I don’t know if you’ve maybe picked this up over the years, but we place a pretty big value on academic achievement, ’round these parts. Knowledge is power, and a big brain is a terrible thing to waste. Both children qualified for gifted education when we moved here (despite my bumbling) and yes, okay, according to their test scores, they’re freaks. Both of ‘em. And I expect them to work hard and perform up to their potential.
But. I never want to be That Parent. I don’t want to be the parent who believes that Precious Snookums is the very smartest and bestest and better than everyone else. I don’t want to be the parent haranguing the schools (actually, I can’t say enough good things about the gifted curriculum here, anyway) because my precious snowflakes need something befitting their SPESHULNESS or whatever. And I MOST ESPECIALLY don’t want to be the parent who teaches her kids—purposefully or by implication—that the only thing that makes them special is being smart.
It’s possible that my baggage in this particular area would NOT fit under the seat in front of me, is what I’m saying.
[I grew up completely self-identifying as A Smart Kid. There are ways in which that was awesome. For example: When I started college the week after I turned 17, I really did believe I was all that. I have a vivid memory of visiting my freshman composition teacher in office hours to argue about the A- he'd given me on an essay. It was A level work, I assured him. (Proof positive that smart does not equal humble or even willingness to learn. Heh.) (He assured me that I was an excellent writer but that I could do even better. I learned a ton in his class.)
There are also ways in which that was terrible. Example 1: I'm simply not as good at higher-order math as I am at other things. And when I began to struggle in calculus I honestly believed life as I knew it was OVER because it turned out that really, I wasn't smart at ALL and my entire life had been a lie. Example 2: When I arrived at Stanford for grad school, after a lifetime of being the smartest kid in the room I was arguably the dumbest and definitely the laziest... which meant that my entire life had been a lie. Example 3: School used to be fun, but then it was That Thing I Must Be The Best At and that sucked every last particle of joy out of it. Example 4: When I became an adult and it no longer mattered that I'd been a smart kid I had no idea who I was anymore AND MY ENTIRE LIFE HAD BEEN A LIE.
Also: Although we're both plenty smart, there are ways in which I think my brother and I were compared to each other that were detrimental (in different ways and at different times) to both of us. And I can already see differences in my kids that make me hyper-vigilant about not wanting them to feel compared to each other, ever.
The immediate result of my particular baggage here is that—particularly with Chickadee—my expectations are high, but I Do Not Push. I am very reserved in what I say to her teachers. I am always concerned about her taking on too much.
So last year, when a handful of her classmates were skipped up a grade in math, and she came home and complained bitterly that no one had asked HER if SHE wanted to advance, I waved my hand and assured her that this was for the best. You’re just getting adjusted to middle school, I assured her. You’re already in advanced math. You have enough on your plate. Don’t worry about it.
I forgot about it until the last month of school, when she suddenly became obsessed with wanting me to talk to the gifted coordinator about skipping her up THIS year. Finally we scheduled a meeting and I politely inquired as to what would be required for her to make the switch.
“Well, she’d need to spend the summer learning the entire 7th grade curriculum,” she told me. “Then she’d have to take the competency test, demonstrate mastery of the material, and then she could potentially be moved up.” Chickadee swore up and down at the meeting that she wanted to do it. We discussed study guide recommendations. And then we left.
Summer arrived and Chickadee never once asked to do any math. So I let it go, because honestly? I didn’t want her to move up. Part of what had been made very clear to us at the meeting was that doing 8th grade math in 7th grade was rarely a problem, but because they don’t have a 9th grade class at the middle school, in 8th grade the students on that track take math via Virtual Academy and can expect to spend three hours A DAY on math homework. That sounded like a special circle of hell, to me.
School started again and with it came the complaints: We did this last year. This is too easy. I want to move up.
I told her to bring me a 100 average on her first progress report and we’d discuss it.
Not only did she bring me that 100, she came home begging me to mail the gifted coordinator to ask for her to be tested to move up.
I sent the email. And I may have said, “I’m not convinced she’ll pass, but she’d like to take it.” Chickadee was furious. “YOU THINK I’M DUMB!” Half an hour of trying to explain that there’s a big difference between “I think you’re dumb” and “I think you may not already know this entire year’s worth of material because you haven’t finished the class yet” did nothing to soothe her ruffled feathers.
She harumphed around the house for a week, grumbling about how I think she’s stupid.
That… may be where I realized that my “don’t put too much emphasis on being gifted” philosophy was somehow being interpreted as “oh honey, you’re SPECIAL just because you’re my precious little daft doodlebug.”
Chickadee took the test. The gifted coordinator called me in for a meeting. I said, “Sure, but the suspense is going to kill us, you know!” She chuckled and told me that Chickie had qualified to move up, but we had to “go over the implications.” I congratulated my daughter on having a big brain. She replied: “Thank you! YOU THOUGHT I WOULDN’T PASS.”
I went to the meeting. They showed me her changed schedule, the curriculum for the new class, the overview of what happens next year in the virtual class. They gave me a sheet titled Math Track Options and showed me that the switch means Chickadee is now on track to be done with high school math by 10th grade, freeing her up to take two full years of AP math before she graduates, if she’s so inclined. They reminded me that this track is only advisable for kids who plan to pursue a “science-oriented or other technical field.” I joked that Chickadee is currently planning to go to veterinary school but that just a few years earlier she wanted to be an elephant, so I wasn’t going to hold her to it. No one laughed.
I signed where they told me to sign. And then the gifted coordinator asked me if I’d registered Chickadee for Duke TIP (some paperwork had been sent home about a month ago and I had thrown it out). I replied that no, I hadn’t bothered, because from the paperwork they’d sent it looked to me like a prime opportunity to 1) pay $70 so that 2) my 7th grader could freak out over taking the SAT and then 3) Duke could offer to take all of our money to send her to some enrichment program.
[For the record: Both kids qualified for the 4th/5th grade program, and that was all it was. "Give us money, then give us more money."]
Well. When I said I hadn’t registered her, I honestly feared the gifted coordinator was going to have a stroke. “You MUST!” she sputtered. “This opens up all sorts of educational opportunities for her! It gets her into a national database that could mean the difference when it’s time to apply for college scholarships! SHE NEEDS TO TAKE THE TEST!”
I repeated—albeit with a bit less sureness, now—that it seemed silly to me to make a 12-year-old take the SAT. Particularly if it was only going to qualify her to attend some $300/day program we would never send her to.
Now BOTH teachers in front of me launched into an impassioned plea to register her immediately, there are grants available and depending on her score she may be invited to special programs free of charge and college and scholarships and achievement and YOU ARE A TERRIBLE MOTHER!
Okay, I made that last part up. No one actually SAID that. Though I’d be willing to bet they thought it.
When I picked Chickadee up from school yesterday, I told her I had good news and bad news. Her face immediately tensed. “The good news is that you start your new math class tomorrow,” I began. She did a triumphant fist pump, which may be the first time I’ve ever seen anyone demonstrate unfettered physical joy in response to math. “The bad news is that apparently I’m not attending to your education properly.” She quirked an eyebrow at me. “I’ve been informed that you MUST register for that Duke TIP thing and take the SAT. You up for a really long test?” She grinned and nodded.
“I TOLD YOU I needed to do that,” she couldn’t resist adding.
“Yeah, well, I misunderstood,” I said. “I’m sorry. And for the record I still think it’s stupid to make you take the SAT in 7th grade. But whatever.” Chickadee was still grinning. “Also for the record,” I continued, “I never for a MOMENT believe you are anything other than brilliant. But I never want you to get so caught up in all of this stuff that it stops being fun. That’s all. Okay?” She looked at me for a moment, absorbing this, and then nodded.
Middle school is complicated, man. Particularly if you’re a smarticle with a neurotic mother.