Growing Up Gifted

I am gifted. I have never been exactly fond of the term, but it’s what I am. I was identified early. Sometime between my second and third birthdays, I taught myself to read. According to my parents – who surely would have been called gifted too, had giftedness been more topical in their schooldays – this is when they knew they would have their hands full.

There was a ‘Gifted and Talented’ program at my school. Students were meant to be nominated and assessed in Year 3, but I joined it in Year 2. Three times a week I’d slip out the back of class and join the older Smart Kids for Enrichment classes. I remember learning Braille, studying Renaissance art and dissecting an eyeball. I remember my mainstream classes being very dull. I inevitably finished my work early, so I kept books on my desk so I’d have something to do. On holidays and weekends I’d go to extension courses at the University of New South Wales, where I learned about law, ancient history, forensics, philosophy and literature. I started sitting high school tests, and earned the top score in the country. I was – and am – a smart person.

A little later I starred in a rather embarrassing show called ‘Australia’s Brainiest Kid’. It was not groundbreaking television, but I had fun. I got flown around and driven places. I won some money. And when the show started screening, people suddenly wanted to talk to me about my giftedness. I spoke to newspapers, TV and radio about what it was to be a Smart Kid.

It was about this time I realised that a lot of people have no idea what words like ‘gifted’ and ‘genius’ mean.

People often assume that being ‘gifted’ means pulling top grades across the board, acing exams and generally being a teacher’s pet. I did well enough in exams but I didn’t top all my classes. I liked learning but I didn’t like assessments. I think my teachers were probably incredibly frustrated with me as often as they were impressed.

It’s difficult to talk about giftedness without feeling arrogant and obnoxious. It’s even harder to talk about the challenges of giftedness. How hard can it be to be smart? What could we have to complain about?

As a gifted kid, I faced merciless bullying. I was socially isolated for years. I was academically beyond my peers but emotionally behind older kids, which is why my parents resisted the school’s attempts to bump me up grades and prep schools’ attempts to poach me. I had a hard time making friends, I struggled with social cues and sarcasm. I was told I was bossy and snobby and talked too much, that boys don’t like smart girls. I developed anxiety and depression that went untreated for years because why would a smart kid have problems? I had constantly high expectations of myself and punished myself when I didn’t meet them. I made poor decisions, studying maths and science because that’s what a smart kid should do, rather than literate and theatre and language, which I loved. I spent years bouncing between psychologists, counsellors and behaviour specialists, telling them what they wanted to hear rather than what would help me make progress. I purposely under performed academically, hoping it would let me fade into the background. I was very smart, but I was a kid. For all my intellect, I needed help.

I was lucky in that I had support. A lot of gifted kids don’t. Most of us are left to fend for ourselves. They’re smart. They’ll be okay.

Gifted kids need support, intellectually and emotionally. It’s not enough to give them extra homework or shuffle them into a high class. They don’t need social attitudes that shun and condemn intelligence as arrogance, or education systems that treat giftedness as a problem, an inconvenience. They don’t need shows like Scorpion and The Big Bang Theory that perpetuate the idea of the gifted individual as an awkward social outcast defined by their IQ and OCD.

When I was at uni I worked as a tutor. I have students who struggled, and I had students who excelled. Like kids who struggle, gifted kids face unique challenges and have unique needs, and it was incredibly rewarding to be a small part of their support system.

I spent years being ashamed of my giftedness and trying to hide it. I’m done with that. I’m smart. Deal with it.