I remember being on a road trip with my family when I was probably around 7 or 8, doing a crossword puzzle or word search in one of the activity books my mom always packed for us on these long trips. I had gotten all but one word, and though I stared at it a long time, I couldn't figure it out, and I finally had to look it up in the back.
The word was "smart." The irony struck me immediately and I had to share. Laughing, I announced, "I got all the words except 'smart'! I'm smart, but I couldn't figure out the word 'smart'!"
My parents began conferring in whispers about whether they needed to tell me that it wasn't polite to say I was smart. I remember it vividly because that was the first instance that it dawned on me that my intelligence level wasn't just another fact about me, like my height or my age or the fact that I had strawberry blonde hair. Despite being told over and over again how smart I was, this wasn't something I was supposed to acknowledge about myself.
I attempted to save face by turning to my brother and saying, "Isn't it funny? I was smart enough to get all the other words in this whole puzzle, but I couldn't get the word 'smart' itself!"
That was one of many experiences to come in which I would downplay my intelligence to avoid being looked down upon.
To give you some snapshots of what the first 10 years of my life were like:
- I learned to read when I was 4, and one of my earliest memories is a reading test we had to do at the beginning of kindergarten. The teacher's assistant had this packet of paper with columns of words on each page -- I'm guessing they got progressively harder as you went, to see how many words kids could recognize coming in. After going through about four pages of words with me, she got bored of listening to me read and just gave me whatever the top score was.
- In first grade, I learned that the pace of the class was determined by how long it took for someone to raise their hand and give the correct answer to teacher's question. Soon after that, I learned that I had to pretend not to know the answer a lot or else the teacher would start saying, "Does anyone other than Jessica know the answer?"
- I was one of a handful of second graders chosen to be in a "2/3 split," meaning the class was mostly third graders but we were all together learning the same things. That year was great, and my teacher was fabulous. It wasn't actually skipping a grade, though, which meant I still had to do third grade. Again.
- In third grade my teacher would give us spelling pre-tests at the beginning of each week, and then we'd be tested on the same list of words at the end of the week, unless we got everything right on the pre-test, in which case we had to come up with our own list of 10 spelling words to work on that week. After many tearful nights sitting for hours with my mother flipping through the dictionary, trying to find words long enough or complicated enough that I didn't immediately memorize the correct spelling, I started purposely missing a word on the pre-test so I wouldn't have to make my own list of words every week. Unfortunately my teacher overheard me telling my friend about this strategy, and I got in trouble.
- In fourth grade we had weekly spelling tests again, except this time you had find a replacement word for each word you got right on the pre-test. Not wanting to miss all the words on the pre-test, I resigned myself to more long, tearful nights with my mom and the dictionary.
I did test into the gifted program in grade school, which meant once a week I would leave class for an hour or so to go do fun, challenging things with the other gifted kids. It wasn't an ideal situation, but it was more than worth it for me. That was where I learned to play Set, which remains one of my favorite games to this day. We were given challenges, like when we had to pick stocks and try to build the best portfolio or when we had to build a contraption out of foil that would keep ice cubes cold the longest. Even though I had to leave my regular class to go to another part of the school, it was a better situation than if we'd stayed in Washington, where I would have been bused to another location to participate in the gifted program.
When I started middle school, everything changed. The gifted program was its own "team," meaning we had our core classes together rather than just doing extra activities once a week, and we had our own set of teachers who taught only the gifted students.
For the first time since second grade, I was truly challenged. I didn't have to pretend not to know the answer to the teacher's question because either half the class also had their hand raised, or I really didn't know the answer because it was that difficult. I didn't have to purposely miss questions to avoid extra work; our weekly vocabulary lists were all new to me. The quality of work that got me an endless string of A+'s in grade school now had red marks throughout it, and I had to step up my game. I was pushed to read books that were above my grade level.
I learned to write. I learned to research. I learned to do algebra. I learned at a pace that felt natural to me. And I made friends who enjoyed being challenged as much as I did, friends I've kept to this day.
I have also remained good friends with my middle school English teacher, who is still at the same school doing the same work but nearing retirement. Every so often when I get together with her she'll tell me that there is talk brewing about doing away with the gifted program. That it's "elitist" and "unnecessary," according to people in the district.
It makes my blood boil just thinking about it. Who would I be today without those classes? If I'd continued to be taught at a slow, slow pace and encouraged not to show off my intelligence too much, how would that have shaped me?
I was exceptionally blessed that I was admired and not bullied by my classmates in grade school, but I don't think that would have continued if I'd been put in regular classes in middle school. Middle school is a rough time for anyone, and it was clear in a lot of ways that we were the rejects of the school -- even most of the administrators refused to treat us like just another team when making announcements to the school or organizing our grade to go on field trips. Our team would either be ignored altogether or they'd draw special attention to us for being different.
Elitist? We were never on the top of any social order. We were on the bottom, and we knew it, but we didn't care, because we had each other. The fact that I spent most of my day with, and made friends with, people whose minds worked like mine sheltered me from social isolation.
When my grandmother was in school, they didn't have these kinds of gifted programs. You just skipped grades. She started college when she was 15. I am so, so grateful I didn't have to do that. I was able to grow emotionally and socially along with my peers, while still being intellectually challenged.
What good would it do to take the brightest students and slow them down by putting them back into regular classrooms? School is a place to encourage learning, not stifle it. To nourish creativity and intellectual growth, not force everyone to learn at the pace of the lowest common denominator.
And the opposite is true as well. In grade school sometimes the teacher would take my correct answers to mean that the entire class understood something, and then I'd have people coming over to ask me to explain things because the teacher had gone too fast for them. Having a student who gets impatient and speeds up the lesson makes it worse for those who need extra help.
Being on the gifted team in middle school was a lifesaver for me. It is not the right place for everyone, but it was the right place for me, beyond the shadow of a doubt. There is a lot that I would change about our educational system, but I will defend the good that my gifted program did for me to the day I die.