Adventures With the 'Gifted'

Postcard from Durham, N.C.

DURHAM, N.C.—One of my all-time favorite Far Side cartoons depicts a student at Midvale School for the Gifted trying to open a door labeled “pull” by pushing as hard as he can. The joke is simple, straight to the point and excruciatingly true. Few will deny that gifted children, for all their intellectual and academic talents, are often some of the most scatter-brained and socially inept people imaginable.

Though entertaining to anyone with a reasonable sense of humor, the cartoon is of particular, personal salience because I’ve been around these so-called “gifted” people for most of my life. I have seen the varied and sundry spectrum of “gifted” behavior all through high school and even now in college. But this summer, in my capacity as a residential counselor at Duke’s Talent Identification Program (TIP) for high school students, I have been left utterly speechless by some of the people I’ve encountered.

One would think, for instance, that smart kids would know better than to accost a local hobo, widely known for his violent outbursts of profanity and gibberish, and solicit his opinion of a local eatery. One might also think it beyond the complex minds of the intellectually talented to run around with towels as capes pretending to be superheroes and to organize a day dedicated to cross-dressing and prancing around in the undergarments of the opposite sex. My favorite example of eccentricity, though, occurred on the final day of the first term, when one student decided that his ice cream bar was more useful as face paint than as tasty nourishment. When I asked the student to explain his unexpected maneuver, he kept smearing the chocolate on his cheeks and told me that he was merely “expressing his emotions” and “trying to cheer people up.”

Despite listing these off-the-wall examples of “gifted” behavior, don’t get me wrong. Although I certainly have been shocked and befuddled by numerous inexplicable acts of gifted lunacy and tomfoolery over the past few weeks, I have nothing but the utmost respect and affection for these little punks. Quite honestly, these kiddos have made my summer job worthwhile, rewarding, and, if nothing else, interesting and enjoyable.

But warm and fuzzy editorial comments aside, the experience of observing these children interact with one another has forced me to think more seriously about some central questions about gifted education I had previously taken for granted. Since the inception of the Binet intelligence test—the precursor of today’s IQ test—nearly a century ago, scientists and instructors have grappled with the proper methods for educating children with a greater potential for scholastic success than the average child. The passage of the first national allocation of taxpayer money for gifted education in 1974 touched off heated debates on the local and state levels about the necessity of gifted programs in the face of other pressing concerns.

Critics routinely assail these programs not only for draining schools’ resources, but more importantly, for perpetuating an arrogant culture of elitism that harms the community and the children on both sides of the “gifted” label. But is segregating gifted children as bad an idea as these critics claim it is? My experience, both in school and this summer with TIP, suggests just the opposite. Gifted programs are crucial in the proper academic and social development of talented children.

On the point of breeding elitism, it is granted that there exists a danger of giving gifted children a false sense of societal superiority at the expense of regular students. However, it seems far more inimical for a gifted child to be restrained by a slower academic pace and for non-gifted students to be measured unfavorably against those with a higher measured capacity for learning. Additionally, local communities stand to benefit from cultivating gifted talent since many former students return and contribute directly to the community that educated them.

But aside from the academic or community impact of gifted programs, it is crucial to group gifted students together for the sake of their social maturation. In their socially and academically formative years, gifted kids should be surrounded with those who memorize Shakespeare for fun, solve complex quadratic equations in their heads, and who yet cannot grasp some simple social conventions of propriety. Together, these children learn how to properly interact with other members of their social group and become more comfortable with themselves as individuals. It is important for gifted kids to be surrounded with other talented students because only then can they think of themselves as fitting in, as something more than just an IQ or SAT score.

While there are certainly aspects of this job that I will be all too glad to leave behind—horrible food, Carolina heat, communal bathrooms, etc.—the overall experience has been immensely positive and has reinforced my beliefs about the importance of gifted education. I plan on enjoying my last week here at Duke with my kids and then I’ll grudgingly leave with a wistful smile—to paraphrase the old saying, I’ll try not to let the door hit me on the way out.

If I can figure out how to open it, that is.

Daniel E. Fernandez ’03, a government concentrator in Lowell House, is staff director of The Crimson. He is unaccustomed to the job of authority figure/role model and hopefully did not warp too many fragile young minds this summer.