Rethinking What it Really Means to be “Gifted”

July 29, 2021 By
Lightbulbs, books, gears and other academic-related graphics appear on the backdrop of a young person's head, signifying that they're gifted.

Honours. Academic. Gifted. Every school has programs that separate the alleged elite from the ordinary. Meant to provide sharp students with an even sharper edge, academic programs are supposed to attract the minds of the students who, as I was told several times, “were just born smart” and were able to “think outside of the box.” In reality, it’s a Pavlovian exercise rewarding students for regurgitating information on command. For these students, “perfect” means to accurately follow instructions to the letter, colouring inside the lines with precision and grace. To everyone else, perfect is an impossible standard they have been made to believe they are incapable of achieving. 

There was a gifted test when we went to school that took place in the fifth grade. By that point, it was reasoned that you either had it or you didn’t. Not everyone took it, in fact in a grade of 100 students there were maybe three who did. Most people didn’t know it existed; students were handpicked by teachers who barely knew half of us.

The test itself marked math and English proficiency. Apparently, proficiency in anything else—the arts, sports, technology—didn’t make us gifted. Formatted as a standardized test, it asked one to find patterns, key words, and solve equations. Ergo, it was not “outside of the box” thinking children who excelled, but the ones who already benefited from the education style of the school. It was these students who were praised, while the rest of us fell under the belief that we were less than. It didn’t matter if we knew everything there was to know about computers or could recreate the Mona Lisa. We could have the cure for cancer, but if we didn’t tick the right box for the best possible answer on a test when we were ten, sorry, not gifted.

It was the same for any other division of intelligence. When we finished the eighth grade, we had to pick courses for high school. There were three streams: Locally Developed, Applied, and Academic. Originally, it was supposed to respectively set us up for either workplace, college, or university, but we all knew what it translated to: dumb, average, smart. It was never explicitly stated, but it was obvious from the way teachers would peer over our shoulders, knowing our B- average and purring “maybe moving down to applied level would be better, hmm?” in a patronizing tone. Which didn’t make sense. We were supposed to pick a stream based on what post-secondary program, or lack thereof, was going to benefit us. Instead, we believed there was a path for the smart kids, and a path for the dumb kids. 

When we got to high school, we’d grown accustomed to where we believed we fit on the intelligence scale and it showed. Applied kids didn’t show up to class that much and didn’t seem to mind failing. Why would they? They were just fitting the criteria they’d implicitly been given.

Some of them could have excelled in academic classes, but didn’t think they could do it. Not to mention it was nearly impossible to switch streams which required conversion classes, signatures, and meetings. Higher level—or, beg your pardon, study inclined—students experienced the opposite. Most of them would have probably been happier and more sucessful in applied, but they didn’t want to be seen as stupid. Instead they spent hours holed up in their bedrooms, sacrificing social lives for grades and replacing self esteem with academic achievement, trying to get into a university most of them didn’t really want to go to. The stress was tangible, and only grew worse. I know because I’m one of those burnt-out, “study till you drop and then some” students.

This always comes as a surprise to adults. They assume that because I criticize the education system, I’m coming from a place of resentment. My opinion must be one of a lazy teenager trying to blame my inability to succeed on someone else. In reality, I’m an academic with honours student. I qualified as gifted after my mother specifically requested I be allowed to take the test. In the ninth grade, my academic math teacher recommended I move down to applied and I struggled through class. In the tenth grade, I passed an eleventh grade math class with one of the top marks.  Now, I’m three credits away from graduating in the eleventh grade. And despite how this may sound, it isn’t a brag. It’s not a message of “I can do it, so can you!” either. It’s confirmation that even someone who has managed to do well can see the flaws in the system. That being smart isn’t about getting right away or not, but about effort. I’ve been made to feel stupid by the people who were supposed to guide me, and I’ve failed. I made myself believe I could do it, and I flourished. Being smart isn’t about being born with the proper genetics or talent. It’s about working hard and having the motivation to do so. It’s about finding something you like, something you want to be good at. Despite what school seems to think, organizing us by our perceived level of intelligence doesn’t get us there. Every glittery and overly enthusiastic poster in classrooms tells us we are all smart in our way. We deserve a chance to find out what we’re good at and pursue it, not be shoved into categories when we barely know what we’re doing and told good luck. Maybe instead of being forced to categorize or be categorized before we know what it means, we should be given time to decide what’s best for us. Because the dumb kids who fail, they aren’t failures, they just haven’t had the chance to succeed yet.

About the Author

Rory Duffy: Rory Duffy is seventeen years old living in Ontario, Canada. She’s currently focusing on legal studies and humanities, with the intent of graduating bilingual in French and English and pursuing a career in politics and international relations. In her spare time, she enjoys practicing instrumental music and volunteering locally. She appreciates the opportunity to use this platform to voice her views.