An Open Letter To The ‘Gifted’ Kid

Written on August 14th, 2015

This post has also been published by The Odyssey!

When I was in the first grade I was tested for and admitted into the ‘Gifted and Talented Program’ colloquially referred to as the ‘Challenge Program’ in my district. It’s purpose was to help students of above average intelligence, creativity, and motivation fulfill their complete potential in the classroom with an accelerated curriculum. It’s a wonderful opportunity for young students and I recall my elementary school experience with extreme fondness, but there was a lasting side effect: from that moment on I was branded as ‘smart’.

I was one of those kids. Even within my elementary school class, which give or take a few students was comprised of the same individuals from second through fifth grade, I was one of the ‘smarter’ ones. I was one of the first to finish tests. I enjoyed many of the mundane activities my classmates complained about (a designated time period for weekly journaling? Heck yeah!) and couldn’t bear the thought of turning in even one assignment late. It seemed that even within our class of gifted students, there were a few of us who rose to the title of ‘even more gifted’ (even though the tendencies we exhibited were just different, not necessarily smarter).

At first this wasn’t a problem – in fact, it was kind of awesome. As a ten year old beginning to worry about fitting in and finding my place, it seemed great to be known as intelligent. After all, that’s a compliment, right? My classmates would come to me for help and my teachers would praise me by reading my work in front of the class or telling my parents how lucky they were. I loved having a title; I was smart. It felt so good to be something.

When I transitioned to middle school my elementary class disintegrated into the larger student population, but there were still accelerated classes I could take. I enrolled in every advanced opportunity I found and ended up seeing many familiar faces. Here, too, I flourished – my teachers complimented me and my grades soared. My sixth grade year went wonderfully until I was hit with the biggest blow that could come my way: no one had ever told me, but it’s not cool to be smart.

I saw my classmates forming huge groups of friends and hanging out on the weekends while I stayed in with a book instead of an invitation. Not to say I didn’t have friends – I had a few close ones, and they were nothing short of amazing. But I still began to feel like the odd one out. In the gym locker room I would watch everything I said. I had to avoid talking about classes with anyone, because if I told someone that I thought something was easy it meant I was “bragging”. I began to worry about how people saw me and I tried to bury my intelligence deep beneath the surface. Boys liked the girls who knew how to flirt, not build websites from scratch. Everyone else was pretty, or funny, or interesting – what if I didn’t want to be just ‘smart’ anymore?

In the seventh grade I purposefully turned in assignments late (even though I had completed them on time) because it was the cool thing to do. I almost got a D in English, my all time favorite subject, just because of missing work. These were the years where my insecurities burgeoned into monsters I struggled to face. It’s like I was living an exhausting double life; deep down being ‘smart’ was still my chosen definition, but I felt that I had to hide it from my classmates just to be accepted. I was a geek, a nerd, an afterthought. Middle school is a period nobody wants to relive.

Over time I finally found a balance between embracing my academic mind and still being well rounded. I found myself more through writing, I joined sports and threw myself into school spirit, I branched out in as many ways as I could. I was almost able to forget my feelings of unease as I proudly took AP classes and was still known as ‘smart’ – only this time I was also kind, funny, and nice. I felt great about myself until I realized that I still wasn’t allowed to say exactly what I wanted to.

If you score decently on a test – say, a B – but that’s low for you and you were hoping to do better, you’re not allowed to say that you’re disappointed with your grade. If you do, someone will glare at you with pointed eyes and tell you that they did worse and that you’re being rude by rubbing it in their face. I learned quickly in high school that no one really wants to hear about your academic successes – you can be smart, but you can’t talk specifics. And if someone does ask you a specific question, more often than not their eyes will grow wide at your response and you’ll suddenly be nothing more than ‘smart’ in their eyes (in other words, you won’t be able to tell them that you’re struggling with anything academic related, ever, because they won’t believe that it’s actually hard for you).

There’s this double standard, really: no one seems to want you to be oh so intelligent, but the second you slip up they judge you. A lot of my classmates knew that I scored a 34 on the ACT junior year, so senior year when I struggled with my AP Calculus class, I could feel their confusion and disappointment. I was supposed to be smart. That title had become my definition, and as soon as I felt like I wasn’t brilliant anymore I didn’t know who I was. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to fail. All my life I had been told I was gifted and talented… what was I supposed to do when I began to feel like those things weren’t true anymore?

Here’s what I’ve realized now that I wish I knew a long time ago.

You are not defined by any one term. You are never just smart, or funny, or pretty or kind or nice. You are many things all at once, and these things will change over time – and that’s okay. You are dynamic. Don’t fall into the trap of defining yourself by one characteristic because your talents will develop differently than you ever could’ve planned. Never sell yourself short. You are more than what you think you are.

There’s a sweet balance between pride and humility. It’s okay to be proud of your accomplishments; never let someone else’s insecurity or disapproval tell you otherwise. If you’re great at something, you deserve to own it – as long as you’re not doing so in a way that makes someone else feel poorly. Never compare your successes to those of the people around you because it’s wrong to expect different, diverse individuals to have the same accomplishments.

No one really knows what ‘smart’ is, anyway. I honestly don’t believe that I am any smarter than any other student I’ve met. I believe that we all learn differently and at varying rates, and that we choose to apply our talents to different things. For example, there are students I knew in high school who I could outperform on a psychology exam or literary analysis but who would totally kick my butt out on the soccer field or at the gym. Everyone is smart in different ways, and that’s awesome. Embrace it.

You’re allowed to love what you love. Never try to stifle your excitement for something just because you feel like you don’t fit in; the world’s best people are the ones full of passion and enthusiasm. If something makes your heart race and your mind reel, tell the world! When you spend too much time trying to please everyone else the only person you really hurt is yourself.

More than anything, it’s okay to fail. If you feel like the world has set unrealistic expectations for you, the truth is that you’re probably the one who put them there. I used to think everyone was so hard on me until I realized I was the one being that hard on myself. You’re allowed to mess up, even at the things you consider to be your talents. You are not a failure because you fail once in a while. You are not worthless because you have to adapt the definitions you’ve set up for yourself. You are not perfect… so stop trying to be.

All you ‘gifted’ kids, remember that everyone you meet is somehow gifted, too. Don’t feel forced to be a certain way just because of this description that’s been placed on you; no matter what people tell you that you are, the ultimate decision is still yours. You will always be more than a title.