By Diane Scanlon 1996 - Updated 2008
When my son was 3, he could read those great big dinosaur names and match them to their pictures. I knew this was not normal. That’s why I hid his books whenever we had guests.
At 3 1/2 he was reading ingredients on boxes in my grocery cart and telling me which ones we shouldn't buy. People would look at him funny, so, I did my best to leave him home whenever I had to go to the market.
When he was 4 and reading high school level books, my cousin, the public school teacher, told me public school would ruin him. I didn't listen. I honestly thought for some reason that they would love to have a kid like this in any school. Until...The first day of kindergarten when the teacher requested that I have a talk with him. He was reading all the words that were up on the walls and he couldn't write his name. She didn't want the other children to feel bad that they couldn't read like him. Then she asked me to tell him not to be so lazy. She thought that since he could read so well, he obviously had to be able to write his name. I listened and did as she asked. My son's first school lesson was that he was bad because he could read and that he couldn't write his name.
Later that year, he wanted to take his medical book in for show and tell. I said "no" and handed him a toy instead. He went to school in tears that day. At 5 1/2 he was answering questions on Jeopardy and for a long time only my husband and I knew this.
In the first grade, he couldn't sit still in reading class. Back then I wondered why.
In the second grade, he still couldn't write well and couldn't spell for beans. That’s when they told me that he qualified for special education even though he was so smart. For the remainder of that year and the next three, they tried to get him to think of smaller thoughts to write. They wanted him to use vocabulary at age appropriate level because he had the vocabulary of an educated adult.
In the third grade, he tested for the gifted program in the Cranston, RI School District. However, he didn’t make it, even though he was 10 times smarter than every other kid in the district, including the sixth grade and everybody knew it. Unfortunately, over there the high achieving academically talented student had to struggle through what was called gifted education and the intellectually gifted child got writing resource and drugs were always an option. Go figure!
By the 4th grade, I hadn't received much help to understand why my boy who loved learning so much was miserable in school. While special education instructors tried their best to dumb him down, I didn't interfere because I honestly believed they knew what they were doing. However, the more they tried, the more depressed he got.
The fifth grade was somewhat OK because although the teacher didn't have the materials to give him what he needed, at least she knew what he didn't need.
I knew I had to do some learning myself. That’s when "I" hit the books. The education I received was frightening. I read case study after case study of children of promise who were damaged in an educational system that would not bend to accommodate them. Somewhere along the way I learned that without the right kind of emotional and educational support, kids like this started to fall apart almost as soon as they hit middle or junior high school. They needed specialized teachers and needed to be away from peer pressure. Instead, they were left in the regular classroom and attention was drawn to what they could not do - but none was drawn to their intellect. Their teachers grew to resent them and they were put on drugs that made them behave but stole their creativity. The ones who were not hyperactive got picked on relentlessly by age mates and were pressured to conform. Many of the exceptionally gifted kids were plagued with some kind of handwriting or spelling problem, which makes them appear less able than most children instead of more able. These problems were more often than not due to asynchrony. That's uneven development. However, they were so smart that they could hide these problems in the early years. Possible disabilities were left unchecked, or modifications were flimsy at best. If by some miracle they actually made it to high school, they could not take the lack of recognition of their advanced intelligence anymore and cracked. I learned that Schools labeled them as troublemakers, deviants, emotionally unstable, behavior disordered, ADD, ADHD. Take your pick. That's when I promised myself it wasn’t going to happen to Joseph.
At some point during the 5th grade, I found out that about 10 percent of the children in our district should be gifted with maybe 3 or 4 at a level similar to my son. Then I ultimately learned that at his level, he was maybe the only one. That's when I knew I couldn't hide anymore.
So, I fought for a gifted program and I tried to get my point across that the students who have to study, are high achievers, happy, interested and doing fine are not the ones who need this. The ones who do are the students that are not achieving commensurate to their mental abilities. In rare cases they may be getting "A's", but they say they're bored and their teachers say they don't believe in bored. Others say they don't believe in gifted children. Then I heard "all children are gifted". So I guess everybody's child reads by before three and it’s quite normal for a 5 year old to pick up the World Book Encyclopedia and start reading it A-Z. I know there are other forms of giftedness, but intellectual giftedness seems to be the one that breeds the most contempt by teachers who don’t have a clue of what they're doing. Still, some teachers do recognize they're precocious and honestly do try to challenge them and by challenge I mean, allow them to learn something of relevance that they don't already know. They might get lucky one year out of 12.
Sometimes, though, challenge comes too fast and too late. They're used to knowing everything, and the fear of failure makes them take an F, rather than try, but get less than an A. When that happens, they "do" fall apart. Their brains rush ahead of their social, emotional, and physical development. The education of gifted children has to be interest based. They also need a very strong support system.
We ultimately got our gifted program. However, then we had to decide what to call it and it must be for ALL children because the word "gifted" seems to give people the hives. I wonder why there’s no social upset over the term, "gifted athlete". I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if suddenly, every high school boy or girl had to be on the football team and it wouldn't matter whether they knew how to play or not. Even better than that - What would happen if suddenly there was no football team? It'll never happen in our lifetime, right? Only the best get on the team and nobody gives it a second thought. I never heard the word "elitist" refer to a football player and I never will. Too many people think that gifted education is something to be jealous about. If it were done properly, it would be inappropriate for most children. That's because it would be inappropriate for most children to be exposed to a level of knowledge that they couldn't possibly understand.
Since our government uses the term gifted to describe this group of children it does not mean that another child has no gifts. That's just more nonsense. I personally don't care what they call this phenomenon. As long as these kids are educated and treated properly, I'll never complain again.
They walk into kindergarten with encyclopedic knowledge. They give new meaning to the phrase, "Just the facts." From day one they walk into an educational "no man's land" because they are already so far above what they're being expected to learn. Friends of mine once said "Books should come with warning labels that say, “Caution, allowing your preschool child to read could be hazardous to his education". (Kearney & Kearney) However, some of these kids were reading things they shouldn't, even before their parents knew they could read!
These parents do not view their children as being any better than any other. However, they know they are different. These children are normally well behaved and respectful and have very high moral standards. If you see one in a classroom, you might not know they are different because they have such a strong desire to be accepted by their peers and have a sense of belonging. They are also the brightest of the brightest and reported by congress to be a valuable, natural resource vital to the future of this nation. I think that they deserve some kind of attention, don't you? If these children are ever to be educated properly, politics, egos and popular opinion must be left out of it. The majority of the population does not understand the needs of these children or the importance of their very existence for society as a whole.
I wrote this all out because I wanted as many people informed about this as possible. I do not blame any one particular teacher or school district for a problem that had its birth long before my child was ever born. But, I absolutely believe that if you are not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. This is why I try so hard to reach as many teachers as I can. If through this story, I have reached one teacher who before reading it thought that the education of a gifted child is an extra that must be written into a contract, than my time at this keyboard has not been wasted.
I'm not speaking about all teachers. I know there are some wonderful teachers out there who honestly try to meet the needs of all their kids, with or without training. I know a few of them myself. It's too bad they're in the minority.
Suggested Reading Material
Webb, Meckstroth and Tolan (1982) Guiding The Gifted Child Dayton: Ohio Psychology Press
Tolan (1996) Is It A Cheetah? Freely Distributed
Friedel, Marie (1970-) Case Studies of Gifted and Creative Children from the NFGCC
Copyright © Diane Scanlon 1996/2008