Growing Up Gifted

When I went crazy, later on my mom criticized one psychiatrist for thinking I was “some kind of mad genius.” This hurt, because in fact I am a mad genius. Long before any psychological issues emerged, I had already been handpicked by the elementary school system to go into a smaller program for gifted students. There are two classes in the city for gifted students, and the program lasts approximately as long as an undergraduate degree, four years. I got some flak for deciding to accept the invitation from friends who thought I was going to “nerd school.” Yes, the only fistfight in our classroom over a four year period was over theories of aerodynamics, but really we were just a group of terribly smart kids who were getting bored in regular schooling.

We were half of the 60 kids in Saskatoon in our grade level with the highest I.Q. scores, about 140 and upwards. I know there’s lots of debate about how I.Q. tests work and what intelligence is valued over others, but there you have it. That’s how the program selected us. It wasn’t a program you could apply to either, or even knew that it existed, the school board just sent my mom a letter of invitation for me at the end of grade 4. And it was good because I was getting really bored in my schooling. Phonetics class was the most useless, by the time I got to kindergarten I had already been reading for some time. I still remember the first book I read on my own, when the marks actually had meaning. I remember reading it and thinking “Is that all there is?” It was a boring book! So boring. Dolphins, bleh! But phoenetics was the worst because it taught you to read in a way that made adults laugh at you, and I didn’t like that. Even the word for phonetics isn’t fonetic.

Luckily I kept reading after the first boring book. My mom didn’t know I could read until she found me one day sitting in my room with a book and she asked me what I was doing. “Reading.” She didn’t really believe me until I started reading the whole book aloud to her. I was about four.

It was my Gramma who helped me learn to read. I was frustrated by the inaccessability of the written language, I knew there was a pattern and I knew it had a meaning but I didn’t know HOW that worked yet. She was a kindergarten teacher a long time before, so she started doing reading exercises with me. Recognizing letters mostly, someone got some workbooks from a teacher store and that’s what I did with my Gramma when we visited. Because in a large extent it was self directed learning, I think I also learned how to learn from a very very young age. So I learned how to read, and it just continued on.

My mom was often busy with my sister, so I also became really self reliant because I was so impatient. I remember when I got my first two wheel bicycle my mom was going to teach me how to ride it after she put my sister to bed. That took an hour, and an hour was like, oh my god, an eternity. So I went into the back alley, jumped on my bicycle, put two feet on the pedals, and fell over immediately. This continued on for about an hour, until my mom finally came out to teach me only to see me riding up and down the alley saying “Look what I can do!” with totally bloody gory knees dripping blood and embedded with bits of gravel.

Thinking back on it, while my class was fairly diverse, a majority of the students could be considered disabled in the various ways students are currently being labeled. In hindsight most students had what would be labeled now as attention deficit disorder, at least one person had autism, there were wide ranging emotional problems, and when all was said and done we could have been a really rowdy problematic group of kids to teach. Pretty much everyone was an independent thinker in their own ways, nothing happened in class that wasn’t challenged in some way. So the teachers had to literally teach us in a different way than the majority of students were being taught. They knew that for us to learn and be happy we had to work with whatever we were interested in at the time. We did research projects all the time. And I can’t say that we were all geniuses in the same way. I was the writer/artist genius among several others, some people were really strong in math, some people were athletes, some people were good computer programmers, some were musicians, and so on. Yes, we still had the “popular kids” and the “nerds” and other social aspects common to most educational environments. But we were also respected by the people who were our authorities, which was a very different way of learning than I experienced in other learning environments. It changed the way I thought of authority.

It was probably also one of the places I got bullied so much, because it started becoming obvious to my classmates that I wasn’t heterosexual and that the tomboy thing wasn’t going away. But one thing they couldn’t bully me about was being stupid. The only snide comment they could make about my intelligence was that I wasn’t good at math, because I wasn’t doing algebra while most of them were. That hurt, but even then they couldn’t call me worse than average in mathematics, because I wasn’t in remedial, I just had to go to the regular class for math and then come back.

There was one thing I quit, a few other students did too. Band. I just never liked band. I think it was the group thing that annoyed me, if I had been able to play an instrument on my own with music I chose I probably would have stuck with it, but as it was I was practicing Ode to Joy and the William Tell Overture without any back up and feeling dumb. So I spent two years wiggling my fingers on the keys. I don’t know if anyone noticed, because I kept passing. Then one day I turned to the second saxaphonist and confessed my fraudulent finger wiggling and she said “That’s what I’ve been doing too!” There was only one other alto sax in the band, and I have no idea what the heck she was doing, I never asked. I decided to quit, even though I only had one more year of band. I didn’t want to live a lie! And I remember the band teacher huffed and said “I hope you don’t quit EVERYTHING you do in life!” Which was weird because it was the one thing I ever quit as a kid.

Oh, except for fencing, but that’s because I was a girl and got no play.

It’s not like I twiddled around with my life by leaving band, instead I wrote more essays and read more books, so it was all good.

I have to say though, for a society which prides itself on valuing intelligence, it really doesn’t. That’s bunk. Our society values conformity, someone who follows orders well, someone who is the same as most of the other somebodies. I think it’s been my intellect which has frustrated myself and almost everyone else the most. I’ve been told I think too much, too fast, feel too deeply, everything has been about slowing me down until I am at the same pace as everyone else. Do you know what it’s like being on an antipsychotic for three and a half years as a gifted person? God, it fuckin’ SUCKS! You can’t think, or feel. I mean, people seem to think you can, and I’m sure I wasn’t stupid, but I wasn’t thinking at a comfortable pace, I couldn’t have extreme emotional responses to life so it took me longer to process things which happened. It was agony.

There was this Twilight Zone I watched once when I was a kid about this kid who’s studying for a big test coming up that all the kids have to take at that age. It’s administered by the government and he wants to do really well on it. People are like “Oh, don’t worry about it,” trying to dissuade him from studying and so on, trying to get him to act like a regular kid and not worry about academics so much. But he studies anyway and does really well and it turns out the government has a policy to kill the really smart people of it’s population.

I talk about all of my identities a lot in my art practice and here obviously, but I have never before talked openly about my gifted identity. It’s considered “elitist” to acknowledge being highly intelligent. Like what right do I have to say I’m smart, that’s for someone else to judge. But I got judged early and often and sent to a special class for four years to avoid being crushed by the system.

And yet I never really went looking for information on what that identity really means. Being gifted often comes with a deep abiding existential depression and loneliness. I don’t talk to people often because often they make conversation about limited things. I’ll want to talk about deep subjects at length and often notice myself getting shut down by people who consistently prefer lighter fare. It makes me really hard to get to know. I’m emotionally sensitive to a higher degree than others, and sensually more sensitive than others too. I often prefer more varieties of stimulation all at the same time, like playing music while writing with reading breaks and maybe, oh, masturbating somewhere in there.

It turns out gifted people often get diagnosed with pathologies simply because people in the mental health field are woefully uneducated about our population. I recently found a theory which seems to apply more to my psychological issues compared to the bipolar label. It’s called Positive Disintegration, and it’s common amongst the gifted population, who often have overexcitabilities. Besides being intellectually smart, we also have vastly different developmental issues than the general population. Age Appropriate for a gifted child is completely useless. And typically existential depression, suicides, and psychosis can accompany the moral development of a gifted person. Rather than being a negative aspect of life, it represents a struggle between higher and lower functioning. Lower functioning is where educators and psychiatrists try to push us back to, because those are the people who fit in with society the best. That would be someone who hasn’t developed to a morally advanced stage of deep empathy for humanity at large. Dabrowski, who developed this theory, states that the health of a society can be measured by how many people within it suffer from psychoneurosis, the more the better. Primary Integration, the 1st stage, is where most average people stay at. Incidentally, it is also the domain of individuals defined as psychopaths. Psychopathy is a label given to people who are deficient in empathy and conscience, who often do very well in society as it operates today and can be found in occupations like law, politics, business, and CEO’s. Secondary Integration is the ideal outcome of positive disintegration, but on the way there all hell breaks loose. Because we live in a society which devalues independent thought, moral development, and emotional reactions, we’ve also demonized some really healthy and natural personal growth processes in the name of mental hygiene.

Is it a disability? I don’t know. I know that it comes with things that make life in this world very difficult. I remember when I was ten and read Vasari’s Lives of the Artists I was so fascinated with descriptions of Leonardo Da Vinci, who reminded me in many ways of myself. On Star Trek Voyager Captain Janeway was always going to Da Vinci’s studio to commune with great intellect, but in real life she probably would have run screaming from it. This was a man who’s fixation on anatomy would lead him to endlessly draw cadavers and not notice the stench of being around rotting bodies. His studio was a mess, he developed a reputation for starting projects and abandoning them when something else came up. For fun he attached intestines to bellows and expanded them so much that he would push people out of the room. He caused one mentor to stop painting when as a child he painted an angel holding clothes with so much more attention to the use of colour that his mentor became embarassed of his own lack of abilities. Today he would probably be put on ritalin.

It’s been stated that 40% to 60% of gifted children have neurological disabilities. So few people know how to deal with gifted thought processes and development that we often DO have a hard time in the world. In that respect I would say we are disabled, since we have a lack of resources to live in this world. One might assume that we can just trot off to higher education and excell, and sometimes that’s true, but often post secondary education fails gifted people as well.

All very interesting I say.

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  1. Hi – I just decided to do a Web search to try to find other former gifted children as I’m not aware of any formal networks for us. I find it really hard to talk about as well and was very interested to read your post. I’m 41, living in England, and have recently written a piece on Usenet about my experiences – see here. I’d love to hear back from you on the subject.


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