In Bursting Open, Dusk, Sheep on April 28, 2011 at 11:31 pm

We got a letter in the mail today informing me my daughter did not make it into the “Talented and Gifted” (TAG) program in her public school for third grade.  I know that my disdainful letter slamming the program as laughable in a world where NPR is being de-funded, 5 million barrels of oil spill into the ocean unpunished, and Wall St. loots and robs our government and people with impunity–in short, life on the planet is being trashed no matter how many individual “bright” people inhabit it– in lieu of dutifully completing  the package of 6 pages of examples of her brilliance, did not help her prospects.

My favorite example I was to provide on the form that I refused to fill out was, “demonstrates a concern for injustice, social issues, and moral questions beyond age level.”

Was I supposed to tell about her defending one of her classmates to the rest of the class?  Was that age-appropriate, or above age-level?  Did it matter she was a white girl defending the dignity of a black boy who was being taunted?  Who cares what TAG thinks, anyway…the boy was darn grateful at the time, he let her know, and they are friends to this day.

This, fittingly, on a day when North and South re-ignited the civil war on the NYTimes comment pages regarding the tornado damage, bleeding into big-government/small-mindedness diatribes.   The editorial on President Obama’s release of his birth certificate opined, “It is tragic that American politics is fueled by such poisonous fire. ”

By perpetuating first the whole climate denial, Red/Blue state antagonisms, instead of basic empathy, we are falling into the conditioning the media has designed, just like there used to be a Pavlovian response to The Red Scare/Commie threat in public discourse.

I was sympathetic with the posters who apologized for making it political, but they couldn’t help themselves, because they are so wounded by the climate-denial, government-off-my-back, self-sufficiency rhetoric of the South.  But my whole extended family lives in the South, and many of them have been climate change deniers since I was in junior high school and first discussed it with them.  They also have Biblical explanations for almost everything they encounter in life.  They really do believe God knows everything that is going to happen and there’s not much they can do about it.  That is how they “see” the world.  I was also derided  during many a visit when I was a young girl for co-mingling with “them damn Yankees.”

But it is clear that the rhetoric is flimsy and malleable, and the politicians take advantage of trying to create wedge issues to divide us so they can perpetuate their lavish lifestyle with impunity.  Because as soon as you scratch below the surface into a deep probing of what all the words mean, you’ll find more in common than apart among people all over the U.S.

Which is why I take extreme umbrage at even daring to categorize only some of our children as “talented and gifted.”  It immediately implies everyone else outside such circle is not.  It immediately implies that even if you thought you had a stroke of genius or inspiration, no one would agree with you, so just be quiet in your corner, don’t bother offering your opinion.

I myself went to the same school district as my daughter, and, equally, I was not selected for TAG.  It wounded me for many years, even after elementary.   I couldn’t figure out why, in middle school, they put me in same classes as the TAG kids…was I really “good enough” to be there?

And, once there, many of the former TAG kids struck me as profoundly unimaginative.  I felt deflated to gradually realize that perhaps it wasn’t that I was not “smart” enough, but perhaps I had not been conformist enough to be enlisted.  I became increasingly rebellious as I went through school, and one day I wrote an essay about Arlo Guthrie’s, “Alice’s Restaurant” for who I knew to be a profoundly conservative English teacher.  She promptly gave me an “F.”  I re-wrote it about Aristotle and received an “A.”  Experiments like that confirmed my beliefs…

When one of my English teachers in college asked, in written comments, if I was going on to grad school, I thought he was a fool.  I never believed myself “good enough” to compete in academia.  I went all over the country working on organic farms instead.

This outsider mentality has no doubt continued to leave me adamantly, dogmatically single, and profoundly disdainful of marriage as yet another patriarchal institution more about controlling property than about love.   And as a single mother by choice, I don’t hobnob with the almost all exclusively married parents of my daughter’s school.    We are ever outsiders, as much by choice as necessity.

I am not saying not being selected for TAG scarred me for life and caused me to be a single mother, but I am indicting it as a program that ever reinforces social norms.  The subtle messages it gives young children who have no understanding of the cruelties of politics, race, gender, class and power in the larger world can have psychological and social effects that run deep over a lifetime.

You would think that my daughter would be welcomed into the program as confidence booster precisely because she is one of the extreme minorities, being in a single parent household in her almost exclusively married community.  She and I have both had our moments when we have shed tears over this truth.

But these social criteria do no apply.  The larger social context is completely ignored.  She failed to meet the standards on the standardized tests, “stronger learning characteristics/behaviors,” and “stronger evidence of superior portfolio products.”  These  4 out of 5 categories were inadequate.  Her only redeeming  category was “stronger evidence from classroom performance/grades.”

Imagine!  Her teacher loves her, ADORES her, she adores her teacher, and I and her grandparents believe she has been talented and gifted from her first breath.

But she is being held back because she lacks standardization, as evidenced by tests!   She sees many possibilities in answers that aren’t available on the tests.

And here she goes, becoming already pigeonholed into the underachiever category, so that her single mother can be vilified as yet another  of the poor who need to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps (even though the only welfare I receive is the same as everyone else receives: marginally breathable air, barely drinkable water, roads, schools, etc.).     All while exclusive clubs for the well-heeled and well-connected are created in our very public schools that we contribute to equally with our tax dollars.

This, too, in a city that remains intensely, embarrassingly racially segregated.

Revolts against this system in our school district  have been staged before, with little success.  No wonder:  look at how much success the larger world has made–our President, utterly vilified under the scars of racism our country cannot heal.    The birth certificate  being just the latest chapter of the Jeremiah Wright, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. sagas that keep insisting that race is “real,” in our all too vivid and warped imaginations. The realities penetrate deeper than two sides, and have economic and social roots that wind through everything we do.

These categories recede only to the extent that people experience for themselves that they are superficial labels.

I looked up an old Loretta Lynn album my parents listened to growing up on YouTube today.  She told the story ’bout “how my momma socked it to the Harper Valley PTA.”   It encapsulates perfectly the tensions between North and South, Democrat and Republican, rural & poor, urban & wealthy in its very genre, “country music.”  I cried, thinking of my deceased grandparents, who would have made such comments as could not be printed in The Times.    I comment, trying to heal them, myself, our country.  One person at a time….

  1. It is my experience that so-called gifted/talented programs are not all they’re cracked up to be. As a mom who fought the school system, sometimes winning, on a consistent basis and whose own children were never included in “Rainbows” (the gt moniker in our district), I can attest that children nevertheless survive and thrive without the gifted label, which has been rendered meaningless by all the many erroneously diagnosed gifted children out there. I used to joke to my own children that they were “the Storm Clouds” — the anti-Rainbows. I did a nonscientific study of what became of all the Rainbows of years gone by. One flunked out of community college, one went to federal prison on drug charges, several developed health and mental problems due to parental pressure, and many, many other “gifted” students did not do as well at college as they supposedly did in high school because they had no critical thinking skills. They were all very good memorizers, though, and excellent multiple-choice test takers. Writing ability was not in their skillset. Few read for pleasure. (Not to brag, but my Stormcloud Son graduated from university magna cum laude and has an actual job that pays a living wage. And he visits his Mom several times a week!)

    Your child will do just fine in life. After all, she has a wonderful, smart, caring Mom to emulate. Thank you for this wonderful post!

    (And I know where you are coming from vis a vis North and South. My Texas relatives call us “Yankees” too. You just have to laugh.)

    • I lack the background to prescribe the right thing to soothe your anger and disappointment over your child’s not being tagged. At the same time, vacant silence on my side doesn’t sound like the right prescription, either. I can only share some of the thoughts that come to mind as I read over your essay. For what it’s worth —

      Careful what you wish for. My acquaintance with those honor programs is limited to students approaching adulthood, not third graders. Yes, at best, the chosen few are admitted into smaller classes, even seminars, with the most notable professors treating culturally important subjects. Instead of turning out brighter little stars, these programs mostly turn out tired youth fading through exhaustion. They don’t have time to develop interests outside the curriculum. There’s no room for wonder. Time is their enemy. The principal effects of these TAG and honors programs are to stuff more business into every 24 hours for months at a time. Honor students’ speech becomes more clipped; they are in a hurry to move on to the next assignment. As someone in health care, you know all about stress theory. And you tell me they’re laying that on elementary students now?

      Next, the student who is always in a bind for time, may develop excellent time-management skills. Yeah. I should probably put that last phrase into quotes. What it really means is that the student learns to cut corners, not using time more efficiently but habitually cheating the task at hand. You are also aware of the criticism about multitasking, despite the fact in professions like yours it must be engaged in constantly to get through each shift. You know what happens.

      You sound like a mother with the right balance of ambition and humanity. What more does a child want? OK, so you can’t home school her into grad school. For at least the first few years she can beat the TAG team with a library card and a few pointers to internet sites (like T.E.D: Ideas) and Project Gutenberg. You set the pace, not a teacher with check-offs from an iron syllabus.

      Science is important but harder to come by. Is there a science museum in your town? Professors from nearby universities usually start these things and they’re looking for kids like yours to share what they know. Token costs for membership plus other bright kids to interact with. If all else fails, can you afford tutors in math and biology? (I know, a pocketbook issue here.) In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, physics stood at the pinnacle of the sciences. Now, and I suspect for a long time to come, biology is king. And there is lots of good work (i.e., jobs) in humane endeavors to be had down the line for a kid who is not intimidated by science.

      Milan Kundera wrote a novel about slowness years ago. Then there’s the slow cooking cult. Something to be said for slowness. Operations like TAG would mostly pile up merit badges for your daughter. Lots of certificates suitable for framing. In some quarters, that looks good on a resume. How about your daughter’s doing just a few things well, deeply, at her pace, whatever that is. So that a doctrinaire regimen of Nurture in school does not crimp or torture the Nature, unique, that is about to unfold in her.

      Lastly, and with a mind to what you report in your first paragraph, choose your fights carefully. You know — with the simplicity of doves and the wiseness of serpents. Nobody has energy enough to tilt every windmill on the horizon. Biting one’s lips at times, I’ve heard, is part of the kit of the successful resister.

      Best, Jay Ottawa

  2. Thank you for this hilarious image…yes, angry, anti-complacent, pounding, thunderous storm clouds arriving to shake up the faux consumerist “happiness” of the rainbowers…
    Clouds being the authentic comfort in a world of bluster where guys call themselves The Donald and orchestrate their own praise wherever they go…

    The real achievement of our schools would be to actually allow humility and genuine service to the least among us, not aggrandizing a society of ego-maniacs. They currently actively discourage humility and grace, since all of education is predicated on hierarchy and individual achievement. Our schools could transform themselves into blessings for our children and society if they taught that you don’t need a ten-mile long list of “Accomplishments”…maybe enough of us would stop being self-absorbed enough to actually transform the planet for the better…

    When the snobbery gets me down again, I will smile broadly and summon my internal thunderclouds…

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