Loss and Too-Soon Death

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My dear friend E. lost her 24-year-old son A. to a drug overdose last week.

The news could not have come as more of a shock. I still don’t know any details about what led up to this loss, and am waiting for some time to pass before reaching out.

E. and I were very close friends for years (I was present at A.’s home birth), but we drifted apart as our belief systems diverged – and I know at this point she is leaning most heavily on the people still within her spiritual group who can help her make sense of this loss through their unique lens of the world and what death means.

With that said, I wanted to take a brief moment on this blog to acknowledge the sometimes-devastating impact that creativity, giftedness, and intensity can have on young people – especially during this mind-numbingly challenging era of COVID-19, when finding one’s way through the world has suddenly become (is it possible?) even more difficult.

What I know about A. is that he studied art in college and was a talented photographer, hoping to eventually earn a living through his craft, and working temporarily as an Uber driver. What I don’t know is:

  • Had A. been struggling with drug challenges for years, or was this a tragic sudden accident?
  • Was the overdose intentional?

And, most importantly:

  • What could we, any of us, have done to prevent this?

I am grateful that life never got tough enough for me as a gifted teen and young adult to seriously consider either drugs or suicide*. At varying times I hated life, couldn’t understand life, wanted “out” of life, felt I didn’t belong in life, withdrew from life – but I thankfully made it through the roughest spots and managed to reach later adulthood.

I sincerely believe that we – society, not just individuals or families – need to do whatever we can to nurture and hold up young people (i.e., adolescents and adults under the age of 25) as their prefrontal cortices continue to develop. While they may be brilliant, creative, and independent individuals – and possibly even parents already themselves – folks in this age range are at heightened risk of making choices that are more informed by the very-real intensity of their emotions than by “rational” decision-making – and drugs can be an appealing and far-too-readily-available “option” to manage those emotions.

My own kids aren’t teenagers – not quite yet. However, we’re nearly there, and I’m incredibly grateful for all the wise practitioners and fellow parents out there who have paved the way with invaluable information and advice, which I will be readily tapping into.

In the meantime, I’m sending virtual love and support to all the gifted, sensitive, artistic, “too much” people out there who are hurting right now.

We can and will make it through this unprecedented time together.

* The Mind Matters podcast has dedicated three of its 68 episodes (episodes 39-41) to the topic of suicide in gifted populations.  They are well worth a listen. 

Copyright © 2020 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution. 

Book Reflections #2: “If This is a Gift, Can I Send it Back?” by Jen Merrill

As my second Book Reflection blog post, I thought I would comment on If This is a Gift, Can I Send it Back? Surviving in the Land of the Gifted and Twice Exceptional (2012) – a delightfully humorous and insightful book by Jen Merrill, author of the Laughing at Chaos blog and interviewee about parenting self-care on the Mind Matters Podcast.

On the back of her book, Merrill asks us:

When is life like a prize fight, a garden, and a quiz show, all hurtling down the road on an office chair, wrapped in song?

Her response:

When you’re living in the land of the gifted and twice exceptional.

The enduring theme throughout Merrill’s book is brutal honesty about how hard parenting a 2E kid (each one “more unique than snowflakes”) can be. Yes, of course it’s also rewarding, invigorating, and often fun – but more than anything, Merrill argues, you’ll need to roll with the challenges each day, allow yourself a glass of wine before conking at night, and accept that parenting doesn’t look anything like what you planned it to be.

Actually, prior to becoming a parent, I don’t recall holding many preconceptions – but I CERTAINLY didn’t anticipate how bone-crushingly exhausting it would be. There’s simply no way to know the truth of Parental Exhaustion until you enter into those shoes for yourself. And with 2E kids, Even More So.

With that as my brief introduction, here are my take-aways from Merrill’s book:

Chapter 1: Connecting the Dots 

Citing a commencement speech by Steve Jobs, Merrill notes that sometimes you can’t make sense of your child’s journey until you’re looking backwards and “connecting the dots” (p. 2). I love this framing of life as the narrative we create for and about ourselves: it empowers us to search for key points that may have seemed like insurmountable challenges, but turn into critical milestones in retrospect.

I also appreciate Merrill’s coining of “adult-onset, child-induced ADHD” – such a perfect description of what happens to even the brightest (perhaps especially the brightest?) of new parents. After admitting that she’s “been entirely unable to concentrate on one thing for longer than a few minutes” since her oldest (2E) son was born, she adds:

It’s just, well, I miss my brain. We used to go for long walks through thoughts together. Double-dated with new ideas. We used to dive into activities and barely take time to come up for air. Now my brain is crashed out on the mental couch, drooling a little, while I perch anxiously, waiting to spring into action, my Mom Radar spinning wildly 24/7 (p. 7).

This was exactly how I felt when my kids were younger, and I was desperately reaching out for daily support and assistance in as many ways as possible. Now that my kids are older, I’ve learned to tame my brain enough not to be on super high alert, given that quiet no longer means something challenging or dangerous is about to happen – it simply (ha!) means parental guilt that I’m leaving them to their own devices (literally).

Finally, Merrill offers a list of things she wishes “the world knew about parenting 2e kids”, including:

We are not making up this stuff (p. 8).

(This reminds me of how gifted kids can sometimes be “gaslit” into disbelieving their own uniquely intense reality, as described by Linda Silverman. Apparently the same is true for parents of 2E kids.)

Sometimes we appear over-protective, while sometimes we seem neglectful (p. 9).

(Every day, in every way, I need to continue to practice the art of – as my husband would put it – “not giving a f***” what other people think about my parenting decisions. As a former people-pleaser-extraordinaire, this has been a monumental challenge – one I’m still working on.)

Not every 2e kid has the same issues. Every single one of these kids presents differently, and they are not in parenting magazines or books, mainstream blogs, or general societal acceptance (p. 10).

(This is a sobering reminder of how isolating it can be to look at “mainstream” parenting sources and not see our own experiences and realities reflected – hence, the need for support groups, blogs, podcasts, and books specifically for parents of 2E kids.)

Chapter 2: One Heck of a Ride 

In her second chapter, Merrill responds with brutal honesty to the quip “Must be nice to have a gifted child” with her own “must be nice” rejoinders:

Must be nice to have a child whose racing brain doesn’t keep her awake into the wee hours (p. 13).

(My 12-year-old C has “insomnia issues”, just like me. In addition to endlessly racing minds, we each have our own laundry list of hacks and supports needed to help us fall and stay asleep. I’ll write more about insomnia in another post.)

Must be nice to not have to worry about your child making and keeping friends (p. 13).

(My number one wish for my 10-year-old neurodiverse son D. is that he’ll finally make a new and trusted friend this year – not exactly easy during a pandemic.)

Must be nice to take your kid somewhere new and not worry about having to leave early because of over-stimulation (p. 14).

(Heck, I’ve always just assumed we won’t stay long! We aim for an hour, and anything beyond that is bonus.)

Also included in this chapter is a hypothetical letter written by Merrill to her child’s teacher (“You have too many students, not enough time, and there’s just no money to do anything different… Trust that I wouldn’t tell you how he learns unless I thought it would help you help him.”), and Merrill imagining what her own Gifted and Talented Conference opening speech might sound like (“Parents, you need to remember to take care of you.”)

Chapter 3: Taking the Leap 

Here, Merrill talks about “taking the leap” to homeschooling her 2E son. In a hilarious passage, she compares a series of statements said by a teacher to “what’s actually meant” and “what is heard” by the parent on the receiving end:

What is said: Your child refuses to participate in any class activities and will not put down a single word, even when given the words to write.

What is meant: Your kid is the most passive-aggressive ODD child I’ve ever known and I haven’t the slightest clue how to motivate him…

What is heard: Your parenting skills are just below those of a psychotic hamster. (p. 31)

I resonate with Merrill’s insecurities. Like her, I was formerly a classroom teacher, and well remember what it was like to feel frustrated and exhausted by “out of the box” kids who, quite simply, made my job a lot harder. Now, as a parent, I’m constantly walking a fine line of wanting to empathize with teachers while also advocating for what my kids need – and hoping I come across as just-the-right-mixture of humble-but-proactive-and-informed parent.  It’s tricky.

Chapter 4: Our Grand Homeschooling Adventure 

When discussing her experiences with homeschooling (only chosen as an option when her designated gifted kid was denied services at his new local school due to his twice-exceptionality), Merrill shares:

I am not a patient woman. I know this about myself and barely accept it. I walk fast, I talk fast, and I want to scream when my computer isn’t as caffeinated as I am (p. 36).

Hear, hear. My nickname as a kid was Speedy (no joke), and it remains insanely challenging to slow down enough to roll with the ride of parenting and accept imperfection on a daily basis. I may know (hypothetically) all the things I “could” be doing with my kids to optimize their learning experiences, but constantly have to settle for the reality of how much I actually get done – because ultimately, self-care trumps even the illusion of “parenting perfection”; nothing is more important.

Chapter 5: Living My Walter Mitty Fantasy 

In her final chapter – after singing the praises of Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004) as the ultimate cinematic representation of a gifted family (love that movie!) – Merrill notes that back in her pre-kid days, as a professional flutist, she was actually living her “Walter Mitty fantasy” – that is, her daydream of a perfect alternative life. Now, as a parent of a 2E kid, she vacillates between loving and hating the work she has cut out for herself:

I love homeschooling my son… I don’t miss the fights over homework, the breathtaking anxiety about his psyche, or the conferences with teachers about everything he was doing wrong and nothing about what he was doing right.

I hate homeschooling my son. It’s all on me. (pp. 55-56)

Yes, exactly. I’m thrilled that during this learning-at-home pandemic time, it’s actually not “all on me”: I get to do a mix of both, with my kids’ teachers determining their curriculum (for better and for worse – but mostly for better), and it “simply” being up to me to supervise them and make sure it all gets done.

Back when I first attended a SENG parent support group, our facilitator reminded us repeatedly that there’s never a perfect solution to our kids’ schooling needs – there’s only compromise and striving for the “best possible”.

That’s certainly been my own experience, with plenty of highs and lows over the years. So much depends on the grace, understanding, and flexibility of our kids’ teachers – and, like Merrill, I “stand with teachers” (p. 38) while also standing with students and parents.

I appreciate Merrill’s closing reminder in her book:

“If you decide to confide in others, you’ll discover you’re not alone” (p. 58).

Speaking of that, last night I participated in a webinar and support group for parents of gifted kids (hosted by the Institute for Educational Advancement), and got multiple dopamine hits from having my experiences and challenges validated again and again – ping, ping, ping.

I was reminded that the more we come together and share honestly – as Merrill does in this book – the happier (and less alone) we’ll be.

References

  • Merrill, J. (2012). If this is a gift, can I send it back? Surviving in the land of the gifted and twice exceptional. Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Press.

Copyright © 2020 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution.  

Book Reflections #1: “Giftedness 101” by Linda Kreger Silverman

This is the first entry in what I hope will be an ongoing series of reflections on books related to giftedness and 2E learning.

After listening to a Mind Matters podcast interview with Linda Kreger Silverman – Episode 20, entitled “IQ Isn’t Everything: Reevaluating Evaluation” – I ordered and read Silverman’s Giftedness 101 (2013) by Springer Publishing.

This book is part of a series of “Psych 101” books, described on the back cover as “short, reader-friendly introductions to cutting-edge topics in psychology… for all students of psychology and anyone interested in the field”.

The chapter titles alone were enough to pull me in:

  1. Invisible Gifts
  2. What is Giftedness
  3. The Crusade to Vanquish Prejudice Against the Gifted
  4. Life at the Extremes
  5. The Psychology of Giftedness
  6. Comprehensive Assessment of Giftedness
  7. Optimal Development of the Gifted
  8. Where Do We Go From Here?

While I couldn’t help turning immediately to chapter 3 (what a tantalizing title!), I quickly realized I should start at the beginning and work my way through – which I did, in concentrated chunks over the last few days. I marked up pages like mad with my pencil, and will share a few of my thoughts – accompanied by quotes – from each chapter.

Chapter 1: Invisible Gifts

“Undetected ability is an immense loss to society; the pain borne by the individual is beyond measure” (p. 2).

Silverman’s poetic first chapter makes a case for the fact that giftedness is often hiding under the surface of the small percentage of individuals who stand out through their “eminence” – indeed, one of the most commonly used strategies to cope with giftedness is “invisibility”.

“Without being given the opportunity to soar, [gifted kids] disappear into daydreams. Thousands of extremely gifted children become so disillusioned that they drop out of school and insist on being homeschooled” (p. 6).

As the quotes selected above indicate, the consequences of not acknowledging and supporting gifted kids can be dire – both societally and individually.  Although my own giftedness was recognized at a fairly early age (through elementary school testing) – and I was placed in a weekly pull-out program – I didn’t receive counseling or other emotional support. I ended up developing a life-threatening eating disorder at the age of 12, and dropping out of school in the first semester of 7th grade. I only made it through morning classes in 9th and 10th grade before formally dropping out of K-12 schooling for good.

I insisted on being homeschooled – actually, on being an autodidact – and became obsessed with forming my own curricular path based on my unique passions and interests. This included several part-time jobs out in the “real world”, where I deeply appreciated the chance to interact with adults rather than teenagers. (My best friend was 20 years older than me.) I made it through my teenage years, just barely – but I sure wish I’d had more support earlier on.

Chapter 2: What is Giftedness? 

“Giftedness is a political football” (p. 20)

In this chapter, Silverman discusses the fascinating history of how we’ve chosen to define giftedness over the decades – and the ramifications this has had on both identification and services. While she notes that emphasis was previously placed on “eminence” (that is, gifted kids who “achieve their potential” in society), she points out how problematic this is on so many fronts.

Silverman prefers viewing giftedness as “asynchronous development”, with a focus on training “therapists and counselors who understand [gifted kids’] inner worlds and the role that giftedness plays in their identity development” (p. 49). She points out that while giftedness studies originated in psychology, they’ve drifted away towards the education realm (i.e., talent development) – and she posits that psychologists have a moral imperative to step back into the fray.

The quote I selected from this chapter stood out to me given my own professional journey in education, and how I’ve been forced to “take sides” one way or another given the political tides at play. I’m hopeful that once Marc Smolowitz’s documentary “The G Word” can finally be released, it will provoke a much-needed and overdue societal discussion about how to best meet diverse gifted kids’ needs.

Chapter 3: The Crusade to Vanquish Prejudice Against the Giftedness 

“Stereotyping the gifted is commonly accepted and, in the past, has mushroomed into scapegoating… and persecution” (p. 67).

In Chapter 3, Silverman provides additional historical context for giftedness – including wading into the decidedly unpleasant waters of Sir Francis Galton’s founding of eugenics (boooooooo!) while also covering the trajectory of work by Alfred Binet, Lewis Terman, and Leta Hollingworth (who coined the challenge of “the woman problem” in giftedness – i.e., being responsibility for child-bearing and caring while also nurturing one’s own gifts).

Silverman debunks numerous myths and stereotypes about gifted individuals – both old and new. Older myths include “Early ripe, early rot” and “giftedness is akin to madness”. Newer myths – still ever-present – include “all children are gifted”, “giftedness is just a manifestation of helicopter parenting”, “acceleration is socially harmful”, “gifted programs are elitist”, and “gifted kids can make it on their own”. A recent interview with my own parents reveals that they hold several of these beliefs, and that I would not have received any special services for my giftedness unless my school had provided them.

Chapter 4: Life at the Extremes

“The higher the individual’s IQ, the more intense the struggle for identity, meaning, and connection” (p. 87).

In this chapter, Silverman compares and contrasts the atypical developmental needs of kids at both ends of the intellectual spectrum. She argues that just like intellectual disability, giftedness should be seen as an “organizing principle” that would allow behaviors to be “perceived within the context of those with similar abilities, rather than viewing them as ‘aberrant’ in relation to those in the average range” (p. 93). She names such challenges of extreme giftedness as advanced vocabulary (which “hinders communication”), depression, loneliness, so-called “mania” (i.e., intense focus and enthusiasm), and “perfectionism” (actually a common character trait of giftedness, rather than a defect to be overcome).

Silverman discusses the various levels of giftedness, noting that “gifted educators have been so focused on the development of talented children (approximately 120 IQ and above) that they have not taken seriously the needs of children in the higher extremes of ability” (p. 101) – many of whom are “hidden” due to being homeschooled.

Finally, in this chapter Silverman discusses giftedness throughout the lifespan, beginning with the earliest potential indicators in infancy (including the high value of early identification – especially for kids who may not otherwise be given services to nurture their gifts), and giftedness in adults – which I’ve written about quite a bit already on this blog. (Naturally, much of this portion of the chapter is heavily underlined… )

Chapter 5: The Psychology of Giftedness

“It is time for a psychology of giftedness – time to recognize the developmental differences, personality traits, lifespan development, particular issues and struggles of the gifted, as well as the consequences of not being acceptable” (p. 121).

Silverman covers quite a few topics in chapter 5, including: feeling different (and what this means for “stages of friendship”); gifted kids’ quintessential adaptability (“Who would you like me to be today?”); the inner experience of being gifted; Dabrowski’s “theory of positive disintegration”; perfectionism (both healthy and unhealthy); and introversion.

So many ideas in this chapter resonated with me – perhaps most especially the idea that gifted kids “quickly learn what is expected of them and how to elicit the responses they desire from adults” (p. 129). This was enough the Story of My Childhood that I’ll devote a specific blog post to it later on, since it played a pivotal role in my eventual disintegration into an eating disorder and “failure to thrive”.  Briefly, I spent so many years being who others thought I was – or wanted me to be – or needed me to be – that I was unable to make it safely across the bridge of adolescence without crashing and burning numerous times.

In Silverman’s discussion about the “inner experience of giftedness”, countless ideas stood out; here are just a few, rat-a-tat:

“Excitement with new insights is dampened when there’s no one with whom to share them. Social exchange becomes a minefield when one is attuned to a symphony of nuance” (p. 131).

“It isn’t fun or funny to be laughed at for who you are. The dread of being ‘abnormal’ impels the gifted to lead a double life. They feign normalcy attempting to mask their vulnerability” (p. 132).

“Anti-intellectualism, under the guise of egalitarianism, is pervasive worldwide” (p. 132).

“The tall poppies syndrome is a social phenomenon of attacking those with exceptional ability” (p. 133).

“Benign neglect of the gifted is customary, with the rationale that they can take care of themselves and other students are in more need” (p. 133).

Yikes – and, yes!

Silverman undeniably has her pulse on the inner worlds of gifted kids – and how many challenges they face that most would consider insignificant. It’s tiring “feigning normalcy”, feeling unheard, trying not to “stand out”, and knowing that your needs are considered much less important than others’.

However, I really stood up and took notice during the next portion of this section, in which Silverman discusses various “personality characteristics” associated with gifted kids – and I saw my own challenging history in each one:

First:

“The gifted are gullible. Their first inclination is to be truthful, so they tend to believe nearly anything anyone tells them… Early humiliations leave deep scars…” (p. 134).

I was relentlessly bullied (by my so-called friends) in second grade, and will write about that in a separate post – but yes, the scars ran deep.

Second:

“When gifted individuals cannot find anyone who understands their reality, they begin to doubt their sanity” (p. 134).

Because others “do not observe, apprehend, feel, experience, or intuit in the same manner” as gifted kids, they may tend to feel “gaslit”.  So interesting. I hadn’t made that connection before, but it rings very true.

Third:

Gifted kids tend to have a “logical imperative”, leading to “imposter syndrome” because they:

“… compare their knowledge with all there is to be known about a subject” and “soon become aware that they’ve barely scratched the surface… The gifted often feel like they’ve just fooled everybody into thinking that they are smart, and at any moment they will be found out” (p. 135).

Ummm… Yes. Exactly. And, making things even worse:

“The gifted hate hypocrisy and they have uncanny perception, which often puts them at odds with bosses, co-workers, teachers, and parents who sport inauthentic facades” (p. 135).

I can’t stand in-authenticity!!!!  I’ve had to intellectualize and compartmentalize its social necessity in order to function. (FWIW, studying sociology and evolutionary psychology has been a godsend for this.)

Furthermore, Silverman notes:

“[Gifted kids] are paradoxical: self-assured and insecure, bold and timid, idealistic and practical, compassionate to others and unkind to themselves, mature and immature” (p. 135).

How is it that so many contradictions mutually co-exist? And yet, they do.

Moving on, Dabrowski’s work deserves its own blog post, especially given how much controversy there is in the “gifted world” around his concept of “overexcitabilities” or OEs. Perfectionism and introversion are also blog-worthy entries in their own right, so I’ll also pause on those for now.

Chapter 6: Comprehensive Assessment of Giftedness 

“IQ scores are never an end in themselves; they are simply tools to be used wisely in the hands of professionals who understand giftedness” (p. 190).

As someone completely unversed in psychometrics, I learned the most from – and feel most humbled by – this chapter. There is a LOT that goes into accurately assessing giftedness, and I finished this chapter with more questions than answers. This is clearly a growth area for me; in the meantime; I’m grateful for all the individuals who dedicate their lives to doing this important work, and doing it well.

Chapter 7: Optimal Development of the Gifted 

Silverman begins her penultimate chapter by emphasizing the need to stop “bashing” parents of gifted kids, instead focusing on the critical role they play in their children’s development – and pointing out that they need support (yes!).

She discusses how to foster an optimal home environment (primarily by being responsive to kids’ needs and interests) and the fact that giftedness tends to “run in families”. (Unfortunately, she seems to take genetic relatedness among all members for granted, which is far from always the case; or, if I’m misreading her, the importance of environmental influences rather than or in addition to heritability should be called out more explicitly.)

She also briefly covers elements of an “optimal school environment”, which among other things boils down to listening to what kids want and need – and then listening some more.

Chapter 8: Where Do We Go From Here? 

Silverman’s short closing chapter is a “call to work” for fledgling psychology students to join the fray of the giftedness sphere – which she acknowledges has “no truce in sight”. She reminds the reader:

“If the gifted and twice exceptional should become your passion… you will be paid in appreciation. Your work will be a wellspring of creativity. You’ll be outside the box anyway, eyed suspiciously by the system, so you might as well enjoy the freedom to access your creativity” (p. 232).

I appreciate that Silverman doesn’t sugarcoat the realistic challenges of working with and for gifted individuals. I’m writing this blog anonymously (for now) for a reason. I need more time to make peace with my passion for giftedness – which has always been there, but wasn’t allowed to blossom until I finally had kids of my own and needed to find ways to help them.

In closing, I recommend Giftedness 101 for anybody just stepping into this world, who wants a concise yet compassionate overview of where we’ve been, where we’re at, and where we should head.

As Silverman notes, there’s plenty of work left to do.

References:

  • Silverman, L. (2013). Giftedness 101. Springer Publishing.

Copyright © 2020 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution.  

“Ideal” Versus “Real” Home Learning

There have been many moments during the past few weeks of remote learning when I’ve been tempted to stop and write a post about a “sample day” – just to give a taste of what life in our household of three twice-exceptional learners is like.

The moment that led to the “Frozen blanket pic” above is what finally motivated me to take the time to write for a bit.

My 7-year-old “I” entered an advanced placement 2nd grade classroom this year, which covers 3rd grade math standards. (I wrote about her math anxiety in a previous entry.) Since she basically skipped 2nd grade math content, we’re working hard to help her feel comfortable with lots of new concepts.

Thankfully – and perhaps predictably – “I” understands the underlying concepts of multiplication and division just fine. However, she still struggles with anxiety and avoidance around both demonstrating her knowledge in writing and memorizing basic math facts. She’ll guess, equivocate, try to flee the room, state “I can’t do this!”, ask for a snack, groan, twist around with her legs up in the air, and basically do anything except “just” sit and “do the work”. It’s exhausting watching her (and, truth be told, supporting her).

Indeed, the picture taken above was preceded by a ton of rolling around on the floor (“I”, not me – though I sometimes resort to yoga poses myself to de-stress); “I”‘s purple dress hovering over her head for awhile; her dress finally coming off (you can see it in the background); and finally the “Frozen” blanket being wrapped all around her as a protective cocoon. Throughout this process, we talked about how many wheels are on 1 tricycle, 2 tricycles, etc., as I filled out several function tables for different items. I scripted all her responses in her hard-copy math workbook, and she then added all the answers electronically to her formal Seesaw assignment to turn in. (Yes, she had to take the blanket off and sit in front of her computer to actually input data. But once the anxiety of doing the actual work itself was gone, this was no problem.)

It struck me as humorous that the reality of our “working from home” schooling looks so incredibly different from all the posed pictures you see in online articles – like the one I placed as a contrast photo at the beginning of this post. I’m sure there are plenty of households where kids actually sit in front of their computers at a kitchen table or desk, waiting for break time to eat the perfectly ripe bananas in the foreground – but that’s not us. 

During her live Zoom meetings, “I” will either be lying sideways on the floor or huddling in her bed, chewing on hunks of ice. My 10-year-old D. turns off his video (with permission from his teacher) and hides himself in his blanket on his bed while (hopefully) listening. My 12-year-old C. either sits on the sofa downstairs in her pajamas, or stays in her bed surrounded by pillows and blanket and stuffies. They are never at their actual desks (which are too filled with random project items to be much use as working surfaces anyway). 

Posture and sensory needs, however, are only part of the picture of online learning in our household. On the same day I took the above picture, my son D. came by my room to quietly inform me that C. was sobbing in her bedroom. When I headed over to see what was going on, C. was muted and had her camera off, so she was able to say to me in between tears, “I DIDN’T KNOW I WAS SUPPOSED TO DO THE MAP TO BE ABLE TO DO THE BOSS BATTLE! EVERYONE ELSE KNEW! I KEEP TELLING MR. B BUT HE DOESN’T ANSWER!” I checked the chat box in her Zoom class and was mortified to see that C. had sent numerous panicked texts – ALL IN CAPS – to her geometry teacher Mr. B. during instructional time, while he was trying to hold class. She even used the phrase “FLIPPIN’ ASSIGNMENT” at one point.

Yikes.

My first task was to calm C. down enough to get a sense of what was actually going on. She explained, through sobs, that she had no idea a particular assignment was due that day – she didn’t see it in her “Upcoming Assignments” tab, and hadn’t seen an email coming through about it. (C. has a diagnosis of ADHD-Inattentive, so keeping effective track of assignments is an ongoing challenge.) She felt even worse because it seemed that somehow all her classmates had known about it, and she wasn’t able to check in with one of them (like she would in a real-life classroom) because chat between students is disabled during Zoom. I asked her if she had contact information for any of the other students – so she could try texting them by phone – but she didn’t. She finally stopped crying, and was able to focus enough to get back to listening to her teacher. I told her she owed him an apology after class for sending him so many upset chat messages during class, and she agreed. We also talked about needing to brainstorm what had gone wrong in terms of not having the information she needed to be successful.

Eventually she checked in with Mr. B. and was able to get (mostly) caught up. (And I was reminded I need to follow through on setting up a meeting to discuss C.’s 504 plan with him and her other teachers…)

That day, however, my equanimity was shot. Having two of my three kids get so upset over schooling that I had to sit with them to help them emotionally move through it was simply indicative of how hard this learn-from-home reality really is.

With that said, I remain genuinely grateful – on some levels – for the “forced-opportunity” to stay so closely involved in my kids’ learning. Pre-pandemic life was moving so quickly, it was easy to feel like days were simply slipping by. I happily outsourced schooling as much as possible, and was able to get away with not worrying about specifics – but I also wasn’t really clued-in to the details of my 2E kids’ unique learning challenges and triumphs in every subject.

Now, I can’t help but be involved – for better or for worse.

Like every other parent in the world whose kids are learning from home right now, I’m taking things one day at a time, one class at a time, one assignment at a time – and I simply laugh when I see pictures of what things “should” look like.

Not in a million years.

Copyright © 2020 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution. 

My Parents’ Experiences Raising Gifted Kids

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Life has been busier than ever in recent weeks, as my three kids have become more immersed in their online schoolwork, and my own work of overseeing their learning while also engaging with my own (paid) job and daily household tasks has ramped up.

With that said, I took a “break” of sorts this past week to binge-listen my way through a fabulous podcast I stumbled upon called Mind Matters, described as follows:

The Mind Matters Podcast features discussions with leaders in the fields of psychology, education, and beyond, with an emphasis on gifted/talented and twice-exceptional children and adults. Mind Matters explores parenting, counseling techniques, and best practices for enriching the lives of high-ability people.

Score! Everything about this podcast series sounded right up my alley – and I wasn’t disappointed. In my typical “gifted-kid-all-grown-up” immersion fashion, I listened to nearly all 68 half-hour episodes  in rapid succession and took semi-voracious notes. I am grateful to Emily and Dave (the married host and producer) for all the labor and love they’ve clearly poured into this endeavor, and have a ton of ideas for topics to follow up on myself in HalfoftheTruth.org.

With that said, I want to start this particular blog post by reflecting on my own upbringing as a gifted kid. We went to hang out with my elderly Norwegian-American parents (ages 83 and 81) on their back porch this weekend – and while my three kids were out zipping around on scooters and other wheeled devices in their driveway, I told my parents l wanted to interview them on a “new topic”.

(I’ve actually interviewed my parents quite a bit in recent years. I set up a well-lit “studio” in their living room back in 2015 and spent many hours interviewing each of them about their childhood back in war-occupied Norway, their experiences immigrating to America and becoming parents, their lifelong participation in a unique spiritual group, and other thoughts about life. It was important to me to archive their memories while they were still lucid.)

This time, however, I wanted to ask them specifically about raising gifted kids in America.  I’m the third of four kids, and all of us except my younger sister were identified as gifted and went through gifted programming in school. (I’m convinced my younger sister has an undiagnosed learning disability that prevented her from testing in; she has extreme anxiety around test-taking.)

Here’s a brief run-down of what my parents shared during the interview, followed by my own thoughts:

Me: What was it like raising kids who were identified as gifted kids?

Mom: I didn’t have any other kinds, so I couldn’t compare it to anybody – I just assumed that that’s how kids were! They learned to read at age 5, do all the homework without help; it was easy that way.

Pop: Well, I mean, the fact is that you guys were all different – so I think we had to deal with each one.  The fact that you were all fairly smart is something I guess we assumed…

Me: Why did you assume that?

Pop: Because we  considered ourselves to be pretty smart, I guess! [laughs] Anyway…

Me: What did you think about the term “gifted” that was used in America? I’m assuming that wasn’t used in Norway. My dad looks confused. I repeat: Gifted? He is still confused. So, kids that get a label of being gifted – if they score high on an IQ test?

Pop: Yeah, I always had questions about that.

Me: What were your questions?

Pop: It seemed – you in particular were being identified as gifted, and it was like… A lot of parents were saying, “I have a gifted child!” as though not everyone was gifted. It seemed a little weird to label people like that, because then you have labeled other people as not being gifted, even though they might just be a little later or have different kinds of gifts. So, that always seemed a little strange to me… [Plus], all the “gifted children” [in your program] were white, the ones who had been identified – and they had pushy parents for the most part.

Me: You guys are NOT pushy! You’re anti-pushy…

Mom: They [the teachers] really made us understand that they appreciated that.

Me: OK. But your perception of the other parents in that program is that they were pushy?

Pop: Yeah. My impression was that there were some parents who were going to make sure that their kids were identified as “gifted”. They were going to fight for it. Therefore, the whole thing didn’t make so much sense, I thought. On the other hand, of course, it makes sense to put some people on a faster path if they really are showing exceptional gifts. In my case, of course, I skipped first grade because I had been away and not been able to go to school but my grandmother took me to the principal at [my local] school and he gave me a newspaper and asked me to read it, and it was about some political developments in Europe and the Soviets moving in and all that, and I really didn’t know anything about that, but I read it fluently, so then he put me in second grade.

Me: Okay!

Pop: So – which I was very thankful for, because I would just have been very bored if I had been with the kids who were just learning to read when I already knew it. So, that made sense to me. But the notion of identifying all these kids as gifted, the way it was done in [your school] at that time, it seemed a little questionable to me.

My mom and dad talk about how things were really egalitarian in schools when they were growing up in Norway, other than kids with similar interests and abilities naturally clustering together – and how the only exceptions were kids who had to repeat a grade.

I ask them if they remember anything about the gifted program I attended as a child, and they truly don’t have any recollections. My dad says, “My impression was it was just a class of kids.” I decide to pivot away from the topic of schooling and back towards parenting more specifically.

Me: Did you ever have challenges with parenting kids who were super smart and curious and, kind of, fast brains?

Pop: [confused] You were kind of… what brains?

Me: Fast brains.

My husband [trying to clarify]: Did you think it was harder to raise your children because you noticed they were more smart or more easily bored or… ?

My dad laughs uncomfortably and looks at my mom, who also laughs.

Pop: Did we have kids like that?

Me: So, kids who are designated gifted – there tends to be a really strong correlation with emotional intensity. Did you find that we were highly emotionally intense kids?

Pop: Emotional intensity? [He’s confused.] 

My husband: Did you think you had to calm your kids down?

Me: Were our emotions stronger than other kids, or…?

Pop: No, I don’t remember much of that.

My mom starts talking about challenges she had with my younger sister getting failing grades in high school, but I redirect her back to the elementary school ages.

Me: As kids, you didn’t experience us as being especially intense?

Mom: No – it was more the opposite. You could entertain yourself. I don’t remember – maybe you can remember – that there was much arguing between you children, or fighting, or anything very emotional… I don’t remember.

Me: Okay! Anything else?

Pop: About what? (He laughs.)

I end the conversation at this point, because it’s clear they really don’t have much to say on the topic of giftedness. Their kids – us – simply were who we were. We were smart, yes (just like them) – but in their perception, we knew how to take care of our own needs and weren’t particularly intense or challenging.

My parents’ egalitarian nature made them shy away from calling out their kids’ giftedness per se, and they saw gifted programs as being primarily a way for “pushy [white] American parents” to assert their dominance. Their only conception of gifted kids needing something more or different related to the notion of acceleration in certain subjects – or, in my dad’s case as a child, not having to suffer through first grade when he already knew how to read.

None of what I heard from my parents was particularly surprising, but I’m glad I asked directly. It’s clear they really had no idea how distressing it was for me being a gifted kid, or the role it played in my extremely challenging teenage years – including my eating disorder and dropping out of school repeatedly – and thus couldn’t validate this or address it. Their own experiences growing up in a small Scandinavian nation hadn’t prepared them for the nuances of public schooling in 1980s America. Like many first generation American parents, they simply accepted the school system and assumed we were doing fine – until we weren’t, at which point they assumed our journey was a highly individualized and spiritual one that we would work our own way through with support from God.

This may help to explain why I was so hesitant as a parent myself to explore giftedness in my own kids – and also why I don’t spend any time at all explaining to my parents why we’ve chosen to put our kids into accelerated programs.

There’s no point. They wouldn’t disapprove, but they also wouldn’t have much to say.

My parents’ awkward silences and nervous laughter during my interview with them on giftedness make it clear that they don’t have a frame of reference or an entry point for these discussions – so the journey needs to continue to be mine, with support from the like-minded parent-peers and friends I’ve made along the way.

Meanwhile, my own parents will simply love their kids and grandkids in the ways that make sense to them, regardless of giftedness.

Copyright © 2020 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution. 

Rainforest Minds in Academia

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I’ve been working in academia for 12 years now – longer, if you count my four years as a graduate student. My goal in this post is to explore whether rainforest minds flourish in academia – and why or why not. I’ll begin by providing context for my own journey in this space.

As an undergraduate majoring in literature, I got good enough at theorizing and writing academic papers that I was told I should/could consider a career in academia. However, writing detailed analyses of novels, plays, and poetry – while satisfying as an abstract skill-set – didn’t strike me as particularly useful for the world. I was eager to get out and make things better, by teaching kids.

With that said, as I wrote about in a previous post, teaching elementary school only lasted so long as a novel learning sphere to explore. Earning my doctorate degree and taking my education studies to the “next level” felt like a logical next step once I had a few years of practical teaching experience under my belt.

I was naive enough to only apply to one institution: the local public R1 university in the major metropolitan city where I lived and worked. I crossed my fingers that things would work out okay (not knowing the slightest thing about how fickle graduate school admissions really are), and was lucky enough to be accepted for both a masters and a doctoral degree in one fell swoop. Whew.

I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted out of academia other than the ability to “teach teachers”, but I was surprisingly clear in my focus on the end goal of earning a Ph.D.  (This bears mentioning because of how often I’ve read about other RFMs starting degrees and not finishing them; for whatever reason, this wasn’t an issue for me. I’m actually a pretty hardcore “completist” about certain projects or goals in life, and this gets me through.)

I did worry, however, about how a career in academia would mesh with my goals of having a family. I wasn’t getting any younger (I was 29 when I started my four-year program), and knew I would need to make some high-stakes decisions pretty soon. I decided not to worry about it for the time being, and simply finish up – which I did.

When I got pregnant during my first year after graduation, I still wondered how it was all going to work out – but went ahead and applied for tenure line positions anyway. And, I got one. I gave birth to my daughter C. a couple of weeks before the start of the fall quarter at my new institution.

The position I accepted was at a local liberal arts college, with high expectations for teaching and community service, and low expectations for research output. This seemed in alignment with my goal of simultaneously being a new parent, but it meant I suddenly shifted into a radically different type of academic space than the one I’d been studying in for four years.  It was a stark difference, to say the least – and while I adored being back “on the ground” with teachers, I missed the intellectual stimulation of being around so many top-notch researchers.

Within a few years, my husband and I decided we wanted to relocate to another state where raising our growing family would be both easier and cheaper – so, I bid adieu to my tenure-line position and sank into existential depression over what would come next for me work-wise. Thankfully, an inquiry email led to a meeting with someone at the major R1 university in my new city, who happened to be looking for a qualified instructor for a specific course, which turned into a part-time directorship of a masters program, then a full-time directorship, and eventually back to part-time once I realized I couldn’t actually stay healthy and parent my three kids effectively while working that much.

I’ve been on a 0.6 lecturer contract in academia for quite a few years now, and it’s been a nearly perfect balance in terms of workload and flexibility. I don’t really conduct much research of my own anymore; instead, I work with masters students on their “action research” projects, teach and construct plenty of classes, serve on doctoral committees, and generally stay immersed in academia without the pressures of “publish or perish” (though also without any of the job security or prestige associated with tenure-line work).

I mention all this as a backdrop to, and context for, the original topic of my post: rainforest minds in academia. Would one expect to find lots of rainforest minded-folks at the highest levels of study, or not – and why?

At first, the answer seems like an intuitive – yes, of course. Wouldn’t the world’s smartest, most curious people end up getting the most rigorous degrees possible and spending their lives surrounded by learning?

Well, yes and no. It’s likely that most people who’ve gotten doctorate degrees and landed jobs in academia were designated “gifted” as kids – meaning, they had “the capability to perform at higher levels compared to others of the same age, experience, and environment in one or more domains.” 

But are they now rainforest minded adults? Not necessarily. Professors are not all “excessively curious, creative, smart and sensitive.”

Rather, many are single-mindedly focused on a specific area of inquiry, working long hours plugging away at incremental work that takes years of dedication. Conducting research, writing academic papers, submitting and resubmitting papers for publication, and seeking grant money can be grueling work that isn’t for the faint of heart – or for the fickle of interests.

Indeed, I’ve struggled over the years to stay sufficiently interested in any specific facet of my work (research-wise) for long enough to really make a dent in “the literature”, or make a name for myself. Each time I think I have an inkling of what I want to say, I find there’s more to explore and reflect on, and I’m off on another tangent. I just don’t quite have the type of relentless focus on singular projects required of highly productive academics.

However, there are some exceptions to the trope of what “highly productive” means in academia. The type of academics who can (and do) write articles and books for the broader public tend to take a more holistic approach to their work, looking not only deeply but broadly at any given problem. They make unusual connections, seek out new perspectives, and aren’t afraid to admit that their thinking has changed on a topic when provided with new evidence.

I believe these are rainforest minded academics.

Sadly, they’re all too rare. Most academics I’ve either known or know of tend to “stay in their lane” for the good of their own careers. There’s a fear of speaking with any semblance of authority (or even curiosity) about something one isn’t sufficiently grounded in with deep expertise as a scholar – which means oh-so-many potential “a ha” moments are lost in the noise of safety and specialization.

Speaking of safety, academia is a notoriously unsafe space to speak up about challenging topics. This is ironic, since you’d think scholars would be the first to throw out new and innovative ideas – but there’s an in-group tendency that can quite literally be stifling.

This primarily has to do with the peer-driven structure of academia, as colleagues rate your work and determine whether your contributions are sufficient to merit a promotion (and eventually tenure). It also has to do with what “counts” as useful contributions to one’s field. Community service at R1 institutions is lauded through lip service, but not given anything close to the same weight as publishing yet another paper in a peer-reviewed journal (which leads to plenty of “dead weight” recycling of similar ideas in slightly different guises).

It’s a tricky, sticky situation – one that’s ultimately led me to determine that academia isn’t really the ideal space for me. I’m far too interested in making a direct difference in the world, and speaking “the truth” as I know it. I don’t want to follow the “rules of the game” simply to get ahead. What would be the point of that?

So, I follow my conscience and my passions rather than a prescribed set of “guidelines for success”. While I managed to make it through the strictures of a doctoral degree and four years on the tenure line, apparently that was it for me.

And here I am with my rainforest mind, formally anchored to a specific field for the purposes of my job, but feeling like a permanent imposter (because if you don’t buckle down and focus in academia, you’re not really “the best”).

However, I’m not sure I have any other choice, given the way my brain works – and I’m also not sure I would necessarily be happier (or more content, or less questioning) if I were wired differently.

Life itself – huge, messy, complicated, untethered by institutional mandates –  continues to beckon to me as a much more intriguing option.

Copyright © 2020 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution. 

Coming Out as an RFM

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Ever since starting this blog, I’ve wanted to talk about what it’s like to “come out” as a Rainforest Mind (a.k.a. “gifted adult”).

I’ve thought quite a bit (naturally – RFMs are “overthinkers”!) about using the term “coming out”, and it continues to feel like the right one to me.

My giftedness as a child was a source of isolation, frustration, and bullying. As an adult, my giftedness has been a source of – well, isolation, frustration, and social loneliness. It’s certainly not something I ever talk about openly with other adults, who tend to get uncomfortable at the mere mention of the G word, especially related to adults.

Hence: “coming out”. Attempting to normalize. Attempting to feel publicly okay about “being a certain way”. I’m on the road, but not there yet.

In previous years, as I sought out therapy for ongoing challenges and depression (ever-present, though thankfully managed well these days), my last two counselors both pointed out that being a “gifted adult” was something I might want to consider as an integral and exploration-worthy part of my identity. I pushed back by saying I wasn’t interested in joining Mensa (I have very little interest in IQ per se), and that I really wasn’t quite sure how this related to much of anything.

My first “formal” introduction (on my own) to the idea of giftedness in adulthood was stumbling upon Marylou Kelly Streznewski’s  (1999) Gifted grownups: The mixed blessings of extraordinary potential. (If a book has been written about something, then surely it’s a “thing” – right?) I knew all about being designated “gifted” as a child and navigating those schooling waters – but what did it mean, exactly, to use this term later in life? As Streznewski writes in her Preface:

“If you think that gifted children are a misunderstood minority in American society, try looking up ‘gifted adult’ in a good library; but do so only if you enjoy watching librarians twirl” (p. v).

In discussing her motivation for writing this book (which involved first conducting in-depth interviews with 100 participants), she describes being a high school Advanced Placement English teacher seeing students who “needed special help”:

“Year after year, a significant number of them arrived in my class at the end of a long road fogged with what they called boredom. They complained of inability to concentrate, lack of motivation, feelings of failure, and were obviously wasting a great deal of talent” (p. vi).

I haven’t written yet about my experiences as a gifted teenager (that’s a whole other set of blog posts), but the brief story is – I didn’t cope well; I dropped out of middle school, then out of high school, then out of college (the first time around).

In other words, I am yet another example of Streznewski’s findings that “managing a high-powered brain/mind can create difficulties in school, work, and society, and can make finding friends and partners a challenge” – and that “the problems and pleasures of being gifted do not change, only the context in which they are experienced as one grows older” (p. viii).

Looking back at the notes I took while reading Streznewski’s book, I see so many sections underlined, circled, check-marked, and/or annotated with “me” in the margins. Here are just a few from various chapters:

Chapter 3 (In Hiding): “I’m careful so my girlfriends won’t think I’m showing off. I guess I just don’t want to make other people feel bad” … “I have to be careful about dates. The last person was angry with me for using big words” (p. 42).

Chapter 4 (The Gifted Family): “You get so tired of trying, looking, hoping, every party you go to, every new house you move into, that you will find someone who is compatible” (p. 60).

Chapter 6 (Young Adults: The Extra Mile): “I hate Tupperware parties! I’d rather stay home and read” (p. 117).

Chapter 7 (Bored, Bored, Bored: The Quest for Challenging Work): “What may be viewed by others as restlessness or discontent is the norm for a gifted person” (p. 135).

Chapter 8 (Finding the Others: Friends and Lovers): “I can create unusual responses to situations which are interesting and catch me by surprise. When I am emotionally threatened, I become hyper-intellectual” (p. 192).

Okay – all of this (and much, much more) really resonated with me. So, I would say that reading Streznewski’s book was part of my “coming out” – though once again, there weren’t many people I could converse with about it. I did try recommending it to one friend/colleague who never responded, then gave up.

The next time I intentionally brought up giftedness was when I joined a SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) parent support group. I couldn’t help reading our parenting textbook through the lens of my own experiences, and continually said to my group of parent-peers: “It’s super-hard to separate the parenting of my own kids from what I went through myself as a gifted kid, not receiving adequate support. I think I need to process that first.” Indeed, parenting my own “designated-gifted” kids has given me permission to talk more openly about “the G word” – and to think more deeply about what it means.

Attending a SENG conference also brought me face-to-face with a fellow gifted-adult traveler, Aurora Remember Holtzman, who told me about her podcast, Embracing Intensity. Aurora was one of the first people I spoke with personally (albeit briefly) about accepting, exploring, and embracing adult giftedness – with all its intensities. (I will return to more ideas from her podcast interviews in future blog posts.) 

Meanwhile, Paula Prober’s more recent work around Rainforest Minds (a more palatable phrase than “gifted adult”) has also gained a bit of a following. With her books and blog, Prober seems to be intentionally cultivating a sense of community and “normalcy” around rainforest mindedness (a.k.a. adult giftedness).

I hope the stigma of giftedness will lessen with time. I really do believe that diversity of all types is critical to human flourishing (and indeed, that we can’t avoid it). Now we “just” need to overcome avoidance of discussions around intellectual diversity.

I hope that for me, “coming out” as gifted can eventually shift to “reaching out” to like-minded souls instead.

References: 

  • Streznewski, M.K. (1999). Gifted grownups: The mixed blessings of extraordinary potential. John Wiley & Sons.

Copyright © 2020 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution. 

 

Schooling Choices for Gifted Kids

Now that I’ve talked a bit about my own schooling experiences growing up as a gifted kid, I thought I would jump into a brief overview of where I’ve landed as a parent.

I’ll start by stating that despite knowing how much “being gifted” impacted my own experiences as a child in school, I was very happily in denial about needing to address this concern once I had kids of my own.

Giftedness is a complicated, messy, contentious topic to deal with – especially as someone who’s dedicated my professional career to promoting educational equity and inclusion in schools.

How could I reconcile the reality of giftedness as a designation with the fact that all kids need individualized attention and care? In my ideal world, every child would have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) outlining their strengths and areas for growth, with plenty of ongoing support. (In fact, as I’m writing this, I realize I need to write a separate post about “My Ideal Schooling World.” Coming soon, hopefully.) 

It was easy enough for me to avoid thinking about parenting gifted kids when mine were super-young. Early parenting literature doesn’t tend to use this term; there’s way too much else to focus on and learn. The biggest concerns I had (other than survival!) were tracking my kids’ developmental milestones; ensuring they felt loved and validated; and providing “good-enough” spaces for their growth and positive socialization. Thankfully, my kids got all that from their community of caregivers, which included parents, grandparents, nannies, daycare providers, and preschool teachers.

After a big move from one state to another, my older daughter C. and her younger two siblings all eventually ended up attending a nearby Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool that we were very happy to call a second home. My kids were well cared for by their fabulous teachers, given plenty of space for creativity and expression, and encouraged to explore reading and writing at their own pace. I was able to continue my own career path while knowing my kids were in good hands and making lifelong friends.

However, when C. started Kindergarten in 2013, the situation became a little trickier. We considered sending her to a private school that seemed like an awesome continuation of her hands-on preschool experience, but we decided against it for the following reasons: 1) the cost; 2) concern about C. attending school exclusively with kids from more privileged socio-economic spaces; 3) wanting to support our neighborhood public school, which I’ll refer to here as “NE” for “Neighborhood Elementary”.

Thankfully, C.’s Kindergarten experience at NE went fine. My primary concerns were with C.’s overall happiness and sense of well-being, rather than academics, and she seemed to be on a good path. At that time, testing for the “advanced placement” program (gifted services) in our school district occurred on a select Saturday in the fall, which you had to sign up for ahead of time and drive your own kid to (not exactly egalitarian). I was inclined to ignore it and not go, but my husband made the effort and took C.

From what I recall, she did well but not quite well-enough to make the cut for gifted services, which suited me just fine: one less decision to make. She happily stayed at NE, went through gifted testing once again in 1st grade (with the same results – she qualified in math, but not in reading), and was still there when my son D. started Kindergarten in 2015.

D.’s Kindergarten experience at NE was also – fine. He had a lovely and understanding teacher who tried her best to differentiate for all kids, balancing academics with plenty of socio-emotional support and play. D.’s best friend from preschool happened to be in his classroom, which made life even better.

By 1st grade, however, D. was struggling at NE. He had already mastered the basics (and beyond) of reading, science, and math, and was clearly bored. His well-meaning teacher didn’t seem to understand that he craved more advanced curriculum, and in addition to ongoing toileting accidents, he began taking out his frustration on kids who he perceived to be “not following the rules”. (This was before we had a clear understanding about his neurodiversity.) When he lashed out physically (actually hitting other kids), we knew things weren’t okay, and immediately found him a counselor – which was a helpful supplement, but not enough.

D.’s scores on the district’s gifted placement testing (by this point administered district-wide to all kids, during the school day) were really high but not quite high enough – once again allowing us to simply decide to stay at NE (where I was meanwhile getting more and more actively involved in PTA governance). C. still qualified for “single subject” gifted services in math – meant to be delivered in her regular classroom (though since there was no accountability around this actually happening, it didn’t most of the time).

We got word late in the summer of 2015 that D.’s gifted testing scores had been re-calibrated, and he was suddenly offered a spot in an advanced placement classroom for 2nd grade at a different (nearby) school. We had to say yes to this opportunity: D. needed something different, and this was the next logical thing to try.

So – despite the fact that I was continuing to serve as NE’s PTA Co-President for a second year, and C. was very happily starting 4th grade at NE with an amazing teacher who met her needs on every level – including finally differentiating with more advanced math – D. went off to OE (“Other Elementary”). With my youngest still in preschool, we had an interesting year of juggling three different schools (not totally uncommon, I know, but still – it’s a lot).

Thankfully, D. adjusted reasonably well to his new advanced placement classroom, and we knew we’d made the best decision for him. (I say “reasonably” because it turns out he was still struggling with the other challenges I’ve written about on this blog.)

However, even more changes were afoot. We decided to buy a house in a more rural part of town (though still in the same district), which meant our kids had to adjust to new schools yet again. C. had finally passed the reading/writing portion of the “gifted test” with sufficiently high scores to qualify for a spot in the advanced placement program, which meant all three of our kids – now in Kindergarten, 3rd grade, and 5th grade – could actually attend the same school – for one year.

And now, as I continue to explore and embrace what giftedness means for my kids, I wonder: how will being in classes designed specifically for kids who’ve qualified for more advanced math and reading (one grade level above) impact their experiences? Have they (and will they) feel less isolated than I was as a kid, when I was sent off (metaphorically) to work my own way through different textbooks?

And what does it mean for me – as an equity-minded educator, parent, RFM adult, former-gifted-kid, and citizen – that I’ve chosen to send my kids to “tracked” classrooms? This is far from ideal on so many levels (and I’ll continue to talk about this).

However, all of life is a series of trade-offs. While I haven’t fully come to terms with my choices in this sphere, for the time being I can say with confidence that having my kids in more academically challenging classrooms seems to have been a net-positive – and for that, as well as the opportunity simply to choose at all – I’m grateful.

Copyright © 2020 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution. 

Getting Real About Giftedness

Me with my stamp collection in 5th (?) grade

Talking about gifted kids – and giftedness more broadly – is challenging; I’ve already explored that tension a bit on this blog, and will continue to do so.

With that said, as much as I love Paula Prober’s alternative phrase rainforest mind to describe myself as an “excessively curious, creative, smart and sensitive adult,”  gifted remains a specific and useful diagnostic term for kids who need differentiated attention and instruction in order to be successful in school.

I’m actually a fan of placing giftedness within the sphere of “learning differences”, as addressed by Special Education mandates in schools – meaning, teachers need to understand that a designation of gifted doesn’t simply mean the child is capable of more advanced work, but rather has a unique set of needs, dispositions, and potential challenges to address and work with. And that’s not even factoring in twice-exceptionality (i.e., other confounding challenges, including neurodiversity, anxiety, ADHD, etc.).

In this post, I’ll be sharing a bit about my own journey as a gifted kid navigating through a public school system in the United States. Hopefully, the chronological progression I’ve chosen here will make it clear how, despite best efforts by many, formal schooling eventually grew less and less tolerable for me.

As a younger child, I attended a local community preschool a couple of days a week and otherwise explored learning on my own and with my three siblings, with daily support from “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”. I don’t precisely recall learning to read, but it happened early and without effort. On the other hand, I DO remember the moment I knew I HAD to learn how to put my thoughts into writing: my mom was eager to get out the door to run an errand, but I wouldn’t stop bugging her with questions about how to spell various words. Eventually I learned how to navigate this on my own, and took off with emergent writing as well.

Kindergarten was basically a joy. I adored being in a bilingual (English-Spanish) classroom which emphasized play, music, art, friendship, and imagination. I don’t recall any sense of competition between kids at this point, other than an adult commenting once on how precisely I drew a tiny circle during an art project (without tracing). I got to practice the alphabet in both languages, and learn some basic terms in Spanish. (To this day, Spanish is my most fluent non-native language, despite never having lived in a Spanish-speaking country.)

First grade is when schooling challenges began to surface. Kids were suddenly expected to sit at their desks and listen quietly, and we were collectively punished for the misbehavior of a few naughty kids. Meanwhile, differences between our varying academic abilities were made stark: since I already knew how to read, write, and do basic math, I was given “next-grade-up” textbooks in each of these topics and asked to simply work on my own. Occasionally I was sent to other (older) classrooms to hang out for a while, but I mostly recall an increasing sense of isolation and separatism from my peers during core subject times. Thankfully, I had good friends in first grade and wasn’t socially anxious, so recess time allowed for plenty of connecting and play.

By second grade, I had tested into the district’s gifted program – but since this didn’t officially start until fourth grade, I distinctly recall teachers not being exactly sure what to do with me. I continued to be given separate textbooks and projects in core subjects, and was expected to simply learn and practice math, reading, and writing on my own, since I’d demonstrated proficiency using this “method” until then. On an emotional level, I unfortunately experienced relentless bullying that year, both from boys and from my supposed best girl-friends, and my anxiety skyrocketed. (Bullying of gifted kids merits its own post, so I’ll leave it at that for now.)

My parents met with my teacher to discuss having me skip third grade, but they collectively decided against it since they deemed me too “socially immature”. (One other child my age at my school was also offered the possibility of “grade promotion” – skipping third grade – which his parents said yes to. I can’t speak to J.’s emotional well-being, of course, but he’s a married professor with two kids at a prestigious university, so from outer appearances, things seem to have worked well for him.) 

In third grade I had a lovely teacher (more of a friend than a teacher) and an awesome best friend, and my “bully friends” were placed in a different class – so, life was good. My teacher assumed I would understand everything easily (which I did), so I was simply allowed to read books, have fun, and enjoy existence. Because life at school was so stress-free, I actually looked happy in my school photo that year. On the down side, I wasn’t challenged academically at all, and was continuing to internalize the notion that learning “should” simply be easy and natural for me, as the “smartest kid in the class”.

Fourth grade was when the “upper grades” started at my school – as well as the formal gifted-and-talented education (GATE) program. For one full day a week, the district’s GATE kids were bused over to my school (we had the most available classrooms) and we would rotate through a series of highly enjoyable, hands-on classes with committed teachers. I was no longer “the smartest kid in the room” and I LOVED this. In retrospect, I’m embarrassed and frustrated that not all kids were given the privilege of such a refreshing break from “school as usual”. However, at the time, I was simply happy about the opportunity for myself.

In terms of regular academics, I recall trying to get everything done in school (including homework) so I could have the afternoon and evening free – in other words, schoolwork was for “getting done”, not for actually learning from or engaging with meaningfully.

In fifth grade, I was placed in a combination 4th/5th bilingual classroom, with the result that everything about our class was differentiated, so I don’t recall feeling like a sore thumb – plus, I got to make good new friends who were in the 4th grade, and listen to my teacher repeat instructions in Spanish (yahoo!). A notable exception to not feeling “different” was during spelling bees, when I would ruin the experience for the entire class by never getting a word wrong.

Sixth grade, the final year at my elementary school, was when everything fell apart. My teacher – Mr. F., a notoriously strict taskmaster – required all the “GATE kids” to make up the work we’d missed during the day when we were “gone”. Meanwhile, acceleration for gifted kids in Mr. F.’s class meant doing boring research projects (not of our own choosing) and writing lengthy reports about what we’d learned. I was mercifully allowed to sit in one of the “corral” desks and simply read all day, unless Mr. F. was yelling at me for not paying attention. Mr. F.’s teaching fell squarely into inexcusable territory when he randomly assigned all girls and boys in the class a “romantic partner”, and started a “fat club” for all the “overweight” kids, who would receive free McDonald’s lunches from him once a week. Clearly, my sixth grade experience was a disaster on all counts.

This is when my true depression began, and eventually I descended into a challenging path that derailed me from “traditional school” for years. However, since this post is lengthy enough for now, I’ll end by noting the biggest takeaways I can glean from my own overview of what “worked”(or not) for me as a gifted kid:

  • Teachers obviously mattered – a lot.  Other than Mr. F., I had a range of teachers who helped me feel comfortable and welcome to varying degrees in class. Some were friendlier than others, but what the best ones all had in common was not making me feel awkward, “different”, or penalized because of my giftedness. Socially-speaking, I was simply a member of the class.
  • Friends also mattered, of course. Most of my best friends as a child weren’t designed “gifted”; rather, they were kind and fun girls who I bonded with and enjoyed spending time with.
  • Being asked to work ahead in next-grade textbooks in math, reading, and spelling was better than being forced to sit and listen to material I already knew – but it also reinforced two challenging “truths”: 1) I was expected to simply learn things on my own (from books), and 2) I was positioned as an outlier needing to be “dealt with”.
  • The weekly GATE program was an amazing life-saver for me personally – but ultimately a band-aid serving (mostly) privileged kids from more socio-economically advantaged homes; it almost certainly promoted many feelings of inequity and exclusion in the rest of the school.
  • Speaking of pull-out programs, being forced to make up work that you’ve “missed” while attending a gifted class is obviously cruel and pointless – as is requiring gifted kids to do boring research reports “just because they can”, without bothering to inquire about authentic interests.

I’ve only briefly touched on the socio-emotional aspects of growing up gifted, which I’ll turn to in another post – and of course there were so many other factors, both positive and negative, that played a part in my experiences. For now, this overview at least provides a historical glimpse of what schooling looked like for me as a gifted kid who eventually dropped out of school time and again, and rejected formal schooling for years on end.

Thankfully, I’ve emerged as a rainforest-minded adult with a rich life, and all’s well that ends well – but I can only image the possibilities if my first years of schooling had been better tailored to meet my needs.

Copyright © 2020 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution. 

Solfege and Chisanbop

Image from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Solfege_hand_sign_la.jpg

In my last post, I talked about the challenges associated with keeping my rainforest mind sufficiently busy as a child.  I shared that one thing I would do if I didn’t have a book or other form of writing around me to read was to hum a tune in solfege – defined by MusicTheoryTutor.org as:

… a system where every note of a scale is given its own unique syllable, which is used to sing that note every time it appears. A major or a minor scale (the most common scales in Western classical music) has seven notes, and so the solfege system has seven basic syllables: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti.

Americans will probably be most familiar with solfege from Maria von Trapp (a.k.a. Julie Andrews) singing “Do-Re-Mi” around the streets of Salzburg with her wards in The Sound of Music (1965) (one of my all-time favorite movies). The song teaches solfege through the following homophones:

Doe, a deer, a female deer

Ray, a drop of golden sun

Me, a name I call myself

Fa, a long long way to go

Sew, a needle pulling thread

La, a note that follows Sol

Tea, a drink with jam and bread

That will bring us back to Doe

Once the solfege “alphabet” is acquired and rehearsed, it serves as a magical key to the musical universe. Every single melody (at least in Western music – other scales and systems have their own unique entryways) can be “solfeged” – and since I was also studying piano as a child (my choice – I insisted on lessons), I would often combine solfege with moving my fingers in the air or on my legs as though playing over a keyboard.

In addition to solfege, I engaged my fingers and mind with chisanbop, a Korean-developed method of counting to one hundred on one’s two hands (right hand = ones, left hand = tens). Chisanbop came to America at just the right time for me to learn it as a first grader, at which point I very quickly become ultra-proficient, spending my recess time experimenting with ways to multiply by various numbers. (Sadly, none of my friends seemed particularly interested in watching or participating, so I recall simply doing this on my own.) 

Chisanbop went out of style in schools shortly after this, for reasons I’ve never understood – but I never lost it, and have continued to use my hands to count (and subtract, multiply, and divide) to this day.

As a fun side-story, I ended up being given the nickname “Chisanbop” during a volunteer teaching gig a couple of years ago at a minimum security men’s prison. My co-instructor and I were offering a series of modules on learning and leadership, and I used chisanbop as a literally hands-on example of how one might learn and teach something new. The guys were super-intrigued, and many took to it quickly – though one in particular, D., struggled quite a bit. Each time D. came to follow-up classes, he greeted me with a smile, said, “Hey, Chisanbop”, and gave me an update on how he was proceeding with his practice – which included trying to teach it to other men in the prison to get better at it himself.

I mention both solfege and chisanbop together in this post to highlight just two of the ways I kept my brain creatively engaged as a sensory-minded, twice-exceptional kiddo – without realizing at the time that this was what I was doing (or why). In hindsight, I can see how integrally connected these both were with embodied cognition: that is, I was desperate to make a connection between what my brain was cycling through (knowing/learning math and music), and how this might manifest bodily in the world (through my fingers).

I use the term “desperate” because as fun as these activities were, they sometimes felt almost like addictive and/or compulsive tendencies. I consider them a form of “coping OCD” that eventually went away. (I’ll write more about this in another post, since there’s a lot more to say about OCD and gifted kids.)

But most of the time, solfege and chisanbop served me well. Chisanbop gave me an always-available way to quickly count points during games, for instance, while solfege became the foundation for a much more extensive understanding of musical theory – which proved surprisingly useful in college.

As I wrote about in a previous post, I went to college because I knew I needed a bachelor’s degree of some kind to go on and get a teaching credential – but I wasn’t clear on what to study, or why. I ended up majoring in literature and minoring in music simply because I liked them both, despite not really understanding (at first) what either of these specializations entailed.

It turns out that studying music at the college level meant not just performing but really getting into the weeds of how music is constructed – i.e., the  nuts and bolts of its existence, which includes taking solfege to a whole other level. In one of my beginning music theory classes, we had an infamous “64 Intervals Test” that was conducted orally in front of everybody. One at a time, we were given 64 different intervals, both ascending and descending, and asked to name each one. I completed my test perfectly on the first try – probably in no small part because I’d spent my childhood solfegging non-stop inside my brain. In future quarters of more advanced music theory, we were given portions of simple Bach  chorales and asked to dictate the chords we heard; this was harder, but I still did well.

Since I was minoring rather than majoring in music, I wasn’t required to give a performance in the “big concert hall” – a good thing, since I was just barely getting myself up to performance-speed and didn’t feel nearly confident enough to pull something like this off. While I’d spent years loving music in the abstract, I knew I wasn’t cut out for a career in performance.

With that said, my interest in unusual music intrigued my piano instructor, who had never before worked with someone fascinated by early twentieth century American composers like Samuel Barber and George Antheil. My instructor encouraged me to put on a “Fridays at Four” concert in the music building, which was much lower-stakes, and allowed me to share the stage with a fellow student.

I performed part of Antheil’s “Airplane Sonata” and several of Barber’s “Excursions”, practicing just enough to  prove I could put on a reasonable show, but knowing this would be my “last hurrah” with both piano concerts and getting anywhere close to “perfection” – which it was. A handful of my good friends came to watch me and took me out to lunch afterwards. I still remember this fondly, and regret not having a recording of it to watch. (This was a different era in technology.) 

I spent a good many years after this wondering why, exactly, I’d chosen to study music, since I never planned on making a career of it. Many moons later – after lengthy deliberation and reading about the value of liberal arts degrees more broadly –  I’ve come to realize that there was nothing at all “wrong” about choosing to study music for awhile, as opposed to anything else. Something about its innate structure and beauty struck me as worthwhile – and that hasn’t gone away. Music continues to be almost like magic to me: it’s so powerful I almost can’t bear it at times. I actually have to stay away unless or until I’m ready to engage and get lost in it. (I need to write another post about music, since there’s so clearly so much more here to process and explore.)  

As for chisanbop – while I love having 100 digits available to manipulate on just two hands, I didn’t end up pursing mathematics beyond Pre-Calculus. I spent one hour in a college-level calculus class, found it less intuitive than I wanted, and gave up, never to return. I went in a liberal arts direction instead, and figured if I ever needed or wanted calculus in my life for some reason, I could come back to it.

As a parent now, I watch my three kids with deep curiosity, checking to see how math and music are playing out in their lives. They all take lessons on various instruments, but I don’t push anything too far, and they don’t seem driven. Meanwhile, none have taken up chisanbop, either, so I guess that really does remain my own unique bailiwick.

Obsessions take on different forms, and my kids’ interests are so clearly different from my own. They code and world-create like nobody’s business, making my mind spin with the quickness and intensity of it all – and so it goes with generational evolution; life (and parenting) are never not fascinating and ever-shifting.

Copyright © 2020 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution.