Teaching The Gifted Kids

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on prior work experience and thought I’d share some insights about summer programs for gifted youngsters. Sorry, I’m not talking about X-Men. If you want to leave now, go ahead.

Let’s fade back a year or two, a recent summer. I’m on the phone with one of those moms. You know, the kind who can’t shut up about her genius son. His IQ. His college plans. His potential. What I can’t tell her is how much I’d like to drive this little jackass out to the woods and leave him there for the vultures. Earlier this week, I had to escort him around campus because he was switching from a lower-level science class to an advanced one against our recommendations. He needed books and supplies. I had to pay for them with the company debit account.

So, why am I talking to this mom? Trust me, not for fun. I’m having to explain why this 14-year-old failed a college-level test. Happens all the time. Parents send their kids here hoping they’ll blow us away with their intellect. They over-estimate their kids’ abilities, and the kids suffer. I’d feel sorry for many of these kids if they weren’t such precocious little demons. Not kidding. I caught one of them jerking off in a women’s bathroom stall once.

So, this mom thinks the instructor is unfair, biased against her kid, unqualified, whatever spaghetti will stick. I’m saying things like this: “You see, we added him to the class after a full week, against the site director’s advice. That’s almost a month’s worth of material.”

The mom asks, “Why couldn’t the instructor catch him up? I mean, Tony’s very smart. His IQ must be somewhere in the 150s, according to his teachers here.”

I want to say, “Has he taken a real IQ test? Those quizzes you see on Facebook aren’t reliable.”

I also want to say, “Fuck Tony’s IQ. My IQ is 150. There’s no way your insanely arrogant little Mr. Potato Head has the same IQ as I do.”

Vanity. See my other posts. However, I don’t say such things because I prefer to keep my job. It’s the only thing standing between me and my credit card.

I’ve been working with gifted kids for almost a decade now, mainly for academic summer programs like those run by Duke and Midwestern universities. Parents of gifted kids, I’m sorry not sorry. I’m using you for money. Outsiders sometimes call us “nerd camp.” I’ve worked all the way up to middle management—to what they call a dean, or program coordinator, depending on the type of camp. I started back in college as a residence hall advisor, otherwise known as dorm mom, for about 14 teenage drama queens. I can still remember one of my girls berating herself on arrival day for not scoring high enough on the PSAT to take an advanced course. I also remember the girl who delayed her airport bus 30 minutes because she wouldn’t leg go of her boyfriend. It was the last day. They were emotional. I hate when young people get that way. We should’ve had a fire hose on hand. Otherwise, the kids seemed normal enough. Except they tried to sneak textbooks back to their rooms at night.

Intellectual hierarchies run rampant in these programs. Kids compete against each other like they’re in The Hunger Games, and the parents are worse. On a serious note, the whole point of these camps is to stimulate the intellect of these bright young people. Challenge them. Raise expectations. Prepare them for service to humanity. We teachers are supposed to be turning them into the next Tony Starks. Here’s what happens instead: the kids and their parents engage in passive aggressive ego wars for three relentless weeks. They’re out for their own special darling to earn the most recognition and flattery from everyone else. When their dreams start to crack a little, they can’t handle it. Shameful. Not all that surprising for Americans. There is one silver lining, I guess. Better for these kids to find out now and adjust. If nothing else, they benefit from learning they aren’t the only superstars in the universe.

I’m especially critical of the “gifted kid” rhetoric because I received it from both ends. The first half of my public education, I was considered “average.” Then in middle school I took one of those tests and became “gifted.” I was the same girl, but suddenly I had different teachers who actually listened to my opinion, didn’t berate me, and gave us projects instead of homework. All that was great, but I struggled to adjust to the steady stream of compliments. I got used to walking on water. Then in college, things changed. The ego boosting dropped off, and my grades tanked. My roommate Abigail, also a “gifted kid,” suffered even more and wound up dropping out of college altogether. Never to return. Yeah, her ego was that fragile.

Abigail was my first exposure to how parents treat their “gifted” kids. I’d known her since grade school. Over the years I listened to all kinds of ridiculous speeches by her parents at birthday parties and holiday gatherings about how special she was. Although I was “gifted,” my parents honestly didn’t give a fuck. I still had to get a real job and pay for stuff I wanted. My dad had a way of detecting and eradicating signs of self-confidence. In the long run, I guess I turned out all the better for it. Happy accident.

So, if I hate the “gifted kid” rhetoric so much, you might wonder why I continued to work and teach for these programs. Fair question, and the answer is vanity. It’s the same reason why I found a way to do archival research at Harvard and make my university pay for it. I really just wanted a Harvard sweater, and a Harvard mug. And when people see me in my Harvard sweater and say, “Have you actually been there?” I can say, “Yes, I did research at the Widener Library for my article on Blah Blah Blah.” I’m a hypocrite. Smiles.

Eventually, I became an instructor for these kinds of programs. That’s when I started interacting with the parents even more. Here’s an example: Imagine parent orientation. About 500 moms and dads crammed into a cafeteria, all hangry and ready for a vacation from their kids. One dad asks our academic dean if the instructors are “real professors.”

Awkward silence. Our dean quickly formulates some diplomatic bullshit. Something like, “Our instructors come from a range of different backgrounds, and they’re all highly qualified.”

Another parent raises his hand. “What does that mean? Do they teach at places like Brown or Yale?”

Our dean nods like a bobble head. “Sure, some of them do!”

By “some,” she meant one. Most of the instructors are grad students, just like you’d expect at a state school, which these parents see as a kind of purgatory.

Me? I’m tired of writing in present tense. I’d just finished my M.F.A and looked forward to a bright future of non-tenure track jobs, for an annual salary of $25,000. Spending the next seven weeks out of state, away from my boyfriend, was the only way to pay my rent from May through August. Free meals, though. And no dishes. Of course, the boyfriend dumped me about a week into that summer and I wound up sleeping around…a little bit. Just a little bit.

The next month was hell on wings. I taught 8 hours a day, squeezed in gym time, graded for 2 hours, prepped the next day, then went out drinking. Margarita pitchers. Mama needs tequila when she works this hard.

Parent conferences, that’s what we all dreaded most. Maybe you can imagine the torture of chatting with parents for six hours while hiding your hangover and having to think up original-sounding compliments for every single one of those little fuckers. Not easy. Especially since many of them weren’t that smart, just the product of rich self-entitled parents. So, maybe one in six was a legit genus–the kind of girl or boy who makes you a little self conscious, the kind of kid you listen to and think, “Shit. This little person knows almost as much as I do. I’d better go home and read a book tonight so I can sound smart in the morning.”

Some of the parents didn’t even want to hear the evaluation report I spent 30 minutes writing. They weren’t interested in what their kid learned. They wanted to know about me. How flattering. Where did I get my degrees? Yale? Harvard? Brown? No? Not even Emory? When I broke down and confessed my state school education, some of them sneered at me and left. Of course, this inspired harder drinking with my fellow instructors afterward.

Nothing makes failure more poignant than a rich lawyer snubbing you, especially after you just spent an irretrievable part of your youth teaching their kid about semicolons. And if you’re curious, a semicolon is basically a period. Just use it as a fucking period and stop trying to be fancy, okay? Anyway, it kills me that these kids spend a month pretending they’re smarter than me, then go back home and use the knowledge and skills I gave them to lord over their peers and gather up the last few remaining ounces of praise, awards, trophies that their schools have left. Their parents regard me as a servant, not an equal. Their attitude reminds me that even the word pedagogy itself derives from the Greek word for slave. I am not what their children should aspire to become. They’re bleeding my brain and paying me peanuts so that their kid can work for Google someday.

One of my friends once joked with me, “Don’t worry about those fuckheads. When they start that shit, like ‘What do you do during the regular academic year?’, I tell them I work at The Gap.”

Let’s see, what else did I hate about working for nerd camp? The talent show. Two hours, sometimes three, of us all sitting in creaky chairs watching a litany of teens show off whatever extra skills they had. Piano. Guitar. Singing. Dancing. Standup comedy. About one in five had talent. The rest made me wish I’d brought a flask. Thankfully, instructors don’t have to attend the talent show, so I stopped going the past couple of years. I never got to see Tina’s interpretive dance of Taylor Swift. Boohoo.

Here’s the real moral: I’m all about intellectual challenge. I think these programs can do great things for some kids. But they can also become breeding grounds for the worst kind of elitism that has turned American against intellectualism. Please, don’t be Sheldon Cooper. Be Leonard.





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