The student stopped me in the hall one Fall day to tell me another teacher thought she was stupid, had told her she was stupid. I did not entirely believe her.
And then a few days later, that teacher she’d complained of also stopped me in the hall, in almost the same spot, and told me that student was misplaced in Honors classes and not capable of doing the work I demanded in my college writing and lit classes. “There might be three in my Honors class who can do the work.” His upper lip fairly curled. He mentioned the girl by name and said she was stupid to think she could keep up.
I knew better. I had taught her the year before and found her highly capable, perhaps smarter than her transcript suggested. She had participated in discussion and demonstrated skill in reasoning and composition, and I had spoken to her outside of class. Her mother was a mess and this girl was protective of her family. I suspected she was heavily disguised because being known as smart had not served her well in school or life.
I’d seen it before, but it was hard for me to believe that a teacher would miss how smart she was, how insightful and kind, that he would be so unkind as to allow a student to see he disrespected her. He later apologized for being rude about students to me, though he had not altered his opinion about students. Perhaps there were “four students capable of the work.”
Soon after, test results came out, and though I have limited faith in State testing, this girl’s scores were right up there, top of her class. It was, despite his opinion, a highly capable class overall. I noticed the previous year.
But this one girl. She was not the first to hide her intelligence. I’ve had others—students smart enough not to want most people to know they are smart or even to fully appreciate it themselves.
Sometimes they set a bar so high for their work they cannot reach it. They are smart enough to see how high the bar can be set but not yet experienced enough to leap that high. One girl at sixteen had never passed an English class. She did the work but never believed it was good enough to hand in. Gradebooks showed strings of zeroes for her work beginning in Sixth or Seventh Grade. Her friend and I staged an intervention: “You have to hand in an essay that is really, really bad. It can not be a good essay or even okay,” we told her. “It has to be bad.” We cajoled and even, I confess, we bullied. We all three of us laughed and laughed. But she handed in her story. (It was not bad. We teased her about that: “You’ll have to write worse than that.”)
Gina became my model of the Sixty-Percenter, a student who will do precisely 60% of what is asked, just enough to pass. She might answer six of ten questions perfectly and leave the remaining questions blank. She might complete just enough of a writing assignment to squeak by. Her skill at pinpointing that passing level was astounding. My response was to ask more and more of her, because whether the work was “easy” or “hard” she would always perform at that 60% level—better to do passing level work in a harder class than an easy one, I figured. I could not fool her.
Kevin was another Sixty-Percenter, but he was too stoned most of the time to gauge his own progress. He was the only student I ever routinely lied to. He needed to pass and would check with me about his grade. If he knew he was passing my class he would disappear for a few days. I learned to tell him that he was almost passing at 58%, but “if you’re in class for activities during the next two days, by Friday you should be back to passing.” That got him to the weekend. Sometimes he actually had a B average, never less than a C. Like the first student I mentioned, he tested in the 99%tile but in nearly every subject.
In fact many of my troubled students were gifted. I say many, but I taught for thirty years. I can recall a dozen or so of the thousands of students I taught who were highly gifted to the degree that they were hiding extraordinary brilliance in plain sight.
There was the boy who doodled on the sides of his pages and liked to express opinions that he knew would wind me up. He was absolutely the smartest person in the building for the four years he attended the high school where I taught, but the only one among his circle of friends who refused to take the SATs and who never went on to college. He went to work in the woods and when he later realized that in order to survey forest he needed advanced math skills he had avoided in school, he found a textbook at the GoodWill and taught himself.
I have personal experiences as well.
I recall vividly when in Seventh Grade I was outed by my homeroom teacher as the top performing student in my class. I was surprised when the teacher made this announcement and so were my classmates. I was not so smart as the dozen or so of my most gifted students, but like them I did not come from an affluent home. I did not go on skiing vacations or take special classes or play piano or take dance or have braces. And like some of them, I was not deliberately hiding my intelligence, I was hardly aware of it. My peers barely noticed my existence. I only knew that I needed to keep a low profile.
My older son was identified as disabled by his Second Grade teacher. He was tested by hearing, speech, academic, and learning specialists and tested as perfectly normal, though highly gifted in math. The lasting result was his insecurity that something was wrong with him. And then, when his brother was of concern from another Second Grade teacher, the district psychologist urged me to allow testing to “get them off his back.” Yes, crazy-smart.
In her landmark essay, “Small Poppies: Highly Gifted Children in the Early Years” (1999), Miraca Gross describes how extraordinary intelligence can lead to dysfunctional children and tragically lost adults. Despite the popular and thoroughly debunked belief that intelligence leads to or is caused by insanity, gifted children often learn to hide because what they understand and care about is out of step with both peers and teachers. (See above & below.)
[Insanity has no connection to intelligence (though a slight connection to creativity. It is a very popular notion but many studies debunk it. People of average or even above average intelligence are determined that geniuses are bat-shit crazy. No. It’s only that we do not follow them. Pretend for a moment that IQ tests, all tests, have more reliability than they actually do. That’s what a psychologist did in order to explain why highly gifted children are at risk. A person with an IQ of 150 has no more in common with the capacity of an average person with and IQ or 100 than a person with an IQ of 50. (Look up what an IQ of 50 means for real world function.)]
Smart children are generally out of step with peers and teachers, but most smart children learn to navigate a world hostile to their capabilities just fine. I was smart in school and always felt out of step. I was smart enough to manage, to find my way without getting lost. But I was not so smart as the children Gross is worried about. These are not merely gifted children, who will muddle along as I did.
The exceptionally brilliant child is more at risk because the way they think is so far beyond the average person’s abilities that as children they cannot find a way to accommodate to expectations of teachers and peers. They offend their teachers who do not grasp ideas and processes this child takes for granted. Yes, these children are too smart for their own good. They are less knowledgable and less skilled than their teachers, but far more intelligent. I’ve seen it too often. Once is too often. Teachers can be offended by a student asking questions too advanced for the teacher to answer or too complex for the teacher to even understand. Some teachers pick on such students, ridicule and bully because they are frightened by superior intelligence. How sad is that?
When a student asked me a question I had to admit I could not answer, the most common response from the student was an apology. They were so very sorry to have asked a question the puzzled me. They had been taught to be sorry for their curiosity!
Every public school today provides protections and special support for students with learning disabilities. It is in federal law. All children must be guaranteed an “appropriate education” even if that means being given more detailed step=by-step instruction, more time or easier work, one-on-one support and coaching, and continued help in reaching graduation for years past age eighteen.
Support for gifted children, children with special needs because they are exceptionally intelligent or otherwise academically or creatively gifted, varies from state to state. My state says there should be support for gifted students (those in the top 3% in performance or capacity according to tests) but offers no funding to pay for it or to more effectively identify children who need, really need support. Indeed, my own experience is that administrators and teachers often resent any sort of support for gifted students. “It should be easy for them.”
Often, this is not at all the case. Smart children are teased by peers, resented by teachers, and often ignored. They are alone in a way that most of us never experience.
Some students are singled out for TAG (Talented and Gifted) programs based on early verbal skills which were too often derived from social advantage rather than innate skill. Wealthy or influential parents pushed their kids into TAG. In the mean time, genuinely brilliant children are sometimes told they are stupid or come to believe they are, or learn to perform at a minimal level or in other ways to hide their abilities.
We fail to give them an appropriate education.
Smart children are not meaner or “crazier” or necessarily more dysfunctional, but they do have potential to master great problems. The cliché I hear all the time that “children are our future” applies to all of them too. It is an absolute and cruel loss to society when we allow the brightest among us to languish in pain, when we exclude them from their own potential. Because we are scared? Because we are jealous? Or only because we fail to recognize our shared obligation to identify the issues and ease the way of each child according to their individual need.
*Miraca Una Murdoch Gross AM is an Australian author and scholar recognised as an authority on the academic, social and emotional needs of gifted children. Born and trained in Scotland but spending a large part of her life in Australia, Gross is currently Professor of Gifted Education at the University of New South Wales School of Education and the director of Gifted Education, Research, Resource and Information Centre.