a heartbeat. Giftedness should NOT be a cross to bear. Our society's collective ridicule of smarts is not acceptable to me as the parent of what turns out to be more than one gifted child.

Yes, that's right. When Bentley came along; he didn't talk like Andrew did, but he did start arranging things in straight lines at the age of nine months. So much so that I consulted with the pediatrician about him possibly being autistic. Since he didn't show any of the other signs, and could actually talk quite well for his age, this was ruled out. When he gained enough fluency to make an answer, I asked him, "Bentley, why don't you ever talk?". His answer? "Because I don't choose to". When Bentley was three he "outlawed" all use of the slang, "ya" instead of yes, and stopped using contractions in his own speech. When anyone slipped up and said, "ya", he'd say, "don't say ya, it is NOT a word, say yes". Again, I sent Bentley to school hoping he'd find his way. What happened was that he didn't thrive in a classroom environment, he simply shut down. I remember going to see his classroom in First Grade, they had put up all the kids' art projects around the room. With other parents milling around, trying to find the masterpiece our child painted, I spotted a painting that was a single red square, right in the center of the page. Nothing else. I knew immediately that it belonged to Bentley! He was, like Andrew, "different". So different in fact, that eventually his teachers were at their wits' end trying to teach a child who had been testing off the charts for reading, but who wouldn't turn in a single piece of homework. I knew I had to take action, I wasn't going to go let him flounder another moment. I had him enrolled in a virtual academy within the week of making my decision, and he's doing great. The school system simply wasn't prepared to teach a child who fell so far outside the norms as Bentley; he didn't fit their mold, as so many children who fall through the cracks. At nine, Bentley is a scientist at heart. He is almost painfully cerebral and would be content to spend all day at his "observations". He will stand in the middle of a flower bed with bees flying around him for hours, until they get used to his presence. Then, he rubs pollen on his hand and allows bees to land on his hand. Eventually, he convinces bees to allow him to touch them, yes, he holds bees IN HIS HAND. He almost never gets stung, when he does, he blames himself for scaring them. He also has become single-mindedly determined to become immune to bee stings, and with a determination that frightens me a bit, has decided to get stung just enough to develop the immunity that many beekeepers have. He loves anatomy, and his prized possession is a copy of Grey's Anatomy, which he consults daily. This led to the unexpected introduction of my small children to the birds and the bees, as Bentley informed his rapt brothers about the secrets of the human reproductive system, which I discovered when my six-year-old started going around saying "vagina". Not a terrible way to learn about sex, right?!

I hope that this tragedy at Andrew's school will make people, both children and adults, think about the way they view "the nerds". There's no way of knowing whether the pervasive bullying that occurs at this school or any school contributed to the tragedy of this child's suicide. But I think that for children like him, and like MY children, excellence and higher intelligence can often turn into a negative force. It's so difficult as a parent to see your child experience all the hardships that often come with a high IQ; to help them navigate through their school years unscathed. I feel for all parents experiencing this and feeling helpless. For my own children, I hope and pray that they will find their way; and that my advocacy on their behalf is actually making a difference. It's been a fight these past several years to make sure both Bentley and Andrew are getting the resources that they need. It would be far easier on them if they were "average" children, and I'm constantly aware of that. My third child, Callan; has more unique challenges. At 6 years old, he CAN read, but has absolutely no interest in it. Every page I give him to complete is filled with drawings. His artistic talent is unusual for a child his age, and I'm keenly aware that his brain works differently than most. When he started Kindergarten, his huge personality as well as his size (he was at least a head taller than the other children) made him stand out. I decided at the end of the year to home school both Bentley and Callan, and will allow Dorian to make his own choice when the time comes. I'm tired of fighting the school system who is set up (rightly so) for children that fall in a wide swath in the middle. And not so great at helping children who are different. With my individual attention to them; I can do better. And I will!

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