Follow Their Lead

My family of origin was very competitive. There were three siblings vying for the attention of our parents and it never occurred to me to give less than my best on tests or papers. Not that I always studied, mind you. But I had skipped from first grade to second grade upon entry to the suburban school system, due to an anomaly in the Chicago school system that allowed me to start in mid-year previously. I was also a benefactor of tracking, which put higher achieving students together.

As a parent, I never imagined that a child might not care about grades. Luckily, as an adult, I discovered gifted education. My oldest was identified in second grade and continued to take my breath away with achievements three to seven years above grade level most of his school career. I attended a conference in Iowa and began to learn all I could about this phenomena.  I met Joan Franklin Smutny who has become one of my heroes down through the years. Very luckily for me, she is from Illinois. She was always glad to advise me when I felt overwhelmed. My second child showed musical talent at nine months and was reading at age 4. My third child was holding a pencil correctly at 12 months.

My experience with “other” achievement probably started when my second was in fifth grade. We had moved from a farm in western Illinois and my son was nine. He was placed in a regular fifth grade class even though I had been told sending paperwork was unnecessary. He kept getting punishments for not getting his work done. He would have to write an essay for every assignment he failed to turn in. (I have no problem with this – I think it would help improve a student’s writing if n nothing else.) I would sit next to him at the table to encourage him to do his work, and he would sit doing nothing. I would nudge and nudge and he would say, “I can’t think of anything!” He was moved to the gifted class within two weeks after an IQ test on a Sunday (thanks to the principal). He continued to have problems with assignments for no apparent reason. I knew better than to get mad at him, because I was sitting next to him when he had trouble. Within weeks, we realized that the problems were occurring the week after he had been back to see his dad and the farm. The teacher changed the assignment to one essay per week maximum and his depression slowly lifted through the year. This child did very well with the nurturing teachers he had over the next few years, but a pattern emerged. He was stellar at the beginning of the year, but began to slip by late winter and was struggling by spring. When he entered high school, I called a meeting in the fall and the teachers thought I was crazy. By spring they understood. They supported him throughout many difficulties and I was grateful I had informed them of his pattern.

We received counseling for the family through a long and difficult separation and divorce. Our first year income was below the poverty level. Certainly, poverty is one of the worst things that can happen to a child. Luckily, I was employed full-time the following year. With the help of private and school counselors, I was encouraged to develop a relationship separate from my son’s achievement and to let go of his behavior. Some of it was directed against a teacher who disliked him because he had to leave her class early in eighth grade to go to the high school for math. Sometimes it was a teacher who was very rigid in his/her requirements. Sometimes, this child was overwhelmed with responsibilities beyond his age as I worked one or two jobs and/or went to school and he supervised a younger sibling.

I developed a file on underachievement about six inches thick. That was before the Internet was readily available, but I was taking classes at local universities and knew how to search. I also learned that gifted children can have learning disabilities. That means that they may excel in some skills and struggle with others. If you suspect that your child’s academic behavior does not make sense, get some professional help. A psychological profile is expensive, but can reveal difficulties that are hidden by the exceptional talents.

Interestingly enough, my “other” achiever had another period of failure as a college senior. He was taking an ethics in business class that showed videos of the Holocaust, the massacre in Africa, the Civil Rights Movement, and other atrocities. He got so depressed he had to retake two classes the summer he got married!

About a year ago, I was asked to tutor another student who had taken a dive in math. I was so grateful to let the family know that the student was extremely creative and had run up against a punitive teacher. It was difficult to explain to the student that it was in his best interest to learn how to get along with people like that, but I hope I was able to shed some light on the situation. He began to get opportunities to shine in local theatrical performances, and his mood improved immediately. I’m pretty sure his mom can see that her son is an amazing person who doesn’t need to achieve to be rewarded. I also hope that the alternative universe offered in cosplay will not become more comfortable than reality.

That brings us to a final word on other achievement. My oldest had a terrible year starting in college, possibly because I had introduced him to the Internet (1991). He got a job working in a science lab and spent most of his hours online. He is now navigating the world of technology in the workplace and all those hours have really paid off. So…enjoy your child, somehow and stop worrying so much. We don’t know how things will come out, but with our love in their sails, our children will achieve far more than we can imagine.




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