Last week, I saw two toddlers wearing "Genius" T-shirts. When I saw the first one, I smiled, as I undeniably have a soft spot for ironic baby clothing. But when just hours later the second "genius" came waddling along, it gave me pause. I know these clever shirts proclaiming that our children are "brave like Daddy" or "sassy like Mommy" are just supposed to be funny and cute. Yet I feel slightly troubled by what lies under the surface of our attempts to label our children with myriad superlatives.
The "Genius" one left a distinctly bad taste in my mouth, and after a few days of pondering, I realized why. It was a tiny incarnation of the "gifted and talented" program, which is a concept I've been struggling with as a parent.
When I was in 5th grade, I was selected to participate in TAG (yes, talented and gifted), a program that took place during two hours of every Friday afternoon. I recall playing challenging brain games that required teamwork and higher-level questioning, completing independent study projects, on one occasion making a collage about photography (hmmm), and then trotting merrily back to class with my other above-average classmates.
I moved the following year, and was placed in a similar program with a different name: Alpha. Was it, shudder, because we were "alpha students?" It was my first and last meeting. Although I carried straight A's — aside from my B in P.E. — after a snide comment from one of my fellow Alpha students, I chose never again to participate in a gifted and talented program.
Over the years, I've heard it referred to as ULE — Unique Learning Experience — and Exceptional Learners, but where I live now it's straight up "GT — gifted and talented." My experience with GT as a parent of non-GT students has been eye-opening.
When my oldest daughter, now 13, was in Montessori preschool, the staff provided a parent meeting where we could ask questions about kindergarten and elementary school options. Hands shot up all around the room: "Tell us more about the GT programs in the district." "When can we test for GT?" Aside from the occasional inquiry about bilingual education programs, it was pretty much the same: How do we get into the GT program?
My husband and I raised our eyebrows at each other. Who knew that all this time our precocious little darling had been surrounded by entirely gifted students? Over the next few years, acquaintances would ask me when I was getting my daughter tested for GT. "I'm not," I usually replied simply. The high-pressure program was not something I wanted for my child, who now is a 4.0 honor roll student in middle school. To be honest, I wasn't really sure she qualified for GT; her grades have much more to do with her personality and determination. But the entire operation left a bad taste in my mouth.
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