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Gifted, Talented... and Devastated

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 love."

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 per cent?

"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: "Devastated."

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.

U.S. Congress, Educational Amendments of 1978

See also "I am not a Turtle".

Elisabeth Hallett is the author of two unique and fascinating books on pre-birth communication, prenatal bonding, and changes in awareness before and after birth, as described by new mothers and fathers: In the Newborn Year: Our Changing Awareness After Childbirth (The Book Publishing Company, 1992), and Soul Trek: Meeting Our Children on the Way to Birth (Light Hearts Publishing, 1995). For more information, see her web site, Light Hearts.