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Gifted | Elizabeth Wilson

Growing up I craved community. I was social and tried to fit in with my peer groups. At summer camp, I found short-term connections with other kids and globbed onto them for those 7 days but long-standing friendships alluded me. My school identified me as “gifted” at a young age, around 3rd grade, meaning I had an above average IQ. I sat for several hours at a desk with a bubble answer sheet and a #2 pencil. The test was full of pattern recognition questions. Each question would show a progression of shapes with a prompt to predict the next object in the series. I grew my innate pattern matching skill into a career as a forensic scientist, matching lines and imprints on fired bullets and cartridge cases.


I was a rule-follower and a perpetual people-pleaser, happy to follow the guidance of my parents and other mentors. I participated in soccer, played the violin, and sang in the choir, with little regard for my own desires or interests. Being the oldest of three kids, I craved attention and leaned into areas where I received the most accolades. I read above my grade level and handed in my tests ahead of my classmates, receiving high scores with effortless success. I had a keen interest in whodunit mysteries and puzzles of any sort, logic and jigsaw.


Qualification and participation in the gifted program pulled me out of my regular classroom of peers once a week. I took a bus to a different school for advanced learning and more intellectually challenging endeavors. This specialized classroom catered to my unique way of thinking and allowed me to move into a wider world outside of the conventional education box. The program exposed me to artistic expression, critical thinking, and problem-solving strategies. Our gifted teacher would give the class a challenge or problem and, as a group, encouraged us to determine a solution through team work and troubleshooting. She was there to encourage, not instruct. I thrived.


This practice stood in sharp contrast to the primary method of instruction in the standard school system. There, a teacher would present a problem, demonstrate the process to reach an answer and ask for rote replication by students. At the end of a gifted class day, I plopped back down in my regular desk next to a stack of vocabulary lists and math worksheets. My teacher expected me to complete the missed work at home that evening. The social separation that the gifted label bestowed on me felt less like a gift and more like an obstacle requiring careful management.


My giftedness made me stand out amongst my young peer group. In Ms. Crawford’s third grade class, she created a sticker chart to track students’ performance on assignments and tests. For each good grade, a student could earn a gold star. Whomever had the most stickers by their name at the end of the six-week report card period would receive a special prize. I tore through the large gift bag full of coloring books, markers, crayons, and colored pencils. Others stared with envy. I won, but my glee was temporary. When I was also the highest sticker earner for the next period, in the place of an elaborate gift was an “IOU”. By the third session, our teacher had ended the sticker chart motivation all together. My classmates knew I was the reason there would be no more prizes. I had ruined it. I metabolized the sticker chart lesson as a message that I needed to be more secretive about my academic accomplishments if I wanted my classmates to like me. I was torn between showcasing my abilities for the adult attention it awarded me and hiding them to avoid social ridicule.


I began to take longer to turn in my tests. I reread the questions and answers multiple times, rarely changing my responses. I recalculated the math problems. I edited my short answer statements. Scanning the classroom, I hoped to find someone else ready to turn the test in before me. I still couldn’t hide.


I cringed whenever teachers would acknowledge me and my academic efforts in front of everyone. I dreaded the social backlash and teasing on the playground or around the lunch table. I kept quiet on projects, hoping a group mate would come up with a great idea, keeping the spotlight off myself. I slunk into the shadows, and while my grades didn’t suffer, I attempted to mitigate the amount of public recognition I received for them.


The difficulty with teasing and bullying continued in fourth grade. The ring leader of that year’s trouble was Brian, a heavyset boy with a mop of curly blond hair and a menacing sneer. I saw his bike laid out on the road next to the giant bush at the bottom of my neighbor’s driveway. I could make out part of his baseball cap through the top of the plant. He had told me in class that day he was going to come by my house, but I didn’t believe him. He wouldn’t dare. I screamed out, “Brian, go home!” I caught him, and I loathed his presence near my home. This wasn’t an isolated incident. He showed up daily after school for a week before finally giving me some peace.


One week, the revolving classroom desk assignments put Brian in the seat right behind me. He secretly put super glue in my hair, right on my scalp. A solid mound protruding upward, hardened before I ever realized it was there. He must have gotten into trouble for it. I can’t imagine the school would have let that slide, but I never witnessed his punishment. My mom had to use some kind of petroleum jelly or baby oil to work the dried glue off of my scalp. The knot finally came loose, taking the surrounding hair with it.


On Valentine’s Day, Brian and the other boys in my class pelted me with chalky sweetheart candies from those snack-sized boxes everyone gets along with the obligatory cards from each classmate. I don’t know where our teacher was during these escapades. Ms. Wilcox was strict and wouldn’t allow that kind of behavior to occur in her classroom. Her glare could cut through you and render even the most incorrigible student cooperative.


Brian was the leader of the boys, and they always did his bidding. With Brian being the largest boy in the class, the others were as scared of him as I was. The messaging I got from others who were aware these acts of aggression was that Brian was acting this way because he liked me. His behavior was shrugged off as “boys will be boys” shenanigans, harmless. Thank goodness the following year, for 5th grade, I got accepted into our county’s fine arts magnet school and didn’t have to see Brian in class ever again.


A decade later in college, my philosophy professor passed out a photocopy of my essay to each student with my name still visible in the header. The professor lectured the class about the quality of writing he expected, presenting mine as the gold star standard. I braced for the judging looks. I knew what the gold star meant. I didn’t want the gold star. Instinctively, I knew the social dynamics would shift between those classmates and myself. They would view me as the teacher’s pet, a suck-up. In actuality, I sought my peer’s approval most.


Participation in the gifted program left me with the impression that I was meant to be somebody. All the gifted students knew the education system assessed us as having revolutionary potential, earmarked as future leaders. I wanted to make this true to avoid disappointing anyone. Instead, the largest gift I received from my involvement was social anxiety and the aching feeling that I wasn’t living up the expectations of others. These feelings started in adolescence and followed me into adulthood. In my early 30s, I stumbled upon the term “gifted trauma” that ties to a shared sentiment among former gifted students of not living up to our full potential as adults. Could I live up to my ascribed destiny? Would I be enough?


The challenges and creative outlets offered by the gifted program were stimulating but ill-prepared me for the real world. As an adult, I struggled throughout my professional career with the standard practice of keeping quiet about observed inefficiencies and obvious solutions to institutional problems. I was still in the mindset that problem solving as a group was most effective and my insights would be recognized as a valuable contribution to the discussion. Whenever I tried to offer my creative alternatives to an issue, I was shot down or dismissed. At times, my superiors accused me of not understanding my place in the hierarchy. Being a team player in that realm meant continuing to uphold the status quo.


Exposure to the methodologies of the gifted classroom wasn’t all bad. With a childhood focused on achievements and excellence, I learned early on that I was capable of much more than I ever thought possible. Adults and mentors in my life continued to push me forward. They didn’t allow me to settle for good enough, saw my potential and encouraged me to make the brave choice. My hard work paid off repeatedly. I studied for exams and got A’s. I entered for scholarships and received them. I even applied to coveted and competitive internship and research programs, becoming one of the rare college freshmen to join the research team in the Chemistry department. I secured valuable life and job experience that catapulted me to new heights, exceeding my original aspirations. My educational background taught me to dream big. Mentors encouraged me along the way. I knew I had a financial and emotional safety net to fall into when I would misstep or falter.


One downside of recognizing my aptitude is a tendency to give up early in areas I don’t immediately excel. Soccer and violin only lasted for a brief period. Adults showed me early on where my strengths were and encouraged me to pursue those at the exclusion of improving my weaknesses. I gravitate to those areas of life where I have a natural knack for the work, an internal drive that keeps me pushing toward the inconceivable goal ahead.


I allowed my latest achievement to define me. The best thing I offered to the world was my brain. My inability to communicate my thoughts to my classmates, and later my bosses and coworkers, was not because they weren’t well-processed, but because no one taught me how to break down the vast circuitry of my mind. I learned what I had to do to find acceptance from most of my peers. I needed to stay quiet, to not share my ideas so readily, and to keep the obvious solutions to myself. The requirement to hide this part of myself in exchange for acceptance meant I feared show up as my full self. To do so, I risked teasing and isolation. Physical and mental health symptoms took their toll: a lifetime of gut issues, recurring periods of exhaustion and burnout, a lack of confidence, and a tendency toward people-pleasing and self-doubt around making independent decisions about my future.


Towards the end of high school, around senior year, I bonded with a group of amazing women. We shared the common interest of the theater, two of us backstage and two on-stage. The shared passion meant the four of us spent hours outside of class together in rehearsals and the set shop. These ladies became my closest confidantes and the only people who knew all my secrets.


After graduation, all four of us met weekly at our favorite bagel shop to catch up, talk about our lives, and our pending moves to college. We grasped on to the fleeting stability of life as we felt the foundation shift under our feet. We’d converse for over an hour. I can envision all of them now, sitting in the booth across from and next to me, our own girl squad. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movie came out that same year, and our crew was the real-life version of those girls on the screen. We dreamed about our one-act play crew’s upcoming trip to a theater festival in Scotland. The trip would occur at the end of the summer, just ahead of most of our freshman college orientations. We reminisced about our senior year and wondered out loud how we would develop bonds like these in college, swearing to keep in touch despite our scattering across the eastern half of the country.


Once I discovered my interest and passion for working backstage, I stepped into who I was as an individual. Meaningful friendships were now readily available to me. I relished the safety I felt in my all-black attire with the ability to hide behind and amongst the large set pieces. The combination of anonymity and ultimate control of the inner workings of the lights, cues, and sets gave me a sense of freedom to be myself. My peers and backstage instructor valued me for my efficiency, my ideas, and my ability to think on the fly. I felt safer showing up as an unmasked version of myself. The friendships I made with those that shared in my theater world developed a solid foundation. I could pick the connections back up in an instant, even if it had been a while since we last talked.


While in graduate school, I traveled to a Forensic Science conference in Chicago, the temporary home of one of my amazing theater friends, Christina. I reached out to her a few weeks prior, and we made plans to meet up at a coffee shop near the conference hotel. Our shared conversation was so life-giving and necessary for me at that pivotal point in my life. I had just started dating my first girlfriend. I hadn’t told my parents about it yet. My graduate school friends were the only ones who knew. I shared the information with my old friend, and she supported me wholeheartedly. Christina offered me validation. I was a little less scared. We only had the chance to share a few hours together, but the connection and resulting sense of belonging were deep. Our bond was still strong.


Elizabeth Wilson is a writer currently working on her memoir, Lonely Girl. She lives in Colorado with her daughter and runs an online writer community, the Inspired Writer Collective.


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