Thursday, May 9, 2013

Society and the Gifted

Einstein.  Edison.  Pasteur.  Van Gogh.  Beethoven. Curie.

Names that stand alone. 

Their accomplishments were great, their places in history are guaranteed.

Their lives were far from "normal," because living life as a gifted person is difficult.

"Highly gifted people have a number of personality traits that set them apart, and that are not obviously connected to the traits of intelligence . . . that are most often used to define the category. Many of these traits have to do with their particularly intense feelings and emotions, others with their sometimes awkward social interactions. These traits make that these people are typically misunderstood and underestimated by peers, by society, and usually even by themselves. As such, most of their gifts are actually underutilized, and they rarely fulfill their full creative potential." source

Society has a complicated relationship with gifted people, especially gifted kids. How do I know?

Well--not only do I have experience parenting gifted kids, but I was a gifted kid, falling into the category of "moderately gifted," using the chart from Monday's post.

I'm going to be really honest.  Being a gifted kid usually sucks.  I wrote a little about my elementary school years  in this post and how I never really fit in with most kids.  The bullying and isolation got worse as I got older, as I wrote in this post. Whether the torment I suffered during school was attributable to my giftedness, I'll never know for sure, but I do think it contributed to me not being able to fit in with people the way I'd always hoped. Rarely did I find people who thought like me or who wanted to do the same things I liked.

I couldn't understand how I was perceived by my peers, and I know I'm not alone in my experiences.  The mere presence of gifted kids shifts the dynamics of every classroom.  Everyone knows who the smart kids are, and one of the unfortunate problems associated with uneven (asynchronous) development in gifted kids is their lack of a verbal filter.  Comments like, "You don't know all your spelling words?  I didn't even have to practice mine," or "I got 100 percent on every social studies test this year, and you didn't," often come uncensored from their lips. Their inherent characteristcis come across as bragging or threatening or annoying. 

Adults and peers alike share these common thoughts: "They're so smart, they should know not to comment on how smart they are" or "They're so smart, they should be able to figure anything out" or "They're so smart, they should be able to keep themselves occupied in the classroom while a child who really needs the teacher gets help" right?


Gifted kids deal with daily issues that others do not. Did you know Einstein couldn't even find the door to his house when he walked home from teaching every day because he was always so preoccupied with "important thought"?  Did you know that Edison was told he was too stupid to learn anything, even though he was levels and ages ahead of his time?  Did you know Lincoln was actually demoted from captain to private during his service in the Black Hawk War, even though he became one of the greatest leaders in the world's history? As these examples illustrate, being gifted in a regular world can be difficult to navigate, devastating on your self-esteem, and sometimes it's plain hard.

Just as the learning disabled need to be taught special skills to function in the real world, so also do these gifted individuals need special skills. The real world can be a frustrating place for the gifted. They need to be instructed on how to function in a world that operates daily at a pace much slower than their capacities.  They need to be reminded that not everyone thinks the way they do or sees what they see.  They need to be told, over and over and over again, that it is fantastic to be gifted, but it is not something they should use to make others feel badly about their own accomplishments.

Lack of specialized education for the gifted can result in them not knowing how to live in society, but this isn't the worst side effect.  In my opinion, the worst, but completely preventable, side effect is wasting these gifts by refusing to teach them how to use their abilities to benefit the world. "If we wish our children to change the world in the ways in which they are capable, we need to open up opportunities to them.  Gifted children, especially, need to be encouraged to be creative in every possible way--academically, musically, artistically . . .  They see far beyond the scope of their 'world' to grasp a larger picture.  They are able to comprehend much more complicated and diverse information than their peers."1
The Incredibles.

Remember how that movie began? The gifted--the superheroes--saved the world, then because of a misunderstanding, they were forced to hide their abilities and try to assimilate into regular life. Helen (Elasti-girl) and Bob (Mr. Incredible) were frustrated trying to teach their gifted kids that their gifts were something to hide and temper, and Mr. Incredible couldn't function under the pressure of trying to be someone he wasn't. He secretly began completing missions--incredibly difficult missions that used his gifts in ways that challenged him and brought him satisfaction because he needed his best efforts to succeed.

The scene from the movie that haunts me is the exchange between Syndrome and Mr. Incredible, when Mr. Incredible begins to understand Syndrome's plan for world domination.

Mr. Incredible: You mean you killed off real heroes so that you could pretend to be one?
Syndrome: Oh, I'm real. Real enough to defeat you! And I did it without your precious gifts, your oh-so-special powers. I'll give them heroics. I'll give them the most spectacular heroics the world has ever seen! And when I'm old and I've had my fun, I'll sell my inventions so that everyone can have powers. Everyone can be super! And when everyone's super...
chuckles evilly]--no one will be. 

I hate how the gifted in this movie are forced to hide who they really are because society can't accept or understand them.  I hate that, but it is the reality most gifted kids live with every day--lack of acceptance or understanding. This movie teaches a profound truth:  We are who we are, and that's fact.  As much as society or education would like you to believe, you can't make yourself gifted any more than you can make yourself grow three more inches or change your skin color. Your gifts come from God, are part of who He intends for you to be, and cannot be separated from you, repressed out of you, or legislated into equality.  It just isn't possible. That's the bottom line.

What I've always found perplexing about this issue is the difference between how gifted kids are sidelined in school by teachers, bullied and alienated and mistreated by their peers--and then how gifted adults are treated.
Angie Miller, a current contestant on American Idol, stated in an interview that she didn't really fit in anywhere in her high school--she was weird and kind of a freak (her words).  And now, with full media attention on her, she is shining behind the piano and on TVs across the nation.  Has anything really changed about who Angie Miller is?  Nope, just that people the world over now recognize her gifts--and appreciate her for who she is.
And of course, there is our generation's poster boy for the gifted--Steve Jobs.  I talked about his biography in this post, and it's one of the best books I've read in years.  I don't think anyone who knew him as a precocious, difficult, ornery, brilliant child expected him to launch himself to the heights he achieved.  In life he was virtually impossible to deal with--volatile on his best days and a perfectionist to a fault--but in death he still frequents our days with his legacy of achievement and discovery. I defy you to go through a single day of modern life where you don't reap the benefits from his discoveries and innovations.  I don't think you can.

What makes being gifted so threatening in public school children, and then overnight becomes so worthy of admiration in adults? Perception, nothing more.  The gifts are the same. Gifted kids deserve the respect and understanding and recognition their adult counterparts receive.

When I was in high school, I was asked the question: "If you could give up ten IQ points to be beautiful and popular, would you do it?"

At the time I remember thinking, "Shoot!  I have ten IQ points to spare.  I'd do it in a second."  Now, I know who I am and acknowledge that my intellectual gifts are part of what makes me me, and there is no way I would accept that proposition.

Tomorrow:  Where Do We Go From Here?
1thoughts from my friend, the teacher of the gifted


  1. I love how you pointed out the difference in how gifted children are treated versus adults. I haven't stopped thinking about that double standard since I emailed you the other day. After going back and reading my email to you I'm also embarrassed about some of the way I expressed my views and have vowed to never respond to an email while tired and late at night. Awesome:) you are truly opening my eyes to another side of the debate. One of the things that I forgot about until reading this was how some of my gifted students would come back from their gifted classes and then TEACH the class what they has learned. I think there was so much about education that I merely scrapped the surface on as a teacher. I was such a different person when I taught school. So much younger and FAR less life experience. Being a mother has really started to change my realm if thinking. I loved hearing your perspective and hope I wasn't too offensive in my email:)

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