Why No One in My House is "Gifted and Talented"

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by Audrey Elisa Kerr

My children are upstairs pretending to be dogs eating the carcass of their mother who has recently died. At first I took it personally, then I remembered that had I not given them “Benji” to watch (it is far more violent than I remembered) they might be playing something else. Anyway, their absurd theater of mother-consumption conveniently speaks to a larger issue: much of the creativity demonstrated by children is inspired by mimicry, and the range of their exposure largely dictates the depth of their creativity.

Prior to the “Benji-gone-wild” game, we’d returned home from a full day of activities designated for “gifted and talented” children. That ubiquitous category is thick with questions and light on answers, and I wouldn’t be comfortable claiming that my children occupy this coveted sorority.

Most of the children at this program for “special” children were Asian, Indian or upper-middle class looking whites, which made me wonder if gifted and talented means you can afford a private tutor and science camp. During the day’s lunch break, I witnessed lots of gifted and talented children projectile spitting pretzels into cups, calling a frustrated magician a phony, and sticking their hands up a vending machine to steal chips.

My special child was stretched out across my lap looking like she’d fainted, but for her loud moaning. I’m not sure if that was the “gifted” or “talented” portion of her persona, or how it compares to potato chip theft.

As a kid who was labeled the other kind of special (remedial) and later found to be dyslexic and bright, I’m very suspicious of categories. If I didn’t have knowledgeable parents, I would have spent twelve years in special education programs. So at one point, as a parent told me the importance of gifted and talented children being around other children who are special, I asked her “What exactly is gifted and talented, anyway? Isn’t it often linked to exposure? And is it possible that bored, inner-city students are too smart for the work they are doing, but never given the test to prove that?” She stared at me blankly.

Clearly, a link between intellectual potential and class was both a revolutionary and taboo concept among the gifted and talented.

And, I wondered, isn’t gifted (natural ability) quite different from talented (nurtured ability)?

While at this event I also met a fifteen-year-old boy who was a spokesperson for a tutoring program; they guaranteed your child would remain three grades ahead of
their classmates. He was 15 and getting ready to graduate from high school. I asked the boy – a tall, awkward, Indian kid with braces and a buzz cut -- what he wanted to do after graduating from high school pre-maturely.

“I want to go to Bollywood and be a choreographer,” he said. He isn’t a dancer: I’m not even sure he was aware that Bollywood isn’t a city.

Maybe gifted and talented excludes geography.

The two smartest people I know (both black and raised in the inner-cities of New York) would self-identify as ordinary. One slept through her Bronx High School of Science exam and was admitted anyway. The other, now a professor at MIT, would attribute a good portion of her success to dumb luck.

People like them, who have gifts and talents in equal measure, tend to approach their knowledge with a shoulder shrug, and “I dunno,” punctuating the encyclopedic volumes of things they know. I think this is how smart people should be smart. We wouldn’t encourage people to trot around announcing that they’re “pretty”. I think intelligent people – young and old -- should follow the same protocol of humility.

For my two little black girls entering into a world waiting to hang a thousand labels on them, I want them to understand that what makes them gifted is their compassion, and what makes them talented is their desire to share what they know with others. It’s nice to hear the teacher say, “Your child is the bright.” But I suspect that if I were to place such labels on them, their heads would expand in girth such that they could no longer pass through our doorway.

And we all know from Benji’s mom that when you can no longer fit in your own world, you might find yourself in some trouble.

Audrey Elisa Kerr is an author and essayist from New York.  She currently resides in Connecticut.

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