When We Make Exceptional The Norm


When I was in elementary school about 100 years ago, there was no such thing as a “gifted” program, nor did schools give a moment’s thought to “leveling” their students according to their general or course-specific aptitude. Depending on the date you were born and the school district you happened to be living in at the time, you were either in the 2nd grade, the 4th, the 9th, etc. alongside everyone else who shared the fortuity of your birth range and place of residence. Of course, that meant that, from time to time, the more serious/better students in the class had to “suffer” through disruptions caused by the class clown, the restless and less-focused and even, on occasion, the trouble-maker or the bored who simply didn’t thrive in a traditional school setting – you know, someone like Steve Jobs.

In short, each class, regardless of the grade, was a representative cross-section of the general population – not unlike the group that has populated virtually every work environment I’ve been associated with since! However, it also meant that dedicated and hard-working students could readily distinguish themselves from their less committed peers and, in most instances, realize the truth: that, compared to the norm, they were exceptional (i.e., imagine there being A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and, regrettably, even a few F’s in the very same class!). There was a sense of pride that came with that realization. It felt good. It built confidence and self-esteem and made you want to continue to work hard. It was a just reward.  On occasion, it even meant that a struggling student came to you for help.

At some point, however, educators and likely an increasingly demanding and aggressive parent base decided that things needed to change. Parents concluded that the status quo was impeding the progress of their “gifted” children and that they (though here it’s difficult to discern whether the “they” was the parent, the child or both!) desired, indeed, deserved more – more individualized attention, more work (inside and out of the classroom) and, by definition, more competition.  School administrators agreed.  And so “gifted” programs began sprouting up in elementary, middle and high schools around the country and the “testing” and “leveling” of students (a new form of intellectual segregation) became the rule rather than the exception.

Clearly, this new academic structure has its advantages not the least of which is that in a classroom packed with high-achievers, there’s little risk of distraction from the task at hand – no need for the teacher and the class to slam on the brakes or put the educational machine in idle to attend to the needs of an “average” or even slightly above average student struggling to grasp a new concept. No, for the “gifted” it’s full speed ahead – foot firmly fixed on the accelerator at all times. But there is a price to be paid here – a substantial one at that. It’s very hard to appreciate the fact that you’re exceptional when exceptional is required/expected just to meet the class norm – not to mention the stifling pressure to perform associated with such a distorted construct.

Trust me on this one – I dried my share of “gifted” tears in my own kids over the years and, along the way, shed more than a few of my own on their behalf.

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