Popular opinion may not be fond of “elitists” these days, but we sure do love our winners. Perhaps that explains the incessant mixed messages in pop culture about whether it’s okay to be smart or not. Use big words so nobody can understand you, question things too much = Bad. Act cool and happy like everybody else, but hit your academic milestones before they do = Good.
Perhaps I’m oversimplifying.
Obviously there’s been a great push in children’s television toward a cool-to-be-smart sensibility. It started with Sesame Street in 1969 and grew stronger over time, from Blue’s Clues to Magic School Bus to the adorable sparkly robots and fairies using math power on Team Umizoomi. Sure, you still see the occasional bespectacled Professor Know-It-All types, like Walden on Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! But for the most part, it’s friendly multi-culti moppets singing the joys of science or hip kids kicking reading’s ass. Learning is powerful! And sparkly!
Of course, it doesn’t take much to sell us parents on the notion that smart is cool. In fact, it’s become something of a rat race. We buy up Bob Books and LeapPads and Japanese lessons. We insist on “academics” in preschool and strive to have our children reading before they’ve set foot in a kindergarten classroom (or even before they’re out of diapers). In some circles, it’s not enough for children to just be organically smart; they have to be quantifiably advanced somehow.
And maybe those efforts are working. Here in my little corner of Seattle, the public school’s gifted program (called Spectrum), doesn’t have enough space for all those brilliant, brilliant children who test into it during the first weeks of kindergarten. The school holds a lottery to assign the spaces, and parents don’t find out until months later if their child is in or not. No potential for drama there! A parent I know jokingly described the end result as a “star-bellied Sneetch” effect. Parents and students alike are very conscious about who’s in Spectrum and who’s not.
So, on the one hand, hooray for valuing academics! On the other hand, WTF, people! Really? We’re going to turn this into a status thing? How much more could we possibly miss the point? In my little land of make believe with flowers and bells and magic frogs with funny hats, these programs exist to help kids who are really struggling in their regular classrooms. “Giftedness” isn’t something you can LeapPad your way into. And it comes with a lot more baggage and quirks than just a shiny IQ. Many of these kids are sensitive and intense and misunderstood. Sometimes they get tripped up by their own perfectionism or sensory issues and can’t even do their work. Sometimes they lose patience with their peers and act like flaming jerks to them. You’re not going to see that on Sid the Science Kid, but it’s true.
What a term. “Gifted.” I can’t even type it without cringing. It reeks of hubris, elitism, and parental self-delusion. And it’s totally misleading, considering all the temperament issues that typically go with the territory. Why is that kid shrieking and chewing on the doorknob? Oh, because he’s gifted.
I guess that’s why it’s taken me so long to acknowledge that this antiquated term actually applies rather accurately to my own son. I was rather surprised when a parent educator recommended I check out A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children. But I started reading it, and darned if it doesn’t all start to add up.
I apologize if that makes me sound like the very braggy parents I just made fun of, but believe me . . . this is really nothing to brag about. We’ve always known that The Boy was, well, smarter than your average bear. But he’s always been more anxious, sensitive, intense, and prone to meltdowns than your average bear, too. Just thinking about his co-op preschool years still makes me want to go fetal. He’d have his good moments, when he could tell you all about dinosaurs or build a truly impressive block structure. But mostly I remember the freak-outs and the occasional unpleasantness from the other parents. “Gifted” will never be my favorite label, but it’s so much friendlier than the other labels that have been slapped on him over the years.
I won’t be throwing any elbows to get him into Spectrum, though. (For one thing, I didn’t sign him up for the test last fall.) Maybe I’d consider it if his regular school became unbearable for him, but for now he’s very happy there. Academics have never been a big concern. What he doesn’t learn at school, he immerses himself in at home with me, his dad, his library books, and his Legos.
We tend to forget that most gifted kids don’t grow up to be Salinger or Bill Gates or Kristin Hersh. If there’s any pop culture mythology I’m drawing inspiration from, it’s the rosy ending in Good Will Hunting: Find a mentor, find love, find friends, find peace, and drive off into the sunset in your crappy car while Elliott Smith swells in the background.
Neither an elitist, nor a winner. Just a person at peace. That’s the best any of us can hope for, really. I wonder if they make flash cards for that?
(Yes, it turns out they do!)