When I had my first child, I didn’t know very much about children and unlike lots of first time moms, I didn’t have any family around me to fill in the blanks. I took everything at face value and proceeded like I knew what I was doing, hoping everything would be just fine. In fact, I did, like a lot of first time moms, lots of dumb things. I assumed, for instance that everyone I know would be sitting by their mailboxes waiting for the photo of the month I sent out to them. Each month, I would prop up the kid, take dozens of photos, and send them out to the Club. What was I thinking?
The Kid was pretty cool, all in all, and a great companion to me. I took her everywhere to the point where the New York Times sent out a photographer and a writer to cover my story. Doesn’t everyone bring The Kid to dress rehearsals of the Philharmonic, trending Upper East Side bruncheries, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art? I wasn’t going to stop going there myself just because I had The Kid, so she came along with me. And then, when she was about 18 months old, she started teaching herself to read by sounding out the letters on ads in store windows. And I was very proud. Since I knew nothing about children, I thought everyone did that at 18 months.
When I started to look at preschools, I decided I would just let The Kid do her thing in the interviews and I would see how she stacked up to the other kids. This was the first time she would be exposed to other children on any consistent basis and the experience was eye-opening. We went to interview at a Montessori school that I’d heard about. It was a bright, colorful place but I found the artwork disturbing. It wasn’t that the images were of disturbing things, but that every single, last picture was completely and entirely identical to the next except they were signed by different children. The Kid sat down to replicate the prototype and missed a key element. She was told to draw a snowman just like the model but she didn’t include the blue scarf, so the teacher prompted her by asking if she’d forgotten something in the drawing. The Kid looked at her and said, “Eyebrows?” And then she didn’t get in.
We went to a standard private school she liked and was immediately accepted. She loved the classroom, the children, the teachers, and the routine. At first. Her drawings were simple at first, then more complex, adding trees, sun, clouds, more people, more houses. There was an obvious progression from simple to complex and I thought everything was fine until I went for the parent meeting and they told me about The Kid and the puzzle she had solved that morning. It was the most complicated puzzle in the classroom and The Kid had completed it in just a few minutes, something they had never seen before. I thought, that’s great, but what does she do tomorrow? They told me, she could re-solve the same puzzle again and again because that was all they had for her. I realized their modus operandi was simply to pull everyone to the center, by bringing up the slower students and slowing down the really capable ones. We started looking for another school.
Kindergarten interviews are a little different than preschool ones because they rely more on social interaction. The Kid was tested for a small gifted program at a New York City public school and she scored in the top three percentile and was accepted. I was apprehensive about sending The Kid to a public school because I had never attended a public school myself and had no idea what to do first. But like my other parenting efforts, I decided to take an active role and volunteered to write and edit the program’s newsletter. I could keep an eye on The Kid and the school at the same time. I expected the worst and found the best, the best approach to learning, the best teachers, the best kids, and the perfect place for The Kid.
The Kid’s first teacher was a woman I will call Miss Case. She was serious, friendly, interesting, and, as it turned out, God’s very gift to teachers. She had an extreme math ability that suited her precocious charges and she sent home homework none of the parents could do. I remember calling around the phone tree trying to find anyone older than five who could master the mathematical concepts Miss Case was teaching. She took them on school trips to museums so they could see patterns and shapes they would discuss back at school. The children in this classroom couldn’t wait to get there in the morning and they didn’t want to leave in the afternoon.
The only thing better than Miss Case in Kindergarten was when the parents found out she was being reassigned to the Fifth Grade just as our children were about enter the Fifth Grade. These gifted kids had been given their own gift. They had been given the chance to reconnect with Miss Case and they were thrilled. She took the extraordinary concepts she had taught them five years earlier and spun them into even more intricate patterns and shapes that they could take on to middle school, high school, and college.
The Kid became a civil engineer and in so many ways, I thank this one New York City public school teacher. Miss Case was underpaid, certainly, but worth her weight in gold to The Kid. If we had stayed at that lovely private school, The Kid never would have felt that her crazy math ability was in any way normal and even kind of cool. In the public school gifted program, she was surrounded by children who challenged her and teachers who could keep her busy and working.
Right now, if you asked me to pay more taxes for the benefit of the teacher my daughter had in 1991, I would do so with tears in my eyes, tears of gratitude to the teacher who saved my kid. So much is written and argued about the kids in the lowest percentile, but rarely do the writers understand what it is to have a gifted child in that top percentile. This public school was a life raft to the two of us. My standard explanation to people who think gifted programs cater to the elite is this: it’s like giving two children the task of washing the dishes. The smart child will use hot water, plenty of soapy suds, they will scrub the Dickens out of each dish, dry them completely, and put them away in neat rows. The gifted kid will find a way to get the smart kid to do it for them.
I am still proud of my kid. She solves the Rubik’s cube in under a minute. And she’s happy.