Academically challenged

I recently had a conversation with my coworker, Mike, about his childhood impression of grade school. He hated it, of course. My family moved around a lot when I was younger and I attended a lot of different schools, so I could empathize with his latent hostility. But more specifically, Mike spoke begrudgingly of his two closest friends who were chosen to participate in his school’s “gifted and talented” program. Every school has one. All with different titles, all with the same concept: My kid is better than yours!

At the beginning of each school year, students with above average grades were given academic equivalency exams in order to gauge whether or not they met the requirements to apply for the accelerated learning program. After which, any students who tested well were moved on to the next challenge. This consisted of a few one-on-one appointments with a committee of clever elitists who were chosen to determine which students were worthy. The tests were always unpredictable. Some were pretty straightforward, involving puzzles, riddles, and other various brainteasers. Some of the tests were not straightforward at all, their purpose being about as obvious as a ninja. Ink blots were involved. But for the most part, it was fun. Or, I should say- it was fun for the kids. The parents, on the other hand, were likely shouldering perpetual panic attacks and acute migraines, trying desperately to avoid potential cardiac arrest. The anticipation was comparable to that of an intense audition. And when the results were in, a lot of tears were shed. Mostly by the parents- you know, in private.

A few select invitations were extended to the especially bright and transparently talented students who’d already achieved awards for doing smart crap. Like the quiet little girl who wore dresses every day and looked younger than everyone in my grade, who played violin solos at the school concerts, but nobody knew her name. I think she peed her pants once. Or her dress, actually. She peed her dress? That just doesn’t sound right. Or the boy who power walked down the the hallways, tightened his backpack straps way too tight, and always brought an electric pencil sharpener to class.

And then there were the wild cards. The kids who seemed to have won the lottery. The kind of kids who didn’t seem comfortable working at the pace of normal classes, let alone special classes for advanced children.

Reminiscing about the good old days, I asked Mike if his jealously might be the root of his discontent. Surprisingly, he said no. Mostly, he was aggravated with the evaluation techniques used by the school board in order to determine the lucky few who would attend. For example, his two friends. One of them was genuinely smart. His other friend tried using a clever rouse, faking dyslexia, in order to get in. I don’t even know how a kid would do that. But apparently it worked. They both got in. What? (How?) Well, because there was an educational shift in the mid-’90s.

Many years ago, a child was considered mentally inept if they had a learning disability like dyslexia. Even the slightest difference, like being left-handed, just wasn’t tolerated. Teachers were actually instructed to re-educate left-handed children, supposedly saving them from a lifetime of mental and social struggles. Over time, re-education became less of a requirement, and more of a suggestion. Eventually, people stopped suggesting it at all. And, by the ’90s, the tables started to turn. And along the way, a few learning disorders had slowly begun to morph into being potential signs of hidden intelligence. Kids were no longer exiled for their learning disabilities. They weren’t taken into separate classrooms, like the kids who needed speech therapy. Instead, they were rewarded for them in the way of a specialized curriculum full of progressive learning techniques, like making videos instead of book reports and finger-painting their feelings instead of taking tests. They were considered to be gifted and talented.

Listen, I’m happy the education system finally decided to embrace the fact that some children aren’t able to learn things in a traditional manner. Some children are more unique, more right-brained. More artsy-crafty. I get that. But I’m also convinced that some of these people are the the same breed of weirdos who think that fasting will actually rid your body of evil toxins, that organic chicken really tastes better than… NORMAL chicken, and yoga makes you taller. Hippies!

Oh, he can’t write numbers in order? He must be a fucking genius.

The advanced classes “for the gifted” were always held in a building separate of the school, either right next door in some prefab trailer home or a short bus ride away to the nearest community college. A couple days a week the elite few were removed from their regular schedule, leaving for a good portion of the day and then returning before the last class period. This separation was a subtle indicator to the remaining student body that these intellectual kids needed their space. Their thinking space. Their “smart people” space. Because they were special. And smarter. And they needed their own building to prevent rejects, like myself, from infecting them with their “stupid people” disease. At the very least, from snot rockets and spitballs.

Rumored to be more unconventional and creatively geared, the rest of the students spoke of the program in the manner of a fairy tale, seething with jealously at the thought of a fantasy-type school where teachers were magicians, books didn’t exist, and Willy Wonka was Principal. Most kids were pissed about these delusional fringe benefits. Even if they didn’t exist. Which they didn’t.

After moving to Delaware, I was thrown into a goofy gifted program called PAT. I’m still not sure what “PAT” actually stands for, if that says anything. The classes were just as boring as any other classes. The teachers were as pretentious as ever, and also just as boring. I guess I was supposed to feel good about myself for excelling, but those classes only succeeded in making me unreasonably insecure- and for the strangest reasons. For instance, I remember my study partner Lauren writing with her left hand- and never giving it a second thought. She wrote with her other hand. So what? No big deal. Until… the English teacher excitedly pointed it out, saying something about how it made sense Lauren was so creative- you know, her being left-handed and all. It was as if Lauren was born with some innate gift that I could never attain or possibly comprehend. And while she was given a natural leap toward a creative destiny, I would have to suffer a more manual and arduous journey… with my stupid right hand.

Being left-handed is no longer against the rules, sure. But it still pisses me off! I recently read an article in the New York Times about left-handed people, and how the negative stigma has finally lifted over the years. And that people no longer hate left-handed people, which is true. But it’s definitely viewed as a rare and especially cool attribute, and an indicator that someone is going to be some sort of creative genius who’s… like, rarely understood. Lucky for them! But isn’t that a stigma of its own? I mean, it’s a stigma for the right-handed people of the world who are also talented and creative, in their own way, and can’t help that they were born with properly aligned brain activity or whatever. Right-handed people are creative too! Right-handed people are special too!

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