Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 5:40 PM on Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Programs for 'gifted' students not a luxury




In kindergarten, my teacher, a veteran professional, was convinced that I was autistic. In the second grade, I spent two terrifying weeks in a room with several cheerfully aggressive students who, looking back, must have had Down Syndrome. My third grade teacher felt I needed to be held back and told my mother that I was an incorrigible discipline problem.

I've been accused of plagiarism, cheating and referred to psychologists. I've been the target of frightening spats of temper from otherwise professional educators. I've experienced bullying from my classmates and have been so miserable that I would weep at just the thought of school.

Such can be the experience of the so-called "gifted" kid in a regular classroom. From kindergarten until the seventh grade when my "ability" was finally diagnosed, I was screened for various and sundry popular disabilities as I habitually frustrated my teachers, disrupted my classmates and confused my family who knew me to be intelligent and did not understand why I was struggling.

My experience is not unusual among the "gifted." Through a fluke of genetics some children can process information differently than others. Sometimes faster, sometimes just differently. To a young person who doesn't understand why they are different, it doesn't feel like a "gift," it feels like a curse.

Imagine if someone took away your Big Wheel and expected you to operate a sports car without training at 6 years old. Now imagine being punished and humiliated for wrecking.

Being "gifted" is like that. A "gifted" student has powerful and specialized equipment and often no guidance on how to use it. These kids become agitated, bored and depressed. They, their teachers and their classmates become locked into a little dance of disruption. These "gifted" students are the class clown, the geek, the explosive temper who gets sent to the principal's office.

"Gifted" kids are thought to be high achievers. Because of that stereotype, "gifted" programs are underfunded or not funded at all. When a school district's resources are stretched thin, "gifted" programs can seem unnecessary. Parents, administrators and educators should remember that taking away services to "gifted" kids is like taking away another child's wheelchair. That child may learn to drag themselves around the school building, but it is doubtful they are learning to their potential.

Thanks to Brian Eply, my coach and seventh grade science teacher, I was finally tested for the "gifted" program. From then on, for a couple of hours a day, every day, I worked with my Quest teacher, Mrs. Ladd, to find something that could help me engage with school.

After some trial and error, she plunked me down in front of a beige Apple Macintosh computer, cutting edge technology at the time, opened up a word processor and I began to write. Instead of experiencing frustration, being a disruption and being bored literally to tears, I found a little niche in school which carried me all the way through high school, where I flourished under the patient guidance of one Nina Faust, purveyor of wholesome and delicious cookies and hero to Quest students for an entire generation.

While I did not write the Great American Novel before the age of 25, I believe that the Quest program introduced me to a world of academia from which I may have been permanently alienated.

As the parent of a "gifted" student, a volunteer and a substitute in the school district, it frustrates me to see students who clearly need a differentiated curriculum left to languish in a standard classroom. Even kids who may not be diagnosably "gifted" benefit from programs that might spark their interest where "standards" do not.

Being "gifted" is not a free ticket to success. "Gifted" students drop out, get involved in drugs and alcohol, commit crimes and commit suicide. Alan Ginsberg's famous poem, "Howl," opens with "I've seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness..."

The list of "best minds" from Homer who have met bad ends is not short. It is a profound tragedy when apathy and disaffectedness leads "gifted" students into trouble. Especially when many of these problems could be alleviated by administrator awareness, educator sensitivity and parent advocacy.

Billeen Carlson is the mother of three in Anchor Point. She has a bachelor of arts degree in history and is currently working on a master of arts degree in teaching.