July 09, 2010

The Designer/Wordsmith/Rockstar - or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being "Gifted"

Originally published as a "Student Voices" column in the Summer 2010 Gifted Education Communicator.
No one ever asked me if I wanted to be “gifted.” I didn’t know what it meant at first, and it didn’t seem like I had a choice in the matter, so it took a while to get used to the idea. At seven years old, I definitely wasn’t ready—it was sort of a surprise, and I’ve never handled strange new surprises very well. I was an eldest child and a late bloomer, and had always been better with routine and stability. Even now, as a thirty-three-year-old professional designer, I still don’t improvise as well as I’d like, and in a field that depends on spontaneous sparks of inspiration, that can be dangerous. I’ve long since learned that such catalytic tension makes for great creativity, but it wasn’t an easy lesson, especially back when I was a newly-minted “gifted and talented child.” That was more like getting shoved on stage, front and center, beneath a gigantic spotlight.

Dealing with that spotlight gradually got easier, but only after I was able to define my role on stage, instead of having it defined for me. If I had to be up there, in the band, I had to do something fun. Not singing—too exposed. Not lead guitar, either—too flashy and complicated. Not drums—steady, yes, but too essential, with no room for error. But the bass guitar—now that looked like the way to go. Its unobtrusive nature made perfect sense to me, so that’s the role I chose. The bass is always in the background, but it’s constant. It’s an essential piece that’s missed when it’s gone, but it’s dependent on drums to sound its best. The bass is grounded, repetitive, familiar, and relatively simple. It’s a rhythm instrument, stringed but percussive, steady and supportive, neither leader nor follower. Like many musicians, I identify with my instrument a little too closely, but that helps keep the stage fright away—and I definitely had stage fright as a child.

Over twenty-five years later, that uneasiness isn’t difficult to express at all, but for a first-grader suddenly catapulted to the second grade reading class, it was awfully hard to understand why walking down the hall alone and simply knocking on the classroom door felt impossible. That was one of at least a dozen similar experiences that underlined what now seems like a haphazard approach to giftedness at my elementary school. I always got moved to combination classes to do extra work at the next grade level, and being gifted back then was definitely presented like a chore or an obligation. I didn’t understand, in third grade, why the music teacher assigned violin practice records when I could already blast through every piece in the book, playing by ear. I didn’t get the point of writing an essay on the Age of Discovery in fourth grade, when I could just draw a world map, freehand, and explain it that way. It made much more sense, in fifth grade, to ditch the after-school GATE class and gamble quarters on the 1988 presidential primary with my best friend—until a pretty girl shamed us both into going to class with her.

In middle school, though, something happened—“being gifted” was probably the only thing that actually got easier—the assignments were relaxed and fun, and relied on a healthy injection of individualism from each student. Thanks to what must have been a well-designed program, I got away with good grades in English for creating grammar lessons taught by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; I won praise in Art for designing alternate album covers for my favorite music; I actually had fun writing a U.S. History paper on the rise and fall of the Confederacy. Even better, people were impressed with all the weird stuff I could do—and let me tell you, a kid can get used to that kind of applause.

Getting rewarded for being ravenously curious about the world felt great—like being paid to start food fights or play X-rated video games—and looking back, that’s when the egomania began to creep in. It wasn’t exactly naked, slobbering hubris—just smug, inward sneering—but I realized that sometimes I could just “do school” to get by, without really trying. There were still limits—I won the county Geography Bee in seventh grade, but got bounced after the first round at the state level; I crashed and burned on the Algebra placement test, ending up in the “normal” eighth grade math class—but the seed of sloth was planted, despite the genuinely good and earnest efforts of parents and teachers who all seemed to have my best interests in mind.

That kind of blasé self-confidence—on top of the usual chaotic teenage neurochemistry—could have spelled academic doom in high school; thankfully my experience ended up being much more socially and emotionally balanced. I got all the brain food I could ever need from the accelerated and advanced placement humanities classes. I was encouraged to read about whatever I wanted—literature, history, politics, music, art and culture, from Homer to Hunter S. Thompson—and drew on all of it when turning in term papers on Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, on Canto IX of Dante’s Inferno, and on e.e. cummings’ sneaky, profane usage of Greek in “Jehovah Buried.” The only problem was that researching those things didn’t feel like work at all, so I never learned proper study skills. Except for Biology, every math and science class I really had to study for—Algebra, Trigonometry, Chemistry—ended ugly, and I barely scraped by. The bigger lesson, though, was working with kids who weren’t as comfortable in school as I was—which definitely balanced my perspective. The only class that didn’t present either extreme was Visual Arts, and it became an oasis of calm creativity during my otherwise gloriously gonzo senior year. It was subjective, easy, and fun—especially sketching girls’ portraits to get dates—and there was no “right” or “wrong” way to be an artist. Unfortunately I forgot about that nugget of wisdom for almost ten years. For that, I blame the University of California, Santa Barbara.

I’d always vaguely expected to get a higher education, but was never too anxious or excited about it—college was just another first I’d have to endure. Initially, everybody else seemed gifted too, and it wasn’t actually that much different from high school—aside from some unhinged personal behavior and colossal financial repercussions—so I coasted through two years as a Geography major. I was actually on track to be a city planner until I got a D in Urban Planning despite working like crazy.

Switching to English was an easy fallback—I’d always been a good writer, and appreciated the more nutritious diet of literary criticism than I’d had in high school. It didn’t take long for the impulsive sloth to bite back, though. I got away with turning in first-draft, B+ quality papers on everything from the Chaucer-Shakespeare-Milton heavy hitters to Kafka, Kerouac, and Rushdie, and I still hadn’t learned to study. Two further major distractions on top of that were a fitful sortie into journalism (I wrote arts reviews for the school paper) and a sidestep into music (I played in three rock bands over ten years), but fortunately those weren’t detrimental enough to keep the Regents from eventually coughing up my diploma.

Of course, it’s all fun and games until you have to get a job, or book a gig, but sometimes it’s still really hard to knock on scary unknown closed doors. For better or worse, that was part of the rudest post-graduate awakening that I had to deal with: fewer and fewer people cared about how smart or talented I was (or thought I was). It shouldn’t have been so shocking, but being “gifted” didn’t matter anymore, to anyone. It wasn’t some magical inoculation against the world’s superficial snap judgments. Worse, those same little snatches of sloth had fermented into a strange sort of passive entitlement: why wouldn’t that company hire a bright capable kid like me, right out of school? Why wouldn’t that newspaper run my articles? Why wouldn’t that club book my band? Nobody cared—and I hadn’t learned how to make them care. So, like every other self-absorbed post-grad, I flailed around gracelessly for a few years. I eventually landed some bureaucratic office jobs, but belatedly succumbed to all the obvious downsides of giftedness: underachievement, procrastination, boredom, resentment. It was a lesson in humility worth learning, but I wasn’t able to kick the doldrums until I decisively returned to what worked: creativity (freelance journalism, music, and art) and education (night school for graphic design and web development). I did what was challenging and fun—and lo and behold, people noticed.

Even so, I wasn’t expecting to end up where I am, doing what I do. When I was younger I had a different enthusiasm every year, and I bled them all dry. I wanted to be a paleontologist, an oceanographer, astronomer or cartographer. Later I wanted to be a journalist, or maybe a novelist. Now, my business card describes me as a “Designer/Wordsmith/Rockstar,” but it’s only lying a little bit. Professional creativity is a slippery way to make a living, but creative people at my age are only beginning to hit their peak. Advertising and marketing isn’t necessarily the best career choice for someone with spasmodic shyness and a streaky work ethic—and yet here I am, staring at a computer screen all day, making words, paper, and pixels look pretty.

So no, I didn’t ask for the “gifted” label around my neck—and sometimes I resented it—but it did eventually prove to be a push in the right direction, as long as the right people did the pushing. In my experience, when parents and educators treated giftedness like something set in stone—a requirement, a necessity—it was simple to ignore, subvert, and resist. When giftedness was presented as something fragile, to be pampered and fussed over, it was too easy to panic once that attention went away. However, when mistakes were allowed, and perfection wasn’t the goal, then the failures weren’t as personal. When giftedness meant malleability, and its definition was something I was allowed to change, then every challenge was always worth the hard work, and it was easier to improvise. I’m still not always comfortable improvising—or with being gifted—but I’m comfortable enough in my own skin, and at ease with my place in the world. I don’t need to be a rock star—not among my family, friends, or colleagues. I don’t even need to be an expert musician. I’m happy to just be the bass player.


  1. Nicely done, Keir.

    If I remember correctly, I was reading at a sixth grade level in first grade. (Yes, it was pretty much downhill after that; I peaked early, what can I say?) I too felt the confusion of not knowing entirely what being "gifted" actually was. And, by the end of seventh grade, I had learned the wrong lesson: being in GATE at that school simply meant more work. Or so it seemed. So I dropped out of the program.

    Now, as a teacher, it's easy to see the balance between excellent creative freedoms and foolish bureaucratic requirements, though it's difficult to always create environments that encourage the former. (Especially when the stupid requirements are beyond the teacher's control, but that's a rant you've heard many times by now.) I also know what it's like to not figure out how to study until *after* my undergraduate work (though I'm still a master test taker, for some reason) and the lotus-eater lethargy of an unreliable work ethic (I didn't do shit today).

    And the question of making others recognize my talent is especially cogent today, since that's what finding a job in a shitty economy is all about. Damn it. I ought to take another lap through EdJoin.org, I guess.

    Also, I've been both the lead guitarist and lead vocalist. What does that say? Though I'm perfectly happy at the moment with rhythm guitar and backing vocals, if I can figure out how to harmonize better.

  2. I was never labelled gifted but I certainly could read by Kindergarten. I guess my skills were specifically in the areas of language and literature.

    Having said that, I would have hated being placed in a special class. I hated school as it was and not because I wasn't challenged but because I found it boring and it simply wasn't what I wanted to be doing.

    The only special class I ever ended up in was for handwriting because I'm a lefty and us lefties were automatically deemed sloppy.

  3. Ha! As another lefty I feel compelled to point out that my writing is sloppy in an extremely stylish way. :)

  4. @ Bryn - I remember Jon and I comparing CTBS test results in, like, 4th grade or so: "I'm reading at a 10th grade level!" "Oh yeah, well I'm reading at a 12th grade level!" It was a ridiculous measurement and thankfully we knew that. My only consolation for the relative lameness of RH Dana's gifted program is the glorious fact that the advisor, Mrs. McGill, was finally indicted by a grand jury for being a mean old lady, 20 years after she inflicted her fail on us. But you already know that story. And I know about those master test-taking skills. I was there when you passed that sobriety test on the rookie chipper 8 years ago. :)

    @ Gage - It wasn't necessarily a segregated "special" class for supposed geniuses. What happened was in primary school, many of us would be slotted into combination classes with the next grade up; I was in a 2/3 combo as a 2nd grader and a 3/4 combo as a 3rd grader. I think Bryn was in a K/1 (as K) and my sister was in a 5/6 (as 5) too. It did become a little more stratified in middle school, and we were more obviously "tracked" in terms of placing "smart" with "smart," but many of us, myself included, totally foiled those evil plans by inevitably sucking eggs at random given subjects (like I said, in my case it was math).

  5. Wow, that was a pretty coherent comment for being down two beers. Go me.

  6. Har! With the exception of that night I think my inevitable egg-sucking subject was sobriety, sometimes.


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