Smart Kids Being Dumb
If I had it to do all over again, I would never have put them in school. I would have gone straight to online schools once I could no longer continue homeschooling them myself. Noah had been on track to finish high school a year early had we continued homeschooling and now will barely eek out graduating. Collin discovered that he really was smarter than most people, including a lot of adults, and became nearly insufferable. After being in school, both of them are extremely concerned about the moral and intellectual development of their younger sisters who are just finishing kindergarten and 1st grade this week. They were not impressed with the end result of the school system to say the least.
Noah told me last night that if we won’t take the girls out of school he’s seriously considering going back to the high school next year just so he can sit with the girls on the bus to minimize their exposure to the things going on there. I told him that his abysmal performance at school has made his suggestion that they also be homeschooled a non-starter for the time being. He reminded me that I have told him that every decision I have ever made that I came to regret came from trusting someone else’s judgement more than my own. Which is true. I always thought sending them to school was a bad idea and that the odds of it going well were pretty low. Not because of anything to do with homeschooling as some like to assume. It’s the fact that my sons are two of the most difficult, uncooperative and unbending people I’ve ever known. Plus they’re fantastically smart which just makes the difficult, uncooperative and unbending part that much more intense. (Noah told me yesterday that he thinks I’m one of 12 people on the planet who had the patience needed to raise them. His dad says that he’s giving 7 or 8 people far too much credit.) The whole reason we began homeschooling was because school aren’t really made for kids like them.
At any rate, the whole thing has been a fiasco and as I said, all those who knew that the homeschooling thing was just setting them up for trouble now feel that I should be humbled by my huge error and open to their advice. In an effort to nicely turn the tone of the conversation in a more helpful, realistic direction I sent a set of links on gifted kids and school to a teacher I know. She kind of keyed in on the idea of boredom as the main factor that makes school such a challenge for my boys and other underachieving gifted kids.What follows was my response to her. I’m sharing it because I know that there are others who have or are dealing with the downsides of giftedness. And because I hope it will help others understand a bit more those incomprehesible kids who just can’t or won’t get in line like everyone else:
I think that the bored thing is a bit of a misnomer. It’s like I always tell my kids – only boring people get bored. And they certainly did plenty of school work that they found boring and pointless when they were homeschooling. (I never understand why everyone seems to think I let them do whatever they want and applied no discipline in our schooling!) You know how you always have that one outfit that just doesn’t fit right? And you forget how badly it fits until you’ve put it on and walked out the door and then spend all day tugging and adjusting it? It’s just so uncomfortable and restricting to the point of being a distraction and you spend all day telling yourself, “I am never wearing this damn thing again!” I think that’s the best illustration of what it can be like to be a gifted kid (or adult!) in a classroom that’s a poor fit – it’s like being forced to wear that outfit day after day after day. While people tell you to sit still and stop fiddling with your clothing.
Being a gifted kid in a poorly suited classroom is a lot like being forced to wait in line or sit in traffic all day. Only rarely do we actually get bored sitting in traffic – it’s the frustration at not being able to move. You know that if people would just get out of the way, stop gawking at the guy with the flat tire, learn to effing merge, stop texting and pay attention, you could move forward and get where you’re going. Instead you just have to creep, creep, creep along. Again, it’s not that doing the same thing over and over again is so boring (although it may be). It’s that it’s like being forced to walk in slow motion until your muscles hurt and all you want to do is be able to take off running and flailing your arms.
Let me give you an example. A couple of years ago Noah read a college psychology text a friend had given me. He (stupidly) thought it would be good preparation for the psychology class he was signed up for at school. The problem that he ended up having wasn’t that he was just soooo bored because he already knew everything. The problem was he had knowledge, ideas, opinions and questions about the subject matter that he wanted to bring up to discuss or ask the teacher about. But of course, the teacher has a schedule and can’t change the whole class to turn it into the in-depth seminar/discussion that Noah was looking forward to in his mind. And the other kids weren’t really interested. They thought he was being a weird jerk for trying to start a discussion when they were just trying to take notes about what was going to be on the test. So instead of being an interesting exploration of a topic he was interested in, Noah found himself continually forcing himself to hold back and shut up. He would look for some opening that might allow even a brief opportunity to go a little deeper without upsetting everyone, but those chances were few and far between. After a while he started tuning out not because it was so boring, but because it was so frustrating and the discipline it takes to shove down all of the knowledge, thoughts and questions he had gets wearing. Imagine having something you really want to share with your spouse and then when you see him there are other people around or he’s upset about something and you have to wait and shove it down. But it’s something that you’re really excited about sharing with him and so you keep waiting but things keep coming up and the opportunity never shows up day after day after day with no end in sight. Eventually you will lose your enthusiasm for what you had to share and might just let it drop entirely. It’s a lot like that.
For Collin the hardest part was all of the nonsensical rules. We all have to deal with rules that are dumb and don’t make sense, of course. He thinks that a lot of our rules here at the house are dumb and don’t make sense as a matter of fact. (Contrary to popular perception we do have rules around here and we do enforce them and we don’t only do things that the kids like and are comfortable with.) But for him school was a lot like trying to negotiate with the customer service line at Comcast all day long. He would do math problems, get the right answer and get no credit because he didn’t show his work. So he would force himself to write out all his work (much of which was unconscious so it was like being asked to explain the grammar rules you used to form each sentence you wrote.) But I had taught him to do it using a slightly different method than they taught at school. Once again, the fact that he got the right answer meant nothing. The problem was wrong. At which point he said, “you know what? Screw you.” He would ask why they weren’t allowed to wear hats in school even after hours and was told, “because you could put a gun under your hat.” If he laughed, thinking they were joking, he got in trouble for being rude. If he protested that there must be another reason because that doesn’t make sense, he’d get a lecture on the dangers of guns in school. He was given an assignment to make a poster that included certain elements, so he made a poster that included those elements along with several elaborations and was marked off for the additional work he did. He wrote essays where he was penalized for including information that wasn’t in the textbook. It was accurate and relevant, but that didn’t matter. Just on and on and on like that. For a kid like Collin it was a nightmare. (I had to ban the words “well, actually” in our house because of him.)
And overarching all of it for them – like a lot of gifted kids – there’s the never ending disapproval. Everyone thinks there’s something wrong with you, you’re doing it the wrong way, you would be fine if only you’d just (fill in the blank). And so often it’s the things that you like best about yourself that people look at and wrinkle their noses at and say (or imply), “see? That’s why no one likes you/you’re always in trouble/you’re failing.” Your intense interest. Your thoughtfulness. Your sharp observations. Your humor. Your ability to see connections where others don’t. Your sensitivity to other people’s feelings and experiences. Your empathy towards the underdogs and outcast. Your ability to make the case for unpopular ideas or ways of doing things. Your willingness to stand outside the crowd. My boys really struggled to understand that other people weren’t actually responding to the rightness or wrongness of what they said or did. Often it was just as simple as they said or did something that made the other person feel bad or uncomfortable. Most people don’t stop and say, “why did that make me feel uncomfortable?” They just subconsciously feel bad and think, “what a jerk.”
Several of Collin’s teachers told me that part of his problem with his classmates was that his sense of humor was just beyond them. It was too subtle and too mature. A kid could yell “booty!” in the middle of the class and crack everyone else up. Collin would make a well placed Monty Python reference and they’d all look at him like he’d just farted. After a while he contented himself with seeing if he could get a snort out of his teachers. One of them told me that just being in class with him was opening the other kids up to a whole world outside of their small town. Because he talked about things beyond the latest video games or clothes or pop music or gossip. (Collin still hasn’t stopped talking about the kids who didn’t know who Elvis was.) It’s hard to spend all day, every day surrounded by disapproval for everything you do and are along with the very clear message that it’s all your fault and if you dare to complain, it’s because you’re an asshole to boot. Collin being Collin, after a while just said, “you know what? Screw you.” and became more insufferable than ever.
I could go on and on. Obviously, I’m disappointed that the boys didn’t buck up and play the game and get their grades in line. But I also understand that it’s not nearly as simple as being bored or undisciplined or whatever everyone else wants to attribute their lack of performance to. It was the first time they had ever had to wear that really ill-fitting outfit day after day (again, it’s not like it was something they hadn’t experienced before. I don’t understand why everyone assumes that I never put them in situations that were uncomfortable or required ridiculous amounts of restraint and all the rest of those things that are just part of life!). They responded very badly to the experience. I wish they hadn’t, but I do understand. I also know that wearing that ill fitting outfit without complaint or rebellion often carries its own enormous price. It took me years to learn to just be myself without always holding back and contorting myself into whatever position would make everyone around me most comfortable. It took me well into my 30s to stop blaming myself for all the disapproval I get and realize that most of it is people just showing me their own hang-ups, dysfunctions and lack of imagination. The boys are very well educated, skilled, grounded, perceptive and capable people. Whatever problems they have caused for themselves by doing so poorly at the school thing, I’m 100% certain it won’t take them until well into their 30s to work through. The reality is that for people who are unusually smart, it’s rarely the book learning or skills that hold them back. Usually it’s the emotional problems, the lack of confidence, lack of character, the habitually making themselves smaller than they really are that holds them back.
I’m glad that they were able to have the experience of fitting in with various groups and people while we were homeschooling. They learned that it was OK to be themselves and that there were people who liked and appreciated them as they were. I never had that experience. When they get older, they will be able to seek out places where they fit. Where people appreciate their humor and are interested and passionate about the things that they are interested in. They still have more growing up and maturing to do, of course. But I think that people who look at them and assume that there’s a GREAT BIG PROBLEM with them don’t have the faintest idea. But everyone’s got an opinion. They’re like assholes that way. lol.
You might also be interested in:
How Being Gifted Means Being Different
Why Nerds Are Unpopular . . . In School
“Mostly I Just Get to Play A Lot“