The Cost of Equality
Genius is not always recognized, understood, or appreciated, particularly in a child.
By the time tests confirmed my son Jonathan's genius-level IQ, he had enjoyed so many positive experiences in school that we were lulled into believing his intelligence and creativity would always be welcomed. But brilliance has its price. Genius is not always recognized, understood, or appreciated, particularly in a child.
Jon's school career began smoothly. His kindergarten teacher admired his intense curiosity, enthusiasm, and high energy level. He began kindergarten as a nonreader; by year's end, he read at a 6th grade level. Rather than seeing this unusual ability as an inconvenience, his teacher applauded his efforts. His accomplishments thrilled her.
In 1st grade, Jon's love for words and learning intensified. He created picture books and stories with choices that resulted in multiple paths. He discovered C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia and other fantasy novels. One day he asked, "Mom, why do kids in books and TV programs say they hate school? I don't understand. I love school!"
Second grade brought more intellectual and creative growth. He experimented with writing poetry and fantasy and studied medieval history. Amazingly, Jon remained largely unaware of his special gifts. Once he casually mentioned that he had memorized a paragraph of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech while walking up one flight of stairs. "While walking up the stairs?" I repeated, astonished. He shrugged, unimpressed by his accomplishment. "Well," he said, "I walked real slow."
In the 3rd grade, Jon's teacher encouraged him to use his gifts to benefit all her students. Jon designed learning centers and educational games for other children. He classified the classroom-library books and kept them in order; his original posters clearly explained rules and a checkout system.
His 4th grade teacher gave him responsibility for the classroom computer. Jon taught classmates how to use it and created schedules so that each enjoyed an equal amount of time on the computer. Growing tired of the available software, he preferred to write games and programs. He programmed complicated original games onto the computer without writing notes to himself; information was filed into his mind as easily as into the computer. He created a cartoon series and wrote game plans and instruction manuals for "Dungeons and Dragons."
These five school years were not perfect. Jon experienced moments of frustration and boredom, and sometimes he rebelled against routine and repetition. A few hours each week in a pullout program for gifted children were helpful but inadequate; Jon is gifted 24 hours a day, every day. His teachers, having received no training for teaching gifted children, could not always challenge him sufficiently.
Still, Jon thrived during these years. His early teachers understood that he had unique needs, just as surely as if he had been afflicted with a learning disability, impaired vision, or a hearing loss. They loved this special child with a shy, sweet smile, and rejoiced in his gifts. Jon was happy, eager to please, and in love with learning.
It took only one year to change him. "You're not as smart as you think you are," his 5th grade teacher told him, in hundreds of different ways. "You're not special. I don't care that you already understand this lesson. Do it anyway. You are no different from anyone in this room."
But Jon was different, and by that time, he knew it. He studied other kids and knew he could never be like them. He was as far off the norm as a Down syndrome child in the opposite direction, but his teacher was unwilling to make allowances for that difference. And so he gave up.
Realizing that most of his schoolwork was meaningless, he refused to do assignments. While his classmates plodded through grammar exercises, Jon wrote novels, though being caught meant certain reprimand and perhaps punishment. His grades plummeted.
His teacher dismissed my concerns with one devastating statement: "All children in my class are treated equally." She believed that Jon needed to "adjust."
At the beginning of his 6th grade year, testing determined that he had mostly high-school-level skills. He grew sullen and discouraged, and terribly, maddeningly bored.
But Jon was beginning to "adjust." He adopted a closed, guarded attitude, and he no longer exhibited his wonderful, sophisticated sense of humor in public. He made sure no one ever suspected he was anything other than a "regular kid."
Jonathan is 13 years old now, and vastly different from the happy, eager little boy I once knew. I mourn the loss of his self-esteem, his willingness to take risks, and his excitement about learning. Jon has discovered that it is not safe to be gifted in a world that values conformity and mediocrity at the expense of individuality, intelligence, and creativity.
I look at Jon and know that something is terribly wrong when schools and society cannot accommodate our brightest people. Either by design or neglect, we do not allow them to be different, to be themselves.
I look at my son and grieve, for the cost of that mistake can never be measured nor recovered.
Jeannie Alford Hagy is a writer living in Oklahoma City, and the mother of three gifted children. She is interested in many educational issues, but for obvious reasons has a special interest in gifted education.
Vol. 23, Issue 15, Page 35Published in Print: December 10, 2003, as The Cost of Equality