Look, I’m not ashamed of my intelligence, nor am I complaining about it. I am very, very grateful that I have smart parents and smart grandparents who passed on their DNA on to me. I am. And I wouldn’t give that up for the world. I’m not trying to complain about it, either. But here’s the thing: I’ve been called the smart kid for most of my life. And that’s affected me for most of my life, too.
So here’s the story: in grade four, I took something called the Otis-Lennon test (remembered by me as the Something Sounds-Like-Lemon Test). Then one day I was pulled out of class and taken to a small room to talk to this psychologist lady. She had this flip-book thing—kind of like those cheap cardboard desktop calendars—with a bunch of pictures and words on them. Some of them were math equations. She asked me a lot of questions and I tried to answer as many of them as I could. In all honesty, I don’t remember much of it because it didn’t strike me as terribly important at the time.
A little while later, my mom told me I was gifted.
Back then, I didn’t really understand what was happening, just that apparently I was gifted and that made me a Special Snowflake. Then, in grade five, I started cluster sessions, where you go to a different school for three days every couple months and get special lessons with other gifted kids.
It was once I got older that things started to change. By sixth grade I’d lost a lot of confidence for unrelated reasons, and I became more and more aware and paranoid of how everyone else saw me. The cluster sessions had changed, too, and now I was at a different school and was the only girl in a group of about a dozen. And because I was (still am) shy as hell, I didn’t ever really talk to any of them or anyone else at that school.
Most of the kids at the host school were nice. Some even came up to me when I was sitting alone at recess and tried to start a conversation. But there was one cluster session where a kid walked by and yelled, “Gifto!” at us. It didn’t bother me, exactly, but I still remember it.
The worst part was going back to my regular school, though. Inevitably, someone would ask where I’d been, and I’d have to decide whether I wanted to lie and say I was sick or tell the truth and risk them reacting badly—things like, “oh, you’re gifted? You must be super smart, then.” Or “You’re gifted? Solve this math problem for me.” Sometimes, my teacher would just tell the class, which was even more fun.
My mom told me being gifted meant I just thought about things differently. I tried to tell them that, too. But they just wouldn’t listen. Gifted meant I was a Super Smart Cookie. Gifted meant I was the teacher’s pet. Gifted meant I got straight As.
Gifted meant I skipped school three days every couple months to study space or film techniques or how to recreate oil paintings with crayons or other stuff that frankly seems a little pretentious in hindsight, and when I came back, I was the smart kid in a zookeeper’s cage.
So I don’t tell people I’m gifted anymore. I stopped years ago. Because when I do, they still react the same. It doesn’t matter that I got seventies in elementary school just like everyone else. It doesn’t matter that now I have to work my butt off to get good grades because I’m ADHD as hell. It doesn’t matter that I’ve stressed myself out over exams to the point where I’ve actually fainted.
The thing is, no one has ever said that I have to get nineties all the time. But when all you hear is “oh, you’re gifted?” in a tone just barely masking envy or “you’re smart, help me with this,” you start to internalize it. When people ask what you got on an assignment, you start to hesitate before blurting out a number that sounds like an apology. When people you don’t know are nice to you, you start to assume that they’re only doing it so they can get help with something. Truth is, nobody has to tell me I’m the smart kid anymore. I tell myself that just fine.
You might tell me not to judge myself by anyone else’s expectations. But the problem with saying that is that sometimes, your own expectations can be higher than anyone else’s.
So again, I’m grateful for my brain. It lets me write, lets me think, lets me make jokes and laugh and connect with others. But it comes with a downside that can be too much to bear. And the only way to break the cycle is to stop calling us the smart kids.
We’ll get many different labels in school. We don’t need another one.