|Several years ago, our small family of four moved
back to Montana, and our son entered fourth grade in a new school.
One day a letter came from the school announcing, "Your child
has qualified for the Gifted and Talented program." I wasn't
familiar with this program. Evidently I should be pleased, but
what did it mean?
For Devin, it turned out to mean that once a week he'd leave
the regular classroom and spend an hour in "Talent Pool"
with a group of children who, like him, were recognized as
"gifted and talented." A special teacher would provide
opportunities and projects designed for the special kids in this
"pull-out program." It all seemed vaguely disturbing; I
just hoped the educators knew what they were doing.
But a few years later, when our daughter Roselyn was scheduled
to be tested for Talent Pool, I couldn't bring myself to give
permission. By then I felt too much of an ache for all those other
children. . . the ones on the underside of the cutoff line. I had
spent those years gathering material for a book about prenatal
communication and bonding, and what I learned was changing the way
I thought of children. They no longer seemed to be new little
creations, but big souls in small bodies.
Parents were sharing wonderful stories of connecting with their
unborn children. Some spoke of experiences during pregnancy;
others described a contact even earlier. "The baby's presence
in the months preceding conception was so strong. While sitting in
meditation, a great feeling of love washed over me as if pouring
over my head. It was the spirit of our child. . ."
Another woman remembered, "I felt sure that I was
pregnant. I began feeling that the child was near me. I would be
driving, when a ray of light would enter my car and I would feel a
presence, loving, male and somehow familiar. I talked to him,
explained how I felt about his coming into this life as my child,
and I felt like we were communicating, that he was listening and
observing intently. The message I received was one of pure
As one story after another sank into my heart, I opened to the
feeling that our children come to us as souls deserving of the
deepest respect and the tenderest handling. With their own soul
histories and experiences, they may come bringing gifts we haven't
seen before, treasures we don't even know how to name. The thought
of testing and classifying them made me feel ashamed.
I had learned more about "Gifted and Talented
Education" as well. In the States, schools receive funds
earmarked for "enriching" the education of a certain
group of children. What children? According to Congress, those
"who are identified as possessing demonstrated or potential
abilities that give evidence of high performance capability in
areas such as intellectual, creative, specific academic or
leadership ability or in the performing and visual arts, and who
by reason thereof require services or activities not ordinarily
provided by the school."1
Convoluted, but it sounds reasonable -- surely every child has
at least potential abilities in one area or another! But how does
it actually play out in a little community like ours? (Each school
district has leeway to design its own program, so in another
school system "Gifted and Talented Education" may be
interpreted and carried out quite differently.)
In our school, children are tested when they reach third grade.
Of course the type of test determines what types of abilities will
be discovered. Here, for example, the tests seem to look for math
and verbal skills, quick reasoning, and pattern recognition.
(They're not likely to find the child of unusual empathy. . . the
one who hears strange music in her head. . . the one who knows
what the trees are saying.) After a certain period of suspense,
the results are public knowledge. Ten per cent of our children are
now officially "gifted and talented." The other ninety
"Not making the cut for Talent Pool may be your child's
first experience of failure," an informational booklet
advises us, adding some bland suggestions for helping a child cope
with disappointment and the reality of a competitive world.
This is where it started to haunt me. For this is so much more
than one of those natural failures we all experience in the course
of living. This is an artificial, system-created trauma for the
majority of our children, and it cuts right to the core of
self-worth. Many nights I lay awake imagining what it must feel
like, at eight or nine years old, to get the message that you are
not one of the gifted and talented. One mother's word for her
daughter's spirit when she failed to make the cut:
As my husband and I began sharing these thoughts, we found we
were up against a peculiar blindness. Parents and teachers
defended the system, emphasizing the special needs of the
"gifted child." When it came to considering the inner
experience of the other children, they seemed to draw a blank.
Maybe we resist knowing the pain that's built into the system.
Looking right at it and really feeling it -- that might arouse our
own memories and anger, from the times when we too were treated
without love and respect.
Our point was simple: we cannot label certain children as
"gifted and talented" without implicitly labeling the
rest as "ungifted and untalented." And when we label a
child, we are tampering with something sacred: the human spirit.
One friend, a former teacher, shrugged off my concerns.
"It doesn't matter whether the school labels them," he
said. "The kids know anyway who the bright ones are."
I talked with the Talent Pool teacher, a warm and giving woman.
"I may be touchy on this subject because of my own
experience," I admitted. "In high school, we were given
a test supposed to measure our creativity -- and I was crushed
when the results showed I was not creative!"
"But surely you didn't believe it," she smiled.
"You knew you were a creative person!" In fact, the low
score cast a shadow on my self-confidence and permanently changed
the way I see myself. What could a much younger child do with such
information, but take it to heart and conform to its prediction?
Experiments in real classrooms have shown the power of a
teacher's expectations. Children blossom or fade according to the
teacher's vision of their ability. Knowing this, we're obligated
to use this power only to encourage children and free them, never
to limit their potential or undermine their confidence. Knowing
that labels become self-fulfilling prophecies, how can we continue
to use them?
The children themselves are in no position to protest. But now
and then you might come across some evidence of their silent hurt.
I'm thinking of a mother who felt at first that our objections to
Talent Pool were a little wacky. But her daughter in Junior High
was depressed and feeling like an outsider. The girl revealed to a
counselor that her confidence and her sense of belonging were lost
in the third grade, when her friends were selected for Talent Pool
but she was not.
My husband and I decided to present our ideas to the school
board. The quickest way to make our point, we thought, would be to
attend the board meeting and announce: "Ladies and gentlemen!
Today you will take a test to determine which of you are the
gifted and talented. Tomorrow, the results will be published in
the local paper!"
Of course, we didn't do that. We presented our concerns in a
letter instead. "Our objection to Talent Pool goes beyond the
fact that it tends to ignore and thus devalue the gifts of the
other children," we explained. "Classifying people in
this way is callous and disrespectful. As adults, we would not
like to be publicly categorized as 'gifted' or 'not gifted' -- so
why do we inflict it on the children? We simply can't afford to
treat our children this way if we hope to see them grow up
self-confident and respectful of others."
Although it seemed that no one agreed with us, we have seen a
subtle shift over the years since then. The "pull-out
program" has been expanded to include a few more children,
and the lines are blurred a bit by groups that float in and out of
it for special projects. So the program is broader now and more
diffuse, yet in a way this only obscures the basic problem.
As long as only some are seen as "gifted and
talented" and dividing lines are cut across the world of
children, damage is being done. Teachers are damaged, for they
must dull their empathy to inflict these wounds. The
"gifted" are harmed, when we teach them to believe their
worth is in their "high performance capability".
Identifying them with some of their qualities, we upset
their inner balance just when they are at such a tender age,
unselfconscious and opening naturally to the world. Separating
them as an elite group, we do violence to their innate compassion
and sense of community. And then there are the other children. . .
I know why it's so hard to focus on the experience of the other
children. If we allow ourselves to see and feel the harm we're
causing, we'll have to accept the difficult task of changing the
way things are done. It's easier to look away -- but it's too late
for that. We've had too many glimpses of our own splendor. We've
seen the magic that can happen when there's love and patience and
freedom for children to flower in their own special ways. As Yoda
tells Luke Skywalker, "Luminous beings are we." Not just
some of us. All of us.