Picture this: a young girl, who, as a baby, was able to start walking and talking earlier than most. Before she could talk, she spent her time reading books, and was eventually able to memorize them, which was made obvious when her dad would read to her and accidentally skip over a couple words. Fast forward to preschool, where as a 2 year old, she was moved to learn in a group with kids that were one or two years older, because it had been found that she was developing at a level that was faster than those kids of her own age. In grade one, she began getting pulled out of class, to do all sorts of extra activities on top of her regular schoolwork. At first this only happened occasionally. Then it started becoming more and more frequent, until finally she was getting pulled out of class every couple of days. Then one day, when her class was watching a movie, she was pulled out of class for the rest of the day and was put through a series of tests that she wasn’t particularly interested in. All she cared about was the fact that she couldn’t watch a movie like the rest of her classmates. A while passed and her test results came back. In all of the categories she was tested in, she scored in the 96-99.9th percentile, and her IQ was measured to be 147. According to modern IQ scales, an average IQ is anywhere between 90-110. Anything above 131 is considered to be “Very Superior”, and anything above 145 is considered to be “Very gifted or highly advanced”. In many ways, this one day of tests determined the course of her entire childhood, right until she reached high school. As she was about to enter grade 2, the school decided that the level she learned at was too advanced for her to be in this grade, therefore they decided to move her straight from grade 1 to grade 3. At the age of 6, she was once again learning with peers 1 or 2 years older than her, while still continuing to get pulled out of class to do extra work on the side.
How do I know so much about this young girl’s childhood? Because this young girl is me.
I was classified as “exceptionally intellectually gifted” from a young age, and spent the majority of my childhood under the influence of this title. While it may seem an almost glamorous classification to have, the reality was that my development as a gifted child was quite possibly, one of the worst experiences of my life. Before you assume that I am complaining from a position of privilege, please read a little more about my experience. I do not believe in the gifted program as a symbol of merit, and I am here to tell you why.
When I moved to Canada in 2004, the school I started going to had an established gifted program in place. This meant that for every grade, there was one class that was specifically dedicated to children who had been tested and were found to be at a gifted level. Already, you can start to see the problems that would occur. As we were in a class all to ourselves, we were isolated from the rest of our peers, and during a time of childhood development, this is the last thing that should have been happening. Had we been able to have more opportunities to interact with the other kids in our grade, things may have been different. However, it was almost like we had been quarantined away from everyone else. And although we may or may not have had one or two friends in the “mainstream” (as they were called…you can see how this could also create problems) classes, that was the extent of our interaction with kids our age. From then on, my only friends were the 3 or 4 other kids in my grade that were also in the gifted program, and this was they way it remained for the next 3 years. My limited scope of social interaction did not fare well for me going into middle school, where we went from kids to adolescents, and people started becoming a lot more cliquey. Luckily for me, I was usually quiet and flew under the radar, but for many other people in my class, getting into scuffles with the mainstream kids was a regular occurrence.
In grade 7, I switched schools to one where classes were mixed, therefore there were many gifted kids mingling with non-gifted ones. This experience did help me adjust to socializing and interacting with my peers a little bit better, but at the end of the day there were still distinctions between who was and wasn’t gifted. A lot of this had to do with the IEPs we’d receive along with our report cards. IEPs or Individual Education Plans, were reports distributed to every kid with some sort of specific learning need, containing a list of strengths and weaknesses and a plan as to how the teacher would address our learning needs throughout the course of the year. Sounds like a good idea right? An individual plan that caters to a growing individual’s specific needs? In theory yes. However, over the course of my 6 years spent with one, the list of strengths and weaknesses did not change. Surely over a 6 year period, my skill set would’ve evolved? If not, then this is obviously an indication that the education system is not doing a good enough job at addressing my learning needs. However it gets worse. At the end of grade 8, due to some sort of administrative error, I ended up receiving both my IEP as well as the one of another boy in my class. Being curious, I took a look. Our IEPs were word-for-word, exactly the same. Another one of my friends had received an IEP with another person’s name on one of the sections, as if they had been copied and pasted. So much for being an “Individual” Education Plan.
In grade 9, I ended up going to a high school with a very large gifted program, meaning that the amount of gifted kids in the school outweighed the non-gifted ones. With social isolation no longer being a problem, I began to feel a lot more comfortable interacting with other people. However, as classes became more and more rigorous, I began to feel isolated once again, though for a largely different reason. Most people in school seemed to value subjects such as science and math. Not a problem obviously, except for the fact that I was not quite up to snuff in these subjects, especially math. Where all my classmates excelled, I struggled to keep up, which made me a subject for various taunts about my intelligence. “It’s all in good fun” I thought, and tried to justify myself with the fact that I had gotten one of the highest grades in english that year. However, when I backed myself up with what I thought was an achievement to be proud of, I was told, in simpler terms, that this kind of achievement didn’t matter because our english teacher was a joke and marked super easily. This was the last straw.
I finally switched to a private school that I attended from grade 10-12. No more gifted program, no more IEPs, no more isolation. Although it admittedly wasn’t my favourite place, it was a place where I could be seen as equal amongst my peers, which (although it sounds dramatic) was something that I had never quite experienced before. One of the things I was most worried about when switching schools was that I’d be bored, as the gifted program is meant to challenge your mind more than usual. Interestingly enough, after 6 years in the gifted program, I found my new school no less challenging.
Besides all the problems that I experienced as a product of the system, I also believe that it can subconsciously cultivate both a sense of superiority among the child, as well as a sense of high expectations from people around them. Personally, when I was growing up, and even still to this day, if ever I do something stupid, my mom will always use the line “Come on Maya. You have an IQ of 147”. Maybe I do. But I’m also still young and I still have a lot of learning to do. People are allowed to make mistakes, no matter whether your IQ is 30 or 130. It’s all a part of life. And going back to the sense of superiority- having a high IQ, testing in a high percentile, or being labeled “gifted” does not entitle you to anything. Just because a person has a high IQ doesn’t mean they are any more likely to succeed. It doesn’t mean they’re a better person, or even that they’re smarter for that matter. All an IQ score represents is your ability to solve problems and understand concepts. Since Einstein, many people have associated having extremely high intelligence as the key to success. There are so many incidences of highly intelligent people who have wasted their life away, because they buy in to the mentality that their “genius” status will qualify them for a success they won’t have to work for. IQ and success really don’t have anything to do with each other. There may be correlations between the two but I would argue that one isn’t necessarily caused by the other. Attaining your dream job, getting into one of the top schools in the world, etc don’t even take your IQ into consideration. In this day and age, being a so-called “genius” is something that is highly personal, and pretty much doesn’t matter to anyone other than yourself. So you’re a genius? Well good for you. Why don’t you focus on something that really matters?
My disillusionment with the gifted program and gifted label in general was that I felt it held me back in a lot of ways. From constantly feeling isolated to my peers, to my “individual learning needs” never really being catered to, the “gifted program” is a fancy title slapped onto a broken system. More than that, the word “gifted” is used in a connotation that bolsters the notion that a child can only be gifted if they possess a high intelligence, which we all know is (pardon my english) some bullshit. A person can be gifted in any number of ways, and to make someone feel as though they are not gifted simply because they didn’t score at a certain level on an intelligence test is one of they ways they system is holding kids back.
Obviously not every kid in the gifted program feels this way, but based on my own experiences, it is a system that has left me feeling disappointed. If ever I were to have kids of my own that happened to be classified as “gifted”, I know that I would not put them through such a system, unless something changes.