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March 27, 2017

Shannon Barry

Growing Up Gifted

Topics: Learning Through Play

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I have always processed things differently than others around me. This has been, since childhood, a constant of all of my experiences. In school I was always focused on the creative: writing my own short stories about my stuffed animals and conceptualizing the emotional arc of my peers' short-lived relationships. Worksheets left me with too much room to fret and the tedium of the normal school day was the perfect invitation for my anxieties to manifest in full. I succeeded in my classes but never thrived, and was told by my teachers and friends alike that I took things too seriously. I was never able to understand how to make something matter less to me the way my friends seemed to be able to do with ease. Though I never had an issue cultivating and maintaining friendships, I spent the first few years of my schooling feeling undeniably isolated and misunderstood. 

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It was thanks to a handful of teachers dedicated to helping every student reach their full potential that I was lifted from this isolation and given the freedom to grow into the person I am today. I shudder to think about what my life would have been like if I had to slug my way through the school system, constantly beating down the unique parts of myself in order to fit into a rigid structure that didn't work for my specific learning needs. I know that this happens to many, because it almost happened to me.

I was ten years old when I was first given the title of "gifted and talented." My fourth grade teacher had suggested my parents have me tested after I began repeatedly skipping recess in order to work on a book of short stories I was determined to write. I was lucky enough to go to a school with a good gifted program, in which I was able to miss one normal day of classes every week in favor of a course specifically tailored to gifted students. These courses became the first real places I could fully extend my creativity and also interact with other kids who processed learning closer to the way I did.

It was this experience that prompted me to go to a magnet school. At eleven years old it was daunting to leave the only friends I had ever known, but I knew even then that if I was to have any true success in the educational system it would be through classes that played to my strengths. I was enamored with the idea of creativity, art, and performance being incorporated into the classroom. In addition to core classes and electives, kids in this program were able to take an extra hour and a half long course, choosing out of hundreds offered, covering nearly every subject matter. It was through these courses that I learned about my deep passion and how to channel it in a productive way that could encourage positive change in myself and others.

There were, of course, negative aspects. While my mind didn't have as much idle time to worry during class, the pressure to succeed did bring out the anxieties I had grappled with my whole life. The magnet students at the school also got a lot of attention from the administration which furthered the divide between the students who were in the program and the students who were not.

When I left the safe and challenging environment of my magnet school I began to deny my differences, as I didn't want to perpetuate the idea that gifted students were in any way better than anyone else. This idea is pervasive in schools and can be bolstered by teachers or faculty who treat gifted students as more valuable because of their test scores or overall reflection on the schooling system. Suddenly in high school identifying as gifted, the very thing that had rescued me in previous years, became uncool and even, at times, felt cruel to other students.

By equating giftedness with superiority, we are harming everyone. Children should not be ranked but rather encouraged to learn in whatever way benefits them the most. For me, this was creativity and performance rather than hard facts. I spent four difficult years denying myself the chance to be a better student by trying to fit into a mold that had never worked for me. I made good grades but didn't enjoy school the way I did in the magnet program, and eventually I hit the same blocks in my personal life that plagued me in elementary school.

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My freshman year of college I was rescued once again by a teacher. My best friend's mother taught gifted and talented students and was returning from a seminar on overexcitabilities in the gifted when she realized that one of the descriptions reminded her of me. She introduced me to the idea of emotional overexcitability and got me in contact with a specialist who had spoken at the seminar, and I was able to meet with her for individualized counseling. My unexplained seriousness when it came to emotion, my depth of feeling and capacity for passion suddenly had reason. I was able to learn coping mechanisms and ways to relate to friends who didn't experience emotion in the same way I did. This method spoke to me in ways previous emotional therapies had not.

Just like learning to accept that my way of processing knowledge was different, at twenty years old I had to learn that my way of processing emotion was different as well. Understanding that I felt everything on a heightened level because of the same wiring that made me creative and performative was ultimately helpful in my personal relationships as well as with my anxieties. I realized that giftedness wasn't just about navigating my way through the school system, but about finding a way to accept and love the fact that I interpret and process things differently in multiple aspects of my life.

Finding that love and acceptance for myself has helped me to open my eyes to others that struggle with it, and I have a handful of exceptionally caring teachers to thank for that. My parents had never heard of a gifted and talented program when I was growing up. If it wasn't for teachers going above and beyond to take an interest in giving me my best life, I would have a much harder time understanding myself to this day.

If you know a child who you think might process the world differently in any capacity, have them tested for giftedness. You are giving them more than a label or a way to understand the world: you are giving them the tools to understand themselves. It is the most difficult and most important pursuit for a student, and it cannot be achieved without help.

Shannon Barry is a writer and actress who lives in Los Angeles. You can find more of her work on her personal blog A Happy Girl's Guide to Crohn's at barry-happy.com. She can be contacted through the email happygirlsguide@gmail.com.

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