Growing up “Gifted”

In a prior post, I discussed how a pretty big familial change greatly affected me during a critical period of development. Now I would like to discuss another, somewhat related, topic.

Bart backs into the gifted program, where he doesn't fit in
Bart backs into the gifted program, where he doesn’t fit in

In the third grade, I was identified as “gifted”. This means that I scored high on the standardized tests, and consequently, I was “invited” into the advanced learning program. This was 2-3 hours 3 days a week in a special program. Like the episode from the first season of The Simpsons, where Bart “steals” the test of the smart kid, and gets pulled into a special school where he really didn’t belong, I was pulled into this group where I “did” belong. It wasn’t structured learning, but it allowed us in the program to explore whatever interested us. There was a complete set of SRA materials, at the time pretty leading edge, self paced curricula, with a lot of science and mathematics focus (hey, I did grow up in Silicon Valley after all). I did enjoy having the freedom to branch out and learn at my own pace, and that opportunity trained me well. Today, I still go off on intellectual whims for as long as I am interested (History of Mathematics, US History, European history, and others recently).

But it wasn’t all grins and giggles. The problems manifested themselves early. First was the fact that being plucked from your class, your “peers” singles you out. I was never one to have many close friends, but those that I had established pretty much avoided me (much in the same way Bart’s friends did in the Simpsons episode above.) This would have been fine, had I made many friends in this new peer group, but I didn’t form any close bonds. The program mixed students from 3rd through 6th grade, and since I was at the lower end of the age spectrum, I was odd man out.

Second, the home situation wasn’t great at this time. The alcoholic, abusive stepfather that I mentioned in my prior post was against me being part of this group from the beginning. He had an irrational distrust of authority, and felt that such a program was “indoctrination”. There were many fights at home over this, and I remember this troubling me greatly.

Lastly, also due to the situation at home, there were some activities that were part of the program that cost money. Since money was very tight, I wasn’t able to participate in these programs. The one that I recall clearly was model rocketry. For a nominal fee (certainly less than $10) we would be able to build an Estes model rocket, and launch it. Then we would calculate trajectories and other cool things that tied to our advanced math work. But I just got to watch.

It wasn’t all bad. I did gain a healthy habit of learning (not studying), and realized that I could do more on my own that in the tutelage of the teachers. But due to lack of support at home for the program, and being left out of some of the more interesting activities, I believe it could have been a huge boon to my confidence. But alas, it fell short of such lofty deliverables.

Today, I wonder what would have happened had I been in one of the nurturing families, who encouraged their children to grab at these handholds to success. Would I have become less cynical, and more accepting? Would I have tried harder in high school? Would I have applied to MIT, CalTech or Stanford? Who knows, but at one time, I was really smart.

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