Note: This was originally the opening of a larger essay I abandoned. I published the draft in The Things I Don’t Write and someone mentioned it was a nice anecdote, which it was. So I’m just republishing the anecdote with some other thoughts.
Last summer’s Gifted, with just a few scenes set in a public school, really got the teacher right. Other things were off–I don’t think the principal would have acted as she did, and the first grade class was just a little too quiet for real life. And sure, Mary’s teacher Bonnie was the romantic lead, so she wouldn’t be obnoxious or clueless.
But on her second day, after Mary finishes a math quiz in 30 seconds and shouts “DONE!” in a genuinely obnoxious tone, Bonnie comes over quietly and says “I thought you’d finish that quickly, so I made you a second test” and hands her a college-level test. Mary jumps on it like a starved wolf, working through it with focus and intensity. (A very nice touch, that.) When she’s finished, she says “Done!” and puts her head down on the desk. And smiles at the teacher. She’d been tested.
If I’m to go by blog comments, public schools are teeming with jealous teachers who seek out brilliant kids to insult and mistreat. I’ve lost count of the folks whining about how much their teachers hated them for being smarter. The same meme runs through movies and books–public teachers treating exceptionally bright children with resentment, suspicion, or simply utter hamhandedness.
That’s never been my experience as either a student or, most recently, as a parent of an extremely large, effortlessly bright, ferociously intense son. The middle attribute wasn’t noticed much in public schools, but I have very clear memories of the one teacher who did.
The memory is the only distinct recollection I have of any parent teacher conference, in an elementary school my son only attended for three months back in second grade. His teacher, a petite brunette, seemed friendly enough, but soon exceeded my wildest expectations.
“His reading level is astounding. I’ve never had a student read as well with as much understanding. He’s testing in the 99th percentile, at nearly high school level. But…there’s something wrong with his writing ability that concerns me.”
I nodded. “Yeah, dysgraphia runs in my family and I’m nearly certain he has it.”
She instantly wrote down the word. “Dysgraphia–like dyslexia? I’ve never heard of that.”
“Yeah, from what I’ve read, there’s no real fix for it. I’m only aware of it because my brother and father have it. There are different forms. My son’s is restricted to writing. He just isn’t reaching fluency with letter formation, so writing each word takes forever.”
She smacked the table “I KNEW it. I KNEW there had to be something particular wrong. I never thought to check with special ed, because it’s pretty normal for boys to have terrible handwriting and be less expressive. But I’d never seen it in conjunction with this level of intellectual ability.” She rummaged through some papers and came out with my son’s, a paragraph of four short sentences with no capitalization, barely keeping within the lines. One laboriously written sentence went something like this.
and then……a weird thing happened!
“Look at that. Ellipses! He’s using extremely advanced grammar structures. He spelled ‘weird’ right! but writing these four sentences took him half an hour. I have other students producing a page or more in the same amount of time but with nowhere near the complexity. No sense of building to a story like he has. And terrible spelling.”
I still remember her pleasure–not in his disability, but in her having spotted both his intellect and his struggle. And without prompting, she’d created her own accomodation. “As you may know, a major learning objective in second grade is cursive writing, but there’s no way he can manage that. So I’ve been creating simple little rules for him to check on. Is everything capitalized? Does he have sentence endings–periods, exclamation points? Simple things he can do to feel a sense of achievement, to keep him from getting discouraged. I hope you can keep him aware of his tremendous intellect until he figures out writing.”
And indeed, I did. With the exception of those three months, when I was working out of town, I paid for a tiny, private school for idiosyncratic kids (not exclusive at all) for three years. But by fourth grade–long before I became a teacher–I decided to try public schools, because of the memory of that second grade teacher he’d had so briefly.
I’m not one of those public school “boosters”. I oppose charters and vouchers, yes, but that’s because those parents are demanding private school choice at public school prices. I do think, though, that parents need to be active advocates for their kids, particularly if they don’t quite fit the mold. That said, my son did far better than I did in public school, in part because he had me looking out for him. By 4th grade, he understood the gap between what he could easily write and what his thoughts were, and once he grasped that, his writing improved dramatically. He grew up a friendly giant, managing his intensity far better than I did (or do!), graduated an AP Honors student with 99th percentile ACT and subject test scores and a respectable 3.9 weighted GPA. He was accepted into top 50 schools, but chose a nearby top 70 school he’d always dreamed of going to. He was less successful in college, although he took a lot of demanding courses. It took him close to seven years to graduate, but while I angsted over this at the time, he was completely self-supporting for the final three of those years, living on his own and paying all his own bills. A month short of 30, he’s now making a nice living in sales, supporting a wife, two kids, and a mortgage. I can only assume that seventeen Baby Boomers are stuck with their thirty-something kids in their old bedrooms to make up for my good fortune while still keeping those millennial generation stats looking dreary.
Is he a nuclear physicist? No, but then he didn’t want to be. Prestigious jobs these days require connections, lots of money, or burning desire–he, like me, was 0 for 3. But he’s done well, and he uses his intellect in part (as I did), to make good money at a job he enjoys, but isn’t inspired by. He tells me he wants to wait until his forties to find his passion in life–just like I did, working in tech until I stumbled onto teaching, my real love.
My life course was different. I had a generally mediocre high school experience because I never really learned how to learn. English was my saving grace, where I benefited from outstanding teachers and developed my analytical skills. I grew up working class; my son grew up on the outer edges of upper-middle. Both of us have gifts that run verbal, which means we couldn’t do impressive tricks like solve integrals at the age of six. So I was a smart-ass, while he was a large, looming, usually sullen presence in many honors classrooms.
But never once did I get the sense that a teacher resented my intelligence. Quite the contrary, many teachers who I thought hadn’t noticed me at all pulled me aside, telling me to get it together and use my considerable intellect for something other than reading science fiction or watching old movies. It took me decades to act on their advice, but that’s because my working-class parents were unsure of the best way to help. My son, on the other hand, rarely had teachers who realized he was exceptional–one of my son’s favorite high school graduation memories is the number of teachers who did a double take at his AP Honors gold cord. But he had me, and one of my proudest achievements is….not his success, which is his, but the easier time he had getting there, in part because I was there to guide him.
Bu my son’s second grade teacher, Bonnie in Gifted, and all those teachers who admonished me to get it together are much more typical of teacher reaction to kids whose intellect is way ahead of the class than sneers, contempt, and hostility. So next time someone tells you a tale of woe about how his teachers were jealous of his tremendous intellect and treated him with petty malice, allow for the possibility that maybe he’s just obnoxious. Sure, there are mean, petty teachers. Just not all that many.
One of the reasons this piece sat for months in drafts is because I originally wanted to move on to discuss what to do, if anything, with “gifted” kids. But it’s complicated. So I’ll leave that for another day.
But until then, please check out this very old piece, written before the new GRE finally eliminated that embarrassing gap. This is still a problem. Kids with exceptional verbal gifts have no clear career outlet, nor are there easy, largely fake, academic solutions like acceleration. Before we can really address gifted education, we have to address the fact that we don’t know how to educate or hire them.