For the Gifted Delinquent

By Guest Contributor

Before having ever stepped foot inside my freshman dorm, I had already landed myself in academic hot water. I had not been performing to the academic standard that was expected of me upon my acceptance to Middlebury College, and I was warned to do better. Before I was even an official student, there was already a concern about whether I would make it here amidst the — often understated — competitive Middlebury environment.

Needless to say, I was slacking.

Balancing varsity basketball with Shakespearean theater rehearsal plus having to meet with my Posse Scholarship cohorts once a week and keep up with a multitude of other organizations proved to be very difficult when added to the already rigorous curriculum of my super fancy selective enrollment high school in TriBeCa, a one and a half hour trek from my mother’s and father’s homes in Jamaica, Queens.

Stuyvesant High School doesn’t slow down first semester senior year, and for a kid who already had trouble keeping up, all that stress hitting me at once was becoming very overwhelming. I thought I could scrape by, and in the end I did, but it wasn’t without the few stern talking-to’s, the stomach-dropping letter home, the occasional tears, and the always-present self-doubt that have stuck with me ever since.

I still don’t know if I belong here. I’m not built without rough edges, in or outside of the classroom, and I’m not the only one who feels that way. While in elementary school, I received disciplinary action quite often. Being sent to detention was customary, the principal knew about me for all the wrong reasons, and teachers would often scold me for being too talkative in class.

I never fit the cookie-cutter model for admissions, here or anywhere else. In middle school my grades were solid but nothing really extraordinary, and I had many of the same issues that I did in elementary school. Fortunately — and I use that word with reluctance — I tested well enough on the Specialized High School Admissions Test to place into one of the most selective public schools in the city.

I most certainly did not thrive academically at Stuyvesant, but I did well enough to stay relatively afloat when it came time for college applications. I suppose everyone dismissed my subpar performances especially in math and science classes as an inability to grasp quantitative concepts. Perhaps it was attributed to my just being lazy. I’m not sure what people thought or currently think — students, teachers, mentors, tutors, etc. I do know, however, that there is much more to classroom behavior than meets the eye.

School has always been hard for me, but not because I am not intelligent or because I don’t want to do the work. I don’t believe that anybody truly dislikes learning. Even if that were true, I don’t think that that correlates with academic success or lack thereof. I do believe, however, that there are people for whom school is hauntingly alienating. In second grade when two friends and I fought a kid for referring to us as n-words, we were not displaying juvenile and criminal behavior. We were merely fighting back in a hostile environment, where prejudice was pervasive and where we seldom felt supported. Middlebury College can often feel the same.

My “bad kid” behavior growing up was attributed to some type of flaw that could presumably be fixed with a new wave teaching method of discipline, which involved hole punches and circles, stickers and sad faces or whatever bogus device my disciplinarians decided was appropriate. Not once was it considered that something might be of concern outside the classroom. Rarely was it taken into account that maybe I wasn’t behaving in a delinquent manner because I was incapable of learning, but because so much else was on my mind. With each successive punishment be it detention, letters, or phone calls home, I don’t believe I grew more motivated but rather more removed.

Throughout my schooling process, though I exhibited poor behavioral conduct, I also demonstrated great intellectual ability and academic potential in other ways. While I fought and got in trouble in elementary school, I also competed with my school’s math team. I tested into an eighth grade gifted program on an exam that included all types of complex riddles and puzzles and things not normally found in Kaplan, Stuyvesant, or even Middlebury classrooms. Eventually I was admitted to Middlebury College on the Posse Scholarship which looked into much more than just GPA, and despite being watched carefully for fear of not being able to keep up, I’ve been a dean’s list student all of my three semesters here.

Anyone who has taken Education in the USA with Tara Affolter or Jonathan Miller-Lane knows that you don’t check your identity at the schoolhouse gate. I am still the same kid who acted out when I was younger, who couldn’t sit still in class. I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit-Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) at the same time that safety at home was beginning to become a concern due to domestic violence. To not recognize that the latter was completely complicit in the former was a failure on the part of any school system that I have been a part of. I could not check at the classroom door what had been going on outside of it. It’s time we start recognizing that for every struggling student.

In many ways I suppose I’ve overcome my obstacles, though I haven’t completely conquered all my academic weaknesses. What bothers me though is how many other students won’t have the same unique path that was carved out for me.  There are too many gifted kids who aren’t fortunate enough to maximize their academic and intellectual potential, not because they are any less smart than any student here or at any other elite private institution, but simply because no teacher or mentor has taken the time to find out what’s going on for them outside of class — those students who aren’t placed on a math team, or whose parents can’t afford to get them a little extra preparation for placement exams, or those students who don’t live in a region where scholarship programs like Posse exist.

We live in a nation where we use “reading achievement levels of students in the third grade as a basis for projecting the number of future prison beds needed,” according to the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice. It is scary the kind of life that we as a society imagine for each other. If we choose to create a more educationally equal environment, it’s time we start recognizing giftedness everywhere that it exists and stop dismissing it at the first sign of behavioral delinquency.

“This is a song for the genius child.
Sing it softly, for the song is wild.
Sing it softly as ever you can –
Lest the song get out of hand.

Nobody loves a genius child. 

Can you love an eagle,
Tame or wild?
Can you love an eagle,
Wild or tame?
Can you love a monster
Of frightening name? 

Nobody loves a genius child. 

Kill him – and let his soul run wild.” 

–Langston Hughes