Coming out with the G word

I hesitate to admit it, especially in a public forum such as this. It makes me uncomfortable to tell people. I tend to pretend it’s not true, that there is no issue. I usually ignore it and hope that it will go away, or at least that people won’t notice. It’s one thing to have it pointed out, but quite another to draw attention to it myself.

But here it is.

I’m gifted.

It makes me quite squeamish just to see it baldly declared in print like that. And how did it make you feel? Did you think to yourself “how arrogant!”… just a little? If I talked about how gifted my kids are, would you dismiss me as conceited? Does my admission that I am gifted make you want to cringe and turn away, pretend you didn’t see? Are you muttering to yourself that I obviously think I am better than everyone else?

‘Gifted’ is a loaded term. It conjures images of elitism. Of intellectual arrogance. Of a “brainier than thou” attitude. And of favouritism and special treatment.

Let me paint you a picture of what it means to be gifted. Like most people there are some things I am great at, and many others at which I comprehensively suck. Being gifted doesn’t make me better than anyone else. More than anything, being gifted just makes me different. Being gifted as a child meant not fitting in. Ever. Anywhere.

The first time I found somewhere I felt I truly belonged was when I was 21. The second time was when I joined my current workplace two years ago, when I was 39. Not that I haven’t had friends – I’ve had great ones – but I’ve rarely felt a sense of belonging in a group. I’ve always been keenly aware that I was odd.

We’re really bad at difference in our society. People who are unusual, different, unconventional – they freak us out, make us uncomfortable. They challenge us, force us – all unwilling – to question our choices. Difference is something we tend to turn away from.

Gifted kids often have high levels of anxiety, and an emotional intensity right off the Richter scale. I’m not sure how much of that is innate, and how much stems from that feeling of not belonging. “No-one gets me, Mum” is the wounded cry of the gifted child. Heartbreaking in its undeniable truth.

Our school system is strange. Despite reams of literature on the subject of kids maturing at different rates, learning at different rates, being ready for things at different ages, we force kids into classes with other kids their own age. Rather than grouping them with their intellectual peers, we group them by their birthday – a singularly uninformative measure of anything at all!

Curiously, gifted kids often struggle academically. Give a gifted child a challenge he or she finds engaging, and the results will be spectacular. But sadly schools very rarely provide that sort of stimulation. Gifted kids are often bored and disengaged, or trying so hard to fit in that they are afraid to get good marks.

Being gifted is not about getting a label and trying to place ourselves, or our kids, on any kind of pedestal. It’s about knowing ourselves and our kids well enough to handle the positives and the negatives as best we can. It’s about trying to find people who get us, and places where we fit in.

On the rare occasions that I meet other parents of gifted kids, there is always an overwhelming sense of relief. Here is someone who understands the overwhelming intensity, the anxiety and the sensitivity. The incredibly active imaginations and a level of thinking that they are not emotionally ready to handle. The terror and days of stress that simply hearing a news broadcast on the radio can cause.

Of course not all gifted kids are the same, but nearly all parents of gifted kids seem very reluctant to use the G word in public. Last weekend I went with my 9 year old to a camp for gifted kids. Telling people where we were going, I generally just said it was a Harry Potter camp.

But now I think it’s time to bring the G word out in the open. It’s easier to tell people that my kids are gifted than to say that I am. It still feels like bragging, and no-one likes a braggart. On the bright side it means I know what my kids are going through – and if I am open and honest about it, maybe I can make it a little easier for them.

In an ideal world gifted would be a simple descriptive term. Like blonde, short, tall, dyslexic, fat, gay, thin, straight, or aspergers, it should not be an emotive, loaded and pejorative term, but a factual description of a single aspect of a multi-faceted human being.

So this is my challenge to you – think about these two questions:

What do you think when I say “I’m gifted”? And why?

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Endings and Beginnings

Three years ago I got a phone call from a friend and ex-colleague. “We’re doing something you might be interested in,” he said. After reminding him that there was no way I was coming back, he told me about the project and I was back the next day. I started to work with a fledgling school, developing curriculum and resources for amazing new courses. At the time I was working towards a career in communications in charities. This school stuff was just a part-time sideline, not a road to a whole new life. (I have an astonishingly bad track record in predicting my career path.)

As the year went by I found myself spending more and more time in the classrooms, working with the most amazing group of kids I could imagine. By the end of that year I made the leap into the river that is secondary teaching, drawn by the friendship, talent, creativity and infectious enthusiasm of these exceptional kids. Since then the river has contained rapids, waterfalls, and occasional strange creatures clutching at my paddle, throwing me off balance.

There have been highs of breathtaking intensity, like watching year elevens take an active role in cancer research, or receiving heartfelt feedback from kids and their parents. There have been crises of confidence of overwhelming depths, as I realized the magnitude of what I had taken on, and became keenly aware of my ignorance. Through it all I have never looked back.

Last night I attended my first valedictory dinner – a farewell for my first secondary students, and a celebration of their spectacular achievements. I have learned with these students, sung in choir with them, laughed with them and worked my guts out alongside them. They have stretched my skills and abilities every single day, running, leaping and bounding in a hundred different directions, pushing me further than I ever thought I could go.

Just as I was leaving the dinner last night, a student came up to shake my hand, and then pulled me into a huge hug as he told me how he appreciated my efforts. I wish I could frame that moment. I know the memory will pull me through on any hard days to come.

When you’re a touch obsessive about your work you can easily wind up focusing on the goals you’re not kicking, the things you don’t achieve, and the ways you haven’t quite reached the stars you were stretching out for. That hug reminded me how far I’ve come, and how wonderful the journey has been.

My job may be to support them, but these kids have been an incredible support to me. Their friendship and appreciation has made it very clear to me that I have found my vocation. I still have a lot to learn, but I could not be in a better place to learn it.

It breaks my heart to say goodbye to them, but I can’t wait to see where they go. They will surely change the world.

A life less serious

I noticed years ago that kids respond better to humour than almost anything else. The question “Why are there two pairs of shoes under the kitchen table?” irrespective of tone, is generally greeted with defensive excuses, often with some whining thrown in. The same sentence with a touch of humour, eg “Why are there two pairs of shoes under the kitchen table? Do we have half an Octopus visiting for dinner?” generally gets giggles and prompt action to rectify the problem. Complete absence of defensiveness and irritation on all sides. Hard to remember to do when I am tired and grumpy, but definitely worth the attempt.

I’ve also noticed that my favourite people are the ones who can make me laugh on the blackest days. The ones who can take trauma and make me laugh at it are the ones who make it possible for me to survive. Inappropriate humour can be a magical trick. My husband, Andrew, is my primary laugh-giver. This is the man who, when I was struck by sudden explosive morning sickness for the first time said “would you like your toast now, or shall I flush it straight down the loo?”

After listening to a radio program about dementia, I was contemplating the way dementia seems to leave people distilled to the essence of their fundamental character traits. A relative of mine who suffered from Alzheimers remained a perfect gentleman, while all memories and cognitive skills leaked away. He was always a kind and amiable man, and simply became more so as his brain deteriorated. Thinking about this I became somewhat morose and said somewhat bleakly “I wonder what will be left when I become demented?”

Moroseness was blown sky high when Andrew responded “Sheer pedantry. Nothing but red pen.”

I don’t know what my essential character traits are, but I did recognise a profound truth in that moment (once I had recovered from snorting my coffee through my nose). It’s not just kids who respond to humour. Life is easier for all of us if we don’t take ourselves too seriously. If we can take the worst life has to dish out and raise a laugh, or enlist a skilled supporter to raise a laugh for us, then we’ve got a good chance of surviving.

You may be right
I may be crazy
But it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for
turn out the light
don’t try to save me
you may be wrong, for all I know, but you may be right.

Billy Joel, You May Be Right.

I take many things far too seriously. As a parent I often get wound up ludicrously tightly over things that simply don’t matter. As a teacher I beat myself up over every class that doesn’t go as planned, and every assignment that doesn’t work the way I intended. As a friend I take on my friends’ problems and sometimes have to be forcibly restrained from making myself responsible for fixing everything for everybody. (I admit it’s possible there’s just a touch of OCD in my family. Not in me of course. But definitely in everyone else.) This isn’t terribly good for maintaining sanity, or balance, or indeed friends.

A couple of years ago I shaved my head on a whim, and it amazed me how seriously some people took it. Some almost cried at the loss of my long blond hair. Some backed away, trying very hard not to make eye contact, and disappeared into the ether –  unwilling to risk friendship with such a loose cannon. Still others got very excited, and raved about how brave I had been, and how wonderful it was to do something so different. Throughout it all I often said “it’s just hair, people. It’ll grow back.”

You know what? Life is a lot like that. It’s just life, people. It’ll spring back into shape. It might not be the same shape, but it does tend to bounce back, if you give it a chance, and laughter has an exceptionally good bounce-factor. So next time I’m struggling, I’m going to find someone to make me laugh. I don’t think I’m going to have to look very far.