I guess I should have seen it coming. Before I was even in Kindergarten, I remember playing with kids who were older than me. Their even older siblings and their moms would be amazed at how I spoke like an adult. I didn’t quite get what the big deal was, didn’t everyone talk this way? How did this make me feel? I liked being admired by grown-ups and by the older kids. It also felt a little awkward because I felt like this wasn’t something I had worked for or earned; it was something that just was. I couldn’t speak the way they expected the average 4-year old to speak if I tried!
In Kindergarten, I was in the highest reading group–yeah, I know, try not to drop your teeth in shock. One Friday, when school was almost out, my teacher announced that she wanted anyone who was having trouble with a particular word, should line up at her desk and she would write that word on their hands to help them remember it over the weekend! A school sanctioned temporary tattoo! Of course back then, in the early 1970’s, no one had temporary tattoos, but the concept felt the same at the time. As I watched kids line up, I wanted Mrs. Olsen to DRAW on my hand too, but there weren’t any words I was having a problem with. I got in line anyway, hoping I might get some inspiration from the other kids as they told the teacher what word to write. When it was my turn, Mrs. Olsen looked at me, tilted her head in slight confusion and said, “Donna?” Her tone said, “You? You are having a problem with a WORD? Oh, I don’t think so honey.” Because she was kind, she asked, “Okay, what’s your word?”
Even at age five, I caught the subtle unspoken exchange: Okay, I know you just want me to write on your hand, so I’ll play along this time. I answered, “Look.” She wrote the word on my hand and drew eyes with the double “o’s,” explaining that I could remember it, because it was “looking” at me. So, I got a little extra art work as my reward for lying! Maybe she viewed it as wanting to fit in with the other kids who hadn’t yet mastered all the reading words as quickly as I had? I hadn’t been labeled, “gifted” yet, but I knew that I usually did better with my school work than most of the kids in my class. How did this make me feel? Relieved, mostly. I observed how school life could be difficult and possibly embarrassing for the kids who did struggle –at least I imagined it was at least a bit embarrassing to have to read out loud and not know how to pronounce ANY of the words. And of course, my desire to gain adult approval was fulfilled.
In second grade, I was still in the highest reading and math groups. Sometimes I was in the second highest math group, which was okay, as long as I wasn’t in the lowest! That would have been humiliating for me. I never looked down on the kids in the lowest groups and was friends with some of them, but already, I had decided it would be humiliation for me to be put in a “lower” group. The teacher never came out and said what level the groups represented. We were called, the Red Group, The Blue Group, The Green Group, etc. But everyone knew what they really meant because of the level of work each group was assigned.
This year, they had an “Enrichment Group” also called “MGM” (Mentally Gifted Minors). The first week, my teacher called out the names of kids who were supposed to go to Enrichment. They left the class for a while to do other activities. My name wasn’t called. I was kind of upset because I was pretty sure if there was some class called “Enrichment,” I was supposed to be there! A week later, when my mom got a call from my teacher asking if I wanted to be in the Enrichment Program, all I could think was, “Yes!” and, “It’s about time!”
We moved to a different school district for third grade and things changed a bit with the Gifted Students programs.
I will continue with my experiences about how being labeled “gifted” affected me later in school, in adulthood, and finally with raising three very different children, all who have been labeled as “gifted.”