Family Life


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Portrait of a Gifted Child

56 portrait - portrait of a gifted childWhen my first-born was a few weeks old, I watched him cooing and thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if he turned out to be gifted? What an exhilarating adventure!” I knew very little back then. In fact, my son’s father and I knew nothing about giftedness. If we had, maybe things would have turned out differently.

In retrospect, there were big clues that my son did things differently. He started laughing at three weeks. By 12 months, his vocabulary had exploded so much, it was impossible to keep track of what he knew. As a preschooler, he studied spiders intensively. Very soon he knew more about insects than any adult I knew. I was proud of him. But I also saw that he didn’t excel at everything. He was slow to walk. He was neither interested in nor skilled with a pencil. Though obsessed with books, he had zero interest in learning to read. You might not think this sounds like a gifted child at all. My son’s teachers agreed. Kindergarten was a flop. My son’s first grade teacher told me he was developmentally behind all the other children and urged me to have him repeat first grade. My son was hysterical when I suggested it. We did not hold him back and – to everyone’s surprise – second grade was a fair success. We thought our bright son’s struggles with school were ending. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Third grade was a disaster. His teacher offered us exhausting detail of his flaws. She urged us to have him tested “to find out the nature of his learning disabilities.” I was devastated. For the first time, I began to consider that my bright son might actually be rather slow. But it didn’t make sense. At home, I entertained him and his little sister with conversations about genetic engineering, astrophysics, and the geometry of social space. How could this be the same boy who was falling behind all his peers in every subject? We decided to pay the exorbitant cost of a full psychological and educational assessment. By this point, a couple of people – though not teachers – had suggested that my son might be a gifted learner, that is, a child with an IQ in the upper two percent of the population. I brought my son’s teacher an article about children who are gifted and learning disabled. She was adamant in her response: “I have seen gifted children before and I can assure you he does not belong to that category.” A couple of weeks later, the testing was completed. The scores were added up. Full of dread, we sat down on the psychologist’s couch and waited for her to break the news.


“Your son is clearly a gifted learner,” she said. “However, his weaknesses in written output prevent him from demonstrating that fact.” She added, “School has probably been an excruciating experience for him. If his learning environment does not become more tailored to suit his needs, he will be placed at increasing psychological risk.” I was overwhelmed. What does this mean? How are we going to deal with this? My child was suffering! Why hadn’t we recognized his needs earlier? By the time I walked out of that office, I had begun the steep learning curve of understanding what “giftedness” is all about. This is where our story should have become happier. Instead, it got worse. Despite the psych-ed assessment, his teacher never did accept that he is a gifted learner. She began singling him out more often, getting angry at him for his forgetfulness, making him do extra work, or embarrassing him about his inadequacies in front of his peers. She refused to take any of the psychologist’s suggestions for enriching his education, and the school supported her decisions. By the end of the year, he had become despondent, withdrawn and deeply insecure. “I’m just an idiot,” he’d say to me, often. I didn’t know what to do. And I still don’t. Subsequent teachers have been more understanding, and his confidence has improved. But every year it becomes clearer that the public school system isn’t designed for him. Far from being a place he can thrive, we only hope he can survive it. We don’t have the money for a private school or the time for home schooling. People have offered us a plethora of advice – from special tutoring to eye therapy to keyboards. We’re trying many things, but these ideas cost money – lots of money – and use up time when my son could just be playing and being a kid. It’s an arduous road ahead. Already, I’ve spent hundreds of hours writing letters to teachers, talking to school board officials, attending meetings of all kinds, and doing research to try to figure out how my son can make it through school with his confidence and curiosity intact. I think back to the illusions I once had. Where are those excited parents on the exhilarating adventure of raising a gifted child? I don’t think they exist. I think they are working hard, just like me, not to become disheartened or let their children become disheartened in a world where “giftedness” is frequently misunderstood – and gifted children just don’t seem to fit in.

Published in August 2010.

a man carrying two children

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