Yesterday, I had another one of the conversations that have trailed me since childhood. The kind where people find out my age, calculate backward and inevitably say "You must be a prodigy or something," "Did your parents push you hard?" and "Do you feel you missed out on any of the social experiences of high school?" I have flip, concise answers for all three: "I guess," "No, I just wanted out of there as fast as possible," and "Actually, my social life in college was much more enjoyable."
It is hard to answer those questions to both my and the questioners' satisfaction. I have no idea what my life would have been like if my parents and I had made different choices. I have never been able to imagine an unequivocally better path, and have no difficulty envisioning far worse ones, including what others may see as normal. By the time I was in third grade, already accelerated two years, I knew I simply wasn't like most people. The opportunity that most people had to get what they wanted without feeling out of place was not something I felt I could ever have.
Having to fight for what seemed so right and appropriate seemed an overwhelming disadvantage. Even with various hard-won accommodations and programs, I still felt I needed more. I pestered my family to take me to museums and on trips, engaged understanding adults and returned from weekly visits to the county library with more books than I could carry. Those extra activities kept my mind engaged with learning and away from dwelling on unkind classmates. It took me until college to fully appreciate that I had opportunities, by virtue of my giftedness, that they never had.
Adolescence made dealing with being different harder, just as my longing for a place to belong intensified. Although my classmates and I could share fantasy worlds in elementary school, the gap became more difficult to bridge as I grew older. Discussions of the morality of war inhabit a vastly distant realm from dances, pop music and fashionable clothes. At the same time, my sense of justice grew stronger and it became harder to accept the unfairness of waiting patiently while others learned. I watched and learned that teachers noticed and praised the quiet girls for contributing to class. Not speaking unless spoken to for two weeks of school garnered no attention, so I returned to a slightly more withdrawn version of my earlier self.
Finding a place outside of family and books where I felt at home became a consuming need and both my parents and I saw college as a place where it could be satiated. We knew that a high school diploma would make that path easier and worked on finding a way to get one as soon as possible. A fortuitous combination of planning and luck made my acceleration from seventh to tenth grade possible. Not only did it get me two years closer to a diploma, but also into a class with other highly gifted kids. They made classes with even mediocre teachers interesting. Although my previous experiences made me wary of becoming too close to any of my classmates, I knew that with a fresh start I could find friends among people like them.
That year my mother and I also attended our first college fair. Although I told my guidance counselor that my only requirements were that the school be at least a day's drive away from home and that it have seasons, we were really canvassing for a place where I could be who I wanted to be and discover who that was, along with all the other freshman. We immediately disregarded schools whose representatives asked: "Well, we'd love to have her, but you wouldn't want to expose your daughter to dorm life, would you?"
Even more maddening were the schools that implied they would admit me if only I were a boy. We wanted a place where I would not have to fight to be treated fairly.
I decided on Smith College because, with brisk classroom discussions, a large library and the allure "out East," it just felt right. Their admissions officer also spent the least amount of time discussing my age, commenting, when asked, that my predicted diploma and recommendations were enough. Apart from the fact that the class dean called me in July to ask me if I had any questions and set up a meeting for after the first week of classes, so far as I know they did nothing different for me because of my age. For the first time in my life, I felt I could work on figuring out who I was, without worrying about being treated unfairly because of my age or giftedness. Apart from skipping reading period to attend the Hollingworth conference, and trying to find time to get a driver's license, my college life resembled that of my friends. My peers did not seem to care how old I was and tended to forget once they got over being surprised. It took me longer to forget, and I worried throughout my first year that the previously unavoidable teasing would resume.
By my senior year, that fear had virtually disappeared. When my neighbor told me that she had just heard an unbelievable piece of gossip about me, a thousand things popped into my head before she told me: " I heard you were just 17." As I laughingly confirmed my age and we commiserated about the state of American education, I marveled that it had not occurred to me that the rumor was about my age. Later, she still asked me for advice on her love life. That was just what I needed --a chance to have others acknowledge me as one of their own while fully appreciating me for who I was.
Growing up gifted made me keenly aware of the pain that society inflicts on those who are different. It was not until I found a place where diversity of all sorts was valued that I was able to fully come to terms with how being gifted shapes my identity. I finally felt safe enough to discard the mask I had constructed to protect my sense of self. It was hard to give up its protection after so many years, but possible because I no longer felt under siege. My mother saw the change in finally having back the sparkling eyes and excitement of her little girl when I came home for Thanksgiving. I saw it in being comfortable enough with myself to learn who I was, regardless of what others thought of me. I dated for the first time, coincidentally, a dorm mate my age and year who had transferred from Mary Baldwin's PEG early entrance program. Being lesbian has certainly added to my sense being different in ways which are hard to separate from being gifted. They both mark me as an outsider from mainstream society and have the potential to be quite isolating. In order to base my identity on something more than a search for a safe haven, I need membership in communities who welcome and appreciate all of who I am. Although regular school failed me in that regard, my family played that role throughout my childhood and continues to provide me with a solid base. My college experience gave me the confidence to be my true self when I stepped into the wider world.
Reprinted with permission of the author. This article was first published in Highly Gifted Children.
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