I was listening to a webinar tonight and was encouraged to “share my story.” I thought I should provide a little bit of background so that anyone reading this understands a bit better how I came to do this work with and for gifted kids….these tall poppies.
Growing up, I never quite fit in anywhere. I was awkard and had a few friends, but never felt truly connected to most of them. I tried to be the girl they’d like, tried to fit in, doing the things they enjoyed, but none of it brought me joy. I played sports, but didn’t excel at any of it which was irritating–it was a going through the motions to please my parents, both of whom were fairly athletic. I tried lots of other things like piano and dance and skating, and maybe it was the wrong instrument or type of movement, but I couldn’t quite fit there either.
As I grew up, I found that my group of friends got smaller and smaller, and I spent more time reading on my own to learn what I wanted to know about the world because I wasn’t getting anything out of class or the people around me. In school for as long as I can remember, I was the girl who finished the vocabulary book in the first week of school and hid her own novel in front of the one the class was reading, counting paragraphs until my turn and noting the last few words so I’d hear when it was my turn. I got lost in stories and then wanted to know why women were treated so poorly, or why people gave up their children, or why wars started to begin with, or how come it was that certain people had all the power while others had so little, why some people believed so forcefully in a deity no one could see and who may never have existed at all. I had a few friends I could talk to about all the wonderings I had, but most people didn’t get it. Early on in school, I’d learned to keep my mouth shut because what I had to say or ask wasn’t viewed as important by those who held the power in the room–sometimes that was the teacher, but most of the time it was a small group of students who ran the show, publicly humiliating anyone who wanted to know more.
It took two classes in college to show me that what I had to say did matter.
The first was a philosophy class and the professor was a strong, independent woman, who spent several years in Brussels simply because she could. She was unafraid. We talked about Locke, Plato, Descartes, Socrates, Hobbes, Rousseau, and others…and we debated…a lot. She encouraged me not only to think but to find out what others thought and to use reason and logic. It was the first time anyone encouraged me to say what I thought and to ask questions.
The second was a women’s literature class. There were maybe 10 of us, and it was brilliant. We talked not only about the stories but the history behind each one, and the role of women at various times in history and how this literature, written by women, both exposed and shaped women’s history… Because it was a small group and because there weren’t any men in the class (just worked out that way), there was an openness to say what you really thought without fear of being shot down or ridiculed. And that mattered.
I ended up having to go get a job for the sake of having money to live on and help support my mother and I, and I worked in several industries–general secretarial, optical retail, insurance customer service, and insurance sales. I hated all of it and kept being told that while I was fairly good at my job, I spent too much time educating people on what I felt they needed to know instead of selling what I was being paid to sell or service. More calls or sales = more money. But my heart wasn’t there. So took a risk and I left my last job, applied to go to school at night to get my teaching licensure and took a position as a secretary until I could be a teacher. I didn’t want to do as my parents had done and simply work…I wanted more out of my life.
My first three years of teaching were not stellar. I was green and felt I had no idea what I was doing, so I sought out every bit of professional development I could to be better for the kids I was serving. I worked those first three years in a lower income district with kids who ranged from several grade levels below to several higher. I was told early on that while I was expected to support those below grade level get to where they were supposed to be, scaffolding the work we did to meet their needs, those who were above grade level…well, not much could be done for them–they’d be fine.
And that didn’t sit right with me. It felt wrong in my gut…and wrong in my heart. Why should a child who wants to read and discuss The Scarlet Letter at age 10 have to sit through the class reading leveled readers with revised snippets of stories and non-fiction pieces about polar bears fixed to focus on particular skills when she had already demonstrated that she mastered those skills and could read and comprehend at that level and beyond…and had questions that required the use of the full piece of literature to explain?
A series of events prompted a friend to tell me about a new charter school opening and she suggested that it might be something I’d like. So I applied. And then I stalked once I found out exactly what their purpose was.
Their goal was to create a home for learners who already knew the things and wanted more. They wanted a place where kids didn’t finish the vocabulary workbook the first week and hid their own novel behind a leveled reader the class was reading because they got to go to the class they were ready for. They wanted to build a school where kids were encouraged to ask questions, to draw conclusions, to look into issues and situations with depth, researching and reading to find out the “why” behind events. They wanted to create a home for learners who were advanced or different in their thinking, their doing, and their existing in the world. They wanted to create a home for gifted education advocacy. They wanted to create the academic home I’d always wanted when I was a kid.
And so here I am. 12 years of teaching later, eight years helping this place grow. My favorite thing, beyond the work with kids, about my job is that I get to innovate. I get to create my own job description as I go. I’m trusted enough to know when to ask for help or support or share questions I have. I’m encouraged to think outside the box to solve problems. I’m encouraged to help kids learn to advocate for what they need with peers and with adults…because we all have adults in our world who need to hear us say, “Hey, I need THIS in order to do my job…make it happen.”
I’m not in the classroom anymore, which is harder some days than others because I loved the time with kids, watching them grow. But, not being in the classroom gives me time to get to work with teachers and other adults who share their lives with these kids so that they can begin to understand the needs of these tall poppies and help them navigate a world they experience so very differently than others:
- They need to be seen…really SEEN for the incredible, creative, quirky, asynchronous kids they are.
- They need to be heard. Gifted kids need for the people in their world to hear what they are thinking and help them find information, solutions, and additional questions to answer to deepen their understanding. They need to debate and hear other viewpoints and have their own challenged and develop arguments to challenge those of others. They need to have their thoughts acknowledged, not shot down simply because they shouldn’t be thinking about things like that yet.
- They need opportunity. Gifted kids need the opportunity to excel and be recognized for it because they worked hard or because they did something amazing. They need the opportunity to struggle and persist. They need the opportunity to experience failure so that they know how to pick themselves up and begin again. They need the opportunity to try new things in different ways to see if it will work.
- They need to be understood. That doesn’t mean that they need to get their way all the time. And it doesn’t mean that they need to have people around them who understand the “theory” behind giftedness and wax eloquent about it to them. They need people to combine the seeing of them, hearing of them, and providing of opportunity for them so that they can do things that might make a difference in our world.
The difference they will make might be creating something that sounds or looks beautiful simply so that it exists to bring people joy or make them feel an emotion.
It might be writing or creating or saying something that challenges someone to think differently about a situation.
It might be the creation of a foundation or organization to support people in need or develop something to improve lives.
It might be becoming the voice of people who can’t speak up for themselves.
It might be sharing their ability to make people howl with laughter or feel all the feels and need more tissues.
It might be becoming the helpers that Mr. Rogers memes reference after every bad thing that happens in our world.
It might be having the vision that sees what could be…that could make the world a better place somehow.
The tall poppies don’t need to be cut down so that they’re uniform so that the field looks pretty. These tall poppies need to be allowed to stand tall, growing as tall and strong as they can so that they are able to see what the future might hold and what they need to do to help it along.
That’s why I choose to do this work. My voice matters.