A Personal Story of Giftedness, Disabilities, and Bullying
I have many distinct memories of Kindergarten and First Grade. It’s fun to really dig deeply into all that I remember of each story that I can recall, thinking of details I’d thought I’d forgotten. And to learn from the 20/20 hindsight I have now as an educator. Did I say fun? Sometimes it’s horrifying and I wonder how any of us are able to function…
While I liked Kindergarten alright, I remember being ridiculed as a liar by several in my class for taking several colorful and delightfully weird Dr. Seuss books home to read. See, back then, you learned to read in 1st grade and my peers thought I was lying, saying that I was actually going to have mom or dad read them to me. My pride was (already) high back then and I remember being genuinely hurt by those accusations of lying. And I soon learned to hide the books that I took home in my denim Holly Hobbie bag so no one in the busline or on the bus would see them.
In fact, the memory still stings, as I think of the thousands of bright kids of all ages in schools today who go through similar struggles. My heart breaks for those kids who must hide their enjoyment of various activities (which are actually pretty cool) because they’re tired of being taunted for things that are “beyond the norm.” And yeah, that includes reading, and math, and graphic novels, and coding, and music, and art, and science, and … you name it … anyone who really digs it will be ridiculed. And they’ll not only be ridiculed by peers, but teachers as well. Yes. Teachers too. Even if it’s unintentional, it still happens.
In First Grade, I remember the reading groups and being put into a group with my two best friends, Scott Bowman and Becky Martin. We worked hard to out-do each other in the number of books we read that year, competing to have the most stars added to our reading rockets which were taped on the side of the playhouse in Mrs. Hobbs’ room. My rocket was purple construction paper that faded as the year went on and was cut out at a wonky angle because scissoring was not a talent of mine.
I also remember in first grade learning how to cheat in math class. I would oh-so-coolly raise up in my chair and look over the shoulder of my friend, Becky, to see what 8+4 was. I’ve always hated 8’s and Mrs. Hobbs would smack our fingers if she caught us counting on them. She did have matchsticks we could use, but she called them “crutches” and she said it so disparagingly that none of us dared to use them. We learned that crutches were something to stay away from…and we also learned to stay away from that seventh grader, Jodie, who wore funny glasses strapped to his head, talked weird, and used crutches to walk.
I was cheating in math for two reasons, the first of which was that I wasn’t a quick memorizer of math facts, especially 8’s. However, because I was a quick reader, other kids said, “I thought you were supposed to be smart.” I didn’t know I was smart. I just knew I didn’t really like math class and LOVED sitting near Becky who was quick in math! To stop the ridicule, I stopped asking for help from Mrs. Hobbs. I also stopped asking for help because she yelled at me when we were doing math fact races, 1 on 1 at the chalkboard and I couldn’t figure out the question. See, at the front of the class and paired against others, I froze up! I’d always lose the race…in front of everybody.
Then really fell behind when I was pulled from math class to go visit Mr. Sniederjohn in the Principal’s office. These visits occurred several times for what seemed a long time and at the same time, not long enough. See, not everyone got to go visit him (just Scott, Becky and me), so it was kind of cool, but I still worried that I might be in trouble. Mr. Sniederjohn showed me cartoon panels without words and asked me what was going on in the picture. I loved those! He’d show me lines and ask me to draw on the line to finish the shape out. He gave me puzzle-type pieces and asked me to make other shapes out of them. Sometimes he timed me, which made me go slower, I swear! It was really fun stuff, though! I liked that guy and hanging out in the Principal’s office was pretty special because the Principal Ewing left us alone there. I can still smell the room and the puzzle cards too.
But when I left Mr. Sneiderjohn and went back to class, they were counting pennies and nickels and I got in trouble for not having mine all cut out (danged scissoring) or pasted together yet. Did I mention I hate math? And eventually, Mr. Sneiderjohn never came back to our school. I never saw him again. I kinda missed our time together.
Years later, around the start of my sixth grade year when we transferred out of state to another school, I found out that my teachers, including Mr. Sneiderjohn, had met with my parents back in First Grade and said that I needed to go to a special school that helped “gifted” kids. I knew it wasn’t a special school like what that kid Jodie attended. This was for smart kids. Smart kids who could read fast…who always got picked by the teacher to be the lead in the Christmas play … and who lost friends because the friends didn’t think it was fair that they were always picked to be the lead in the Christmas play… Did I mention I loved being on stage, reciting lines and singing? I still hated math.
But I never went to that special school. What had happened?
My parents talked with me about their decision. They said that I needed to learn how to get along with all kids and not to just be around smart kids. And that the bus ride to the special school would be too long for a little kid.
And they told me what my IQ score had been back then in First Grade, and gave me a warning to never tell any teachers or students what that number was. I was sworn to secrecy. Not knowing what the number meant, I looked it up. It was high, I guess. I wondered what life would have been like at that other school. Probably pretty hard. Like, I might have to actually do all my work there because now, I didn’t have to do all my homework. My grades were good — all A’s except for math — and I could make up for any zeros on homework by doing well on the tests, which I always did. But I didn’t have to work hard.
I guess I had to accept it. Nevermind that the teachers, in every single parent teacher conference, from Second Grade all the way through the rest of my schooling said that I wasn’t working up to my potential. Mom would come home from conferences and scold me about working harder. Dad would tell her to relax…that the one B in math wasn’t something to bother about. I thought, “so what?” I was getting good grades. What more did the teachers want from me? My gpa in the high 3’s was good enough to earn scholarships to college. That’s what school is about, right?
Listen, I don’t blame my parents for my life path. Sure, I’d probably not be a teacher if I’d gone to that special school and I’m very, very happy being a teacher. But because I’ve been on that side of the fence, it’s a HUGE deal to me that all kids, especially those who aren’t attending gifted services, receive an appropriate education in all their classes. It’s also a big deal for me to shine a light on bullying, from both a peer perspective and from a teacher-to-student perspective…what it is we do as adults that makes life even harder on kids, intentionally or not.
This is what it is. I don’t think I’d change it, even if I could. Curiosity would definitely make me go back to walk another path for a bit if I could, but ultimately, I’m pretty satisfied with the way things are turning out here. I have empathy, a clear understanding, and am armed with knowledge. And that’s what keeps me moving forward every. single. day.
Do you ever go back to revisit old ghosts to learn how to be a better educator? A better person?
- Study: Learning math skills in first grade critical for future success (kdvr.com)
- The journey of giftedness (2bgifted.com)