The Penny

Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.

[Friday, March 4, 2011]

Who I Am

Somewhere out there is a little boy going through the evaluation process for special education. I'm not testing him, but a good friend of mine is. She's a special educator, and when she gave him the usual test for reading, writing, math, and content, she was just blown away by what this first grader could do. By what he understood. He enjoyed word play and interesting math problems. He was certainly the highest child she had ever tested, and then she told me that he had scored 141 on a nonverbal intelligence test that the school psychologist gave him. Apparently everyone in the special education system was blown away by this. I thought, That's cool. But personally, I'd be disappointed with that score.

Before you go thinking I'm a Snooty Sneech... well, don't jump to conclusions. I just didn't think 141 was that impressive. The day after this conversation, the special education team leader came into the room I share with the educator who tested the child. I was the only one there. As he dropped something on her desk, I commented, "I hear little Gary (made up name, of course) had a rough day today. Couldn't handle the change in the language arts schedule or something." He responded, "What else is new? By the way, did you hear about his IQ score?" He went on to point out, "Gary is as different from regular kids as your kids are, just in the opposite direction."

First off, I corrected his assumption that deaf kids have mental retardation. I mean, 141 is to 100 (exactly average) what 100 is to 59. That's MR, as it was called until last year when it changed to intellectual disability and everyone began pretending that they had never used the "r" word in their lives. But although "my kids" do not have terribly low IQs, they do have abysmally low language abilities. One scored right around 55-60 last year... so I know what 59 looks like, and it's LOW.

Although I was disgruntled at his casual dismissal of my students' intellect, the sped master got me thinking. Actually, he set my feet on a path I should have gone down long ago.

If Gary is that different from regular kids... no wonder he can't get along with them. I mean, he has emotional disabilities (crying in the coat closet, freaking out at changes in routine) that are over and above his giftedness, but even discounting that, what could he possibly have in common with regular kids? Think about it. How much do regular kids enjoy playing with intellectually disabled children? I can tell you from experience: not much. It takes some persuasion to get typical children to play with my students who have Down Syndrome or what have you. The intellectually disabled child doesn't understand what the peers are saying, doesn't get the games they play. Similarly, an intellectually gifted child wouldn't enjoy playing with regular kids who don't understand what he is saying and don't get the games he wants to play.

I borrowed a book from the library entitled When Gifted Kids Don't Have All the Answers. I did this partly because I was interested in the topic--but I'm interested in most topics. Well, really I was in the education section because I wanted to brush up on special education law, and I happened to spot this book, thinking, Maybe I can give [special educator friend] some ideas for writing Gary's IEP.

Reading this book, I saw myself on every page.

The book presented a list of 14 general characteristics of a gifted children, with the caveat that gifted children will demonstrate many but not all of the characteristics.

1. Shows superior reasoning powers and marked ability to handle ideas, can generalize readily from specific facts and can see subtle relationships; has outstanding problem-solving ability
2. Shows persistent intellectual curiosity; asks searching questions; shows exceptional interest in the nature of humankind and the universe
3. Has a wide range of interests, often of an intellectual kind; develops one or more interests to considerable depth
4. Is markedly superior in quality and quantity of written and/or spoken vocabulary; is interested in the subtleties of words and their uses
5. Reads avidly and absorbs books well beyond his or her years
6. Learns quickly and easily and retains what is learned; recalls important details, concepts and principles; comprehends readily
7. Shows insight into arithmetical problems that require careful reasoning and grasps mathematical concepts readily
8. Shows creative ability or imaginative expression in such things as music, art, dance, drama; shows sensitivity and finesse in rhythm, movement, and bodily control
9. Sustains concentration for lengthy periods and shows outstanding responsibility and independence in classroom work
10. Sets realistically high standards for self; is self-critical in evaluating and correcting his or her own efforts
11. Shows initiative and originality in intellectual work; shows flexibility in thinking and considers problems from a number of viewpoints
12. Observes keenly and is responsive to new ideas
13. Shows social poise and an ability to communicate with adults in a mature way
14. Gets excitement and pleasure from intellectual challenge; shows an alert and subtle sense of humor

The list was quite an eye-opener for me. Because the list IS me. (Mm, I don't know about #13--not sure if I had "social poise" as a child, but I know that I saw adults as equals.)

The funny thing is that I thought I was normal. I just thought other people were dumb when they didn't understand things as readily as I did.

In church I spent many years after high school working in Primary with the children. At some point I was called to teach Relief Society (women's class), which meant that I was now going to the adult Sunday School class every week, as well as to Relief Society. I found that I really liked Sunday School--the teacher was great. I also found that other people don't understand everything they read. They needed the teacher to explain what many of the passages meant. I'm not saying I automatically understand everything, just most of it. I didn't know that was special until I was in a class with other adults, but I still didn't think of myself as smart or gifted. I thought I was the normal one. And I thought maybe I had a gift specific to the scriptures. I assumed that other people had difficulty just with the scriptures--I've since learned that people have difficulty reading works of literature, technical reports, journal articles, instructions, etc.

At the beginning of last year, I had two parents who became VERY upset with me when they didn't understand some information I had given them regarding their children's speech difficulties and how to do the homework. I thought I had written very clear explanations and instructions. I really didn't understand why they didn't understand--and why that made them angry. That situation came to mind following my colleague's comment about a gifted person being as different from typical people as a mentally handicapped person is. If a typical person wrote an explanation that made sense to them, would a person with severe Down Syndrome understand it? I realized that I would need to "dumb down" my language if I were to write instructions in the future. It also occurred to me (ahem, number 1, generalizing readily) that I should simplify my language in reports and on IEPs. I don't mean using jargon--of course I know not to do that. But apparently my regular vocabulary or syntax or something can be difficult for people to understand.

I noticed in Utah that people often couldn't understand me. I consciously modified both my accent and my vocabulary, because communication is really the goal. That was probably good, because my success with communication dramatically increased following that decision, but maybe I regret it a tiny bit. I got out of the habit of using words that I like, because they allow me to express myself with more precision. I'm kind of torn, because there's no point in using words that people don't understand... but I like those words! I like all words.

I thought everyone could remember the phone numbers of all of their acquaintances. I thought everyone could remember conversations word for word. I thought everyone could remember what their teachers said in class.

I didn't study in high school. I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't know how. But I didn't need to, so I never learned. Actually, I thought I did know how; I thought that studying was what I did when I read over my Latin vocabulary words while dashing to class. When I got to college, I thought I was dumb, because I didn't get As on all of my tests without studying and without going to class all the time. I gave up and quit going to class altogether, which didn't do great things for my grades. I finally got a clue when I went back to school as a 25-year-old. I learned that I could get As by writing the information again and again until I had memorized it. This worked for any amount of material, even pages and pages of truncated phrases. I found that memorizing how many details went with a topic helped, because I could picture where in the list each phrase should go. My method worked well for me. That was good, because to me, a B is an embarrassing failure. Even an A- is a disappointment--alright, I'll admit it, I see an A- as failure. And I don't think I'm wrong: I just think As are normal. Using my "write it out" method, I got straight As for 2 1/2 years finishing my bachelor's and throughout my master's program.

That made me happy, but not because I thought it was a great achievement. It was more like relief at having avoided failure.

I wonder if you might read this and think I'm being egotistical. Even as I write all this, I feel like a fraud, like I'm really not smart and will be "found out." Being as insecure as I am, I naturally enjoyed the section of the book that delineated the many problems related to giftedness, including:
-being impatient
-having difficulty getting along with less able peers
-wanting to move on quickly to more challenging problems, despite what the rest of the class is doing
-getting bored (welcome to my world!)
-driving you crazy with questions
-feeling that everyday class work is trivial and meaningless
-seeming scattered and disorganized
-taking on too many projects at once
-resisting direction or interruption
-talking too much
-seeming pompous or conceited--a "show-off"
-playing word games that others don't understand or appreciate
-burying self in books and avoiding social interaction
-getting bored with the regular curriculum
-resisting assignments that don't present opportunities for new learning
-getting impatient with peers for being "slow"
-disliking drill and practice
-wandering off the subject
-having tunnel vision, hating to be interrupted
-being stubborn
-having difficulty working with others (um, they'll just mess it up)
-seeming bossy and disrespectful
-being unable to accept help
-setting unrealistically high goals
-being perfectionistic
-lacking tolerance for others' mistakes
-fearing failure
-avoiding taking risks or trying new things
-becoming depressed
-being a loner
-having difficulty focusing on or finishing assignments
-having trouble making decisions
-seeing too much
-resisting sameness and routine tasks
-taking things personally
-feeling powerless to solve the word's problems
-becoming fearful, anxious, and sad
-having trouble handling criticism or rejection

I saw myself in many of those negative characteristics, unfortunately. I also learned that I'm a classic underachiever: I don't believe what apparently I'm capable of. It's only since reading this book that I think I may really be capable.

When I shared the book and my thoughts with Laynie, she got a little upset and wondered how we can be friends when we're so different. The chasm seems unbridgeable.

I don't have an official IQ score to report. I know that I tested into some kind of gifted magnet school when I was 6, but my parents decided not to send me. Whenever I take online IQ tests, they results are around 150. I think they highest one was 162 and the lowest was 145 (some tests ceiling out at 145 though--three standard deviations about the mean). I guess I didn't realize the impact of scores like that until sped man made that comment about little Gary. If you took 10,000 kids his age, he'd be smarter than all of them. But people definitely don't understand what that means.

The child's evaluation team held a meeting in my room the other day to discuss how they're going to handle this very unique situation (how to qualify a child who is far above grade level for special ed, which he certainly seems to need), and the psychologist made the comment, "He's using all his energy thinking about algorithms or whatever, so he probably doesn't have any energy left to respond when people talk to him." That's not what being gifted is about. It doesn't take energy to think about "hard" things. You want to think about those things, you enjoy thinking about them--it's not a matter of diverting energy from other things. You can do many things at once. I used to get in trouble in grad school for doing the crossword puzzle or sudoku in a couple of classes, but I was absolutely following the lectures. Those classes were too easy. I didn't need to use my whole brain to process what the professors were saying. In fact, when I wasn't doing the crossword puzzle to keep me grounded (for lack of a better word), I'd be totally out of class mentally, thinking about other things--things that interested me. That happened a lot in high school. I remember practicing the Greek alphabet backwards when I was bored in high school classes. I had already memorized it forwards. I'd practice writing the beautiful Greek characters--the teachers probably thought I was taking notes. I'd also memorize the posters on the wall.. the periodic table, Latin noun declensions, characteristics of poetry, math formulas.. whatever was around. I cannot handle boredom.

I laughed at one list in the book. It was called "The Ten Commandments that Foster Elitism."
I. Thou shalt be told that boredom is part of life and that easy, redundant work must be tolerated.
II. Thou shalt often hear classmates express frustration because the test was hard... when thou thought it was easy. (Ever been accused of being a "curve-wrecker?" Yeah.)
III. Thou shalt procrastinate on long-term assignments until the day before they are due... and thou shalt turn them in and get A's.
IV. Thou shalt hear classmates ask questions of thy teacher that thy teacher answered clearly yesterday. (haha)
V. Thou shalt receive numerous telephone calls from classmates the night before a test asking how to solve a difficult problem.
VI. Thou shalt consistently get good grades without having to work or study hard.
VII. Thou shalt know the answer to every question the teacher asks... and can answer the questions no one else can. (FYI: this annoys teachers.)
VIII. Thou shalt have thyself, thy grades, and thy work held up, by thy teacher, as examples to be emulated.
IX. Thou shalt be chosen first by the team captain for spelling, math, and geography bees.
X. In short, thou shalt have ample opportunity to believe that aptitude is equated with human value and that if thou art smarter, thou art better.

Five and ten really hit me. I had people become "friends" with me just so that I would "study together." Free tutoring! It took a few times before the pattern became clear: hm, this person always wants to hang out before a test. Number ten... This was made quite clear to me by a person close to me. I don't want to hurt her feelings by saying too much about it, but this is something that still plagues me. I have to remind myself that being smart doesn't make you a better person, that God loves everyone. That everyone has a talent.

Speaking of talents, let me be clear: mine are from God. Of course. I know that God gave me musical talents so that I could be of service at church. And thinking in music helped me improve my auditory processing as a teenager. That's a whole other post. I probably don't recognize all my talents or what I'm here to do. Today, as I knelt to adjust Laynie's ski boots for the fifth time, I thought, I'm a pretty good friend. That made me happy, and I recognized it as a talent. I'm not sure why I have the intellect that I have. It often does not seem like a gift. Maybe it's a trial.

I don't tell people that I'm smart. I usually try to pretend that I'm just like everybody else. Sometimes I say that I forgot something when I really didn't, or that I don't know the procedure for something when I do. Last week, I told my friend, the teacher of the deaf that I work with, that I think I'm gifted. On many occasions she has asked me, "How do you know that?" or "How do you remember all that?" I will deflect with, "I just looked it up for another student," or something similar. Last week she started to say, "Wow, you are gifted." Every time I did something she considered unusual, she'd point it out. Like when the mainstream class voted on their favorite Dr. Seuss books (they were creating a bar graph) and I noticed that a little girl raised her hand twice--and I knew which book she had already chosen. I knew which books all of the special ed students had chosen. That didn't seem unusual to me. I just remember things. Now the teacher of the deaf is convinced that I have a photographic memory, which I do not. It's hard to explain. Things just go into my brain and stay. It's not like I see a picture of them. Most of the time. I guess sometimes I can see pages from textbooks when I need information. But usually I just think and the information is there.

I had another insight this week. I now understand why deaf adults feel connected to or possessive of young deaf children. Every day I want to pull Gary aside and talk to him, help him understand himself. He's my people. I feel a surprisingly strong kinship toward him. I want him to have a better experience than I had. Maybe I should just let the regular people take care of it--let them chisel the corners off him so that he fits into the hole.

I know how all this sounds. I don't mean to be a jerk. That's why I've kept it to myself for... oh, my entire life. Not only have I kept it to myself, I've kept it from myself.

I suppose I'm a little late getting on the path of self-discovery. But better late them never.


Laynie | March 18, 2011 at 12:06 PM

Wow, I have a genuine roommate. Cool.

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