Reaching Out for Answers

In the past couple of weeks I’ve received a few messages from people who have read my piece, “A Gifted Education,” in the Harvard Educational Review.  It’s been quite a trip to hear from strangers who read my work, and I’m absolutely honored by being able to get my story out there and have it make an emotional impact on its audience.

A couple of the messages have asked the basic question, “If I’m a parent in a similar situation that your parents were in, what should I do?”

Quick summary for those who are unable to access the article since it’s behind a pay wall:  I spent my school years weaving in and out of public and private institutions in small towns in Kentucky.  Although I found some amazing summer programming courtesy of the Center for Gifted Studies at Western Kentucky University, my typical curriculum bored me to an extreme.  This boiled over during high school and manifested itself in drug use, self-destructive behaviors, and disciplinary problems at school.  My parents sought a solution within the system but were unable to find one.  I ended up dropping out of high school after my sophomore year and attending college at 16 (this solution didn’t ultimately work out, but that’s another story).

The truth is I don’t have an answer.  I can tell you that going to an academically rigorous four year college at 16 years old was not the best decision for me, as I was not ready socially or academically.  I hadn’t ever needed to study, or really spend time on homework, up until that first year of college, and trying to learn how to do that while simultaneously learning to live without the comfort of family or familiar friends and being known as the 16 year old in college (word got out somehow, always) was too much for me.  For my specific situation, I think going to community college for a year or two would’ve been a better solution.  I might have been bored during classes, but I would’ve learned how to better manage my time while still having the safety net of home and local friends behind.

But, obviously, a solution should’ve been put in place before 16.  I could list a ton of organizations that might’ve helped me–some didn’t exist when I was younger, some did but I was unaware of them, and some  my family and I knew of but didn’t offer services appropriate to my situation–but that serves little purpose as there will always be a situation where the programs and support offered by those organizations can’t be of assistance.  The truth is, like with many things, that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.  My advice to parents would be to think locally, regionally, and nationally (this, of course, relies on the parents having the time to do that, but what else can you do?).

Locally:  

Find allies within the school system.  Sympathetic teachers or staff can make a huge difference in terms of advocacy and opening doors.  Even if they’re unable to do much within the system, having an oasis for your child within an otherwise oppressive school environment can make a big difference.  For me, there was a substitute teacher who really made a difference by being available for conversations and for the occasional unsanctioned field trip.

Consider “internships” in your child’s interest.  Obviously, it takes a special situation for this to happen, and a special mentor for it to be meaningful, but finding a focus like this can help alleviate your child’s lack of outlets in school.  This could include shadowing someone at work, or volunteering somewhere.  Possible venues: newspapers, libraries, animal shelters.  Also consider contacting professors at a local university.  If you get 20 “no’s” and 1 “yes,” it’s still worth it.

Regionally:

Most states have a state-level organization that will be indispensable in helping you find resources.  For Kentucky, I linked WKU’s office above.  For Texas, there’s TAGT.  If you’re having a hard time finding one for your state/region, contact one of the national agencies below.

I previously mentioned summer programming – similar camps and classes are offered across the country.  Scholarships are often available as well.  Sometimes national level organizations offer versatile scholarships to programs across the country.

After school programming exists as well, although this will be fairly limited geographically.

In addition to summer programming, there are also full-time academies and magnet programs.  Again, this limits you with financial, geographic, and other factors, but you should be aware of them.  Three that come to my mind are the Gatton School at Western Kentucky University, the Robinson Center for Young Scholars at the University of Washington, and the Texas Academy for Math and Science at the University of North Texas.  Growing up, I was always very jealous of my friends who got to attend schools like duPont Manual.  Recently I got to check out the science projects of a neat private school here in Austin – the ACE Academy.

(Note:  I hate feeling like I always make this disclaimer, but yes, I agree, there are problems with magnet schools and academies and their admission processes and selection methodology.  I also agree that programs like the ones I’ve endorsed above have the potential to create segregation, especially class-based, due to the requirements in order to attend.  However, I don’t think that discredits them entirely from being a possibility, and I think there are a lot of organizations out there that are doing a great job.  In absence of perfect solutions or a perfect world I urge you to make use of and become a participant and an agent of change in the existing, imperfect system.)

Nationally:

A quick laundry list, each with its own programs and resources, in no particular order.

SENG – Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted
Hoagies – Collection of resources
Duke TIP – Talent Identification Program
NAGC – National Association for Gifted Children
IEA – Institute for Educational Advancement
Davidson Gifted – Offers scholarships and resources
Prufrock Press – Publishes a ton of gifted-related stuff

I apologize for not being familiar with agencies outside the US.  I’d appreciate other links being sent to me.  I hope this helps, although by simply doing enough research to read this post you’re already doing a great job for your child.

Outside content for today – A PDF of David Foster Wallace’s short story, “Good Old Neon,” which I wish someone had made me read when I was going through some of the stuff discussed above.

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