I don’t like calling my son “gifted.” I think all children have their gifts—whether they sing, rock it on the baseball field, draw, hula-hoop like maniacs, or make up elaborate stories.
But ever since my son was very little, all things academic were his gifts. At 3, he’d taught himself to read; by 4, he was multiplying, dividing, and manipulating fractions. He loved science experiments and would type up his ideas and theories on the computer.
It was endearing, and made us beam with pride. But we were also a bit worried. What would we do when school came along? He basically knew everything they we going to teach him in kindergarten, and beyond. We knew school was about socializing as well, but what if he was teased—his smartness mistaken for smugness?
I’d heard stories of gifted kids becoming bored and restless in school—there are theories that Attention-Deficit Disorder strikes gifted children more often. My uncle, who later turned out to be a renowned mathematician (and then a heart surgeon) used to get in trouble for hiding under his desk and reading the encyclopedia.
So when my son’s pre-k teacher handed us a flyer for the Gifted and Talented test administered by the New York City Department of Education, we figured we should have him tested. We were curious if he’d test as “gifted,” and we were eager to find out what options were out there for his schooling.
After we signed up for the test, we received a booklet in the mail with some practice questions. The booklet came with a letter explaining that this was all the preparation we would need.
Thankfully, we didn’t turn to Google. If we had, we would have seen that many families do prepare quite extensively for the test. Preparation for the Gifted test is an industry unto itself, with parents spending thousands on test prep for 4-year-olds.
As for us, we downplayed the importance of the test, telling our son it was just a fun activity where he would visit a school and talk about the things he knew. On the morning of the test, he came out of his room wearing his underwear on his head. “I’m ready!” he said with a sly grin. (Very advanced.)
Four months later, we got the results: Our son had gotten the highest possible score. We were proud. It validated our hunch that he was “special.” We were excited for the possibilities that awaited him.
But the test was only the first step: He still had to get a seat at one of the many gifted programs in the city. And we still had to decide if going to one was the best plan for him.
On paper, everything about the gifted programs in our area looked great. But from parents, we’d gotten mixed reviews. Some said the programs were well-run and challenging; others said they were cliquey and competitive. We had been warned that gifted programs were overcrowded; the Department of Education could admit extra students because of the scarcity of seats.
But we were most concerned about how our little boy would fare. If he got into a gifted program, would he like it? We’d heard that some gifted programs gave up to two hours of homework. Was it more important for him to come home and study, or to run outside and climb trees?
He was admitted to our third-choice school, a 20-minute drive from our house. I was newly pregnant with our second child, and that 40-minute round trip twice a day—with a screaming newborn—sounded awful.
I lay in bed, raging with hormones and worry, unsure of whether to accept the seat he’d been offered.
A few days later, I was sitting on a bench at pre-k, watching him play in the yard with his friends. His cheeks were rosy; little beads of sweat dripped down the side of his head. A friend was hoisting him up the tree, his hand gently supporting my son’s back.
In that instant, I knew what we had to do. We would choose tree-climbing over gifted programs, and give up whatever illusive success they might bring him.
We enrolled our son in the elementary school next to his pre-k. There are no gifted programs there. The school is small, simple, with very high parent involvement. We walk to school and back home again, his little brother beside us.
My son is in second grade now. He is still several grade levels ahead in reading and math. His teachers notice when he’s bored, and give him supplementary material. Although he excels in most areas, he still needs to work on his penmanship and his paragraph writing. In essence, he is a normal kid.
He has a strong perfectionist streak (a classic trait of a gifted kid), and I see now how unsuitable an advanced, competitive environment would have been for him. He gets a light amount of homework, leaving him time to play outside—I think it’s important for a boy like him to use his body, exercise his muscles, and get out of his head a little.
I realize things could have gone differently. I know not all gifted children fare well in a non-accelerated classroom. I feel compassion for any kid who doesn’t fit in with a mainstream school environment. I think a lot of what makes a particular school experience work for a kid is a good match between the child and the school—and certainly, a bit of luck.
We will, of course, continue to reevaluate his schooling plans as the years progress. But when I pick him up from school, a giant gap-toothed smile spread across his face, I know he’s in the right place.