Interview with a Gifted Kid: Sheridan

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Sheridan Speaks

This interview with a gifted kid is a series within a series. In it we meet the middle of three generations of a gifted family. In this installment, Sheridan, a young professional with a gifted daughter and gifted mother, shares his thoughts with me (and you).

When did you first hear or find out that you were gifted?

They’d actually started talking about it in Kindergarten because I arrived reading, but in third grade I was tested and put in the PAT program, which is what they called GT. The test took about a half a day, and I remember that it was fun. After the test, they said, “You’re gifted, and we’re going to bus you over to another school for half a day once a week.”

All of the GT kids got bused in together. It was a lot of fun. It seemed haphazard, but fun. We did things like aerodynamics, stress and vectors, making bridges out of balsa wood.

It was interesting, but my regular classroom teacher was opposed to this and made snide remarks in front of whole class. She’d say, “Okay, class, say goodbye to Sheridan. He’s going to gifted class.”

When I got back, I would have a packet of work on my desk that would take hours to complete. She would tell me, “Just because you’re gifted, it doesn’t mean you get out of doing the same work as everyone else.” She acted like I was trying to sneakily avoid the work when it wasn’t even my idea.

[Note: The injustice of this teacher’s behavior still infuriates me, even though I did this interview over a month ago. One of the reasons this series is so vital is that this experience isn’t an isolated incident.]

How was your giftedness explained to you?

It wasn’t really. When I got to the PAT class, I liked the gifted teachers a lot. One thing is that no one talked about social/emotional side of gifted. The only discussion of it was there were a couple of times where people would say to me, “Oh, you don’t belong in the gifted program because you’re fine socially.”

[Note: Sheridan’s mother, whom I interviewed at the same time, told me “After they tested him, they came to me blown away. They asked, “Did you know gifted he is? He’s across the board and off the charts. We’re shocked because he acts so normal.” This is its own bias. If you’re really gifted, you’ll be socially awkward and commit faux pas at classmates’ birthday parties. Actually, you won’t even be invited to the birthday parties.]

Were your friends also gifted?

No, not really. I’ve always been outgoing and social. I tended to befriend people from different groups. I usually had one or two friends out of each clique. They were a little bit above average. I had a wide variety of friends when I was younger. Later on in high school, I was in a special program called Essentials. They had one hallway that was for this program. Only GT kids were in those classes, and I still have friends from that program.

In 9th grade I switched from one school to another. We moved over Christmas break. When I got to English at beginning of semester, everyone had the assignment over Christmas  break to read Tale of Two Cities. The teacher said, “So everyone read it, right?” I awkwardly sat on the sidelines. I read your article about that and it was so much like my experience.

Were there any ways in which your giftedness created a hardship for you?

I ended up with my entire grade level against me when I was in elementary school. They picked on me after I started being bused out. It wasn’t just normal teasing. There were some bigger things that would happen.

One person would do something and blame me and the whole class would back them up. There was a kid who thought it was funny to steal my pencils. I would say, “Teacher he stole my pencil.”

He would say it was his, and the class would back up. Finally, my mom ordered pencils with my name engraved on them. The next time it happened, I was like, “My name is on it right there.” That’s how I finally got that pencil back. It was weird because for the next two years my pencils had my name on them. That was third and fourth grades.

In fifth and sixth grades, I went to private school. I came back in seventh grade, and I was with the same kids, but it was middle school, so I didn’t have feeling that the whole class was against me.

Even in this new group, I learned to be guarded. Initially I would raise my hand to answer a question. The other kids would pick on me, saying to the teacher, “Why don’t you ask Sheridan?” So I developed tactics. I would count to ten before raising my hand so I wasn’t the one with my hand up first.

[A study done at Purdue found that more than 2/3 of gifted kids are bullied by eighth grade.]

Do you feel that people had expectations of you because of your giftedness?

Yes, I focus now on praising my daughter’s efforts, not her intelligence. In part that’s because of the research, but it’s also partly from growing up in an environment of being praised for “You’re so smart….Oh, Sheridan will be able to do it, whatever it is.”

Sometimes I would, but sometimes I wouldn’t, and I had this perfectionism? No, absolutism. I would think, “Okay, this is one of the things I’m not good at.” And I wouldn’t want to try it again.

Here’s one example. I did the school spelling bee in first grade, and I was one of the last five kids on stage. I didn’t even study. I just told my mom, “I’m going to do the spelling bee tomorrow.” Looking back, I realize they were 4th and 5th graders, but I thought, “Okay, I guess I’m not cut out to do the spelling bee.”

I still remember the word I missed. It was “earnest” – I used the proper noun “Ernest” from Ernest Goes to Camp.

What about high school and college?

In high school, I had senioritis really badly. I actually had to go before school board to petition to graduate because had 42 absences, but I was on the A/B honor roll. I was so done. I was sitting in PreCal reading a Piers Anthony novel. The teacher caught me and said, “How dare you sit there and read a fantasy novel in this class.”

I said, “Look, I’ve got an A in your class. Why don’t you focus your attention on the students who need your help?”

I didn’t go to college right after high school. I worked for 3 ½ years, and then did tech support. I had moved up in the company. I taught myself Apple so I could do that tech support. The company had massive layoffs, and I started looking around. I realized that what I knew didn’t mean anything. Everyone wanted me to start over. I would be stuck. I decided to move back in with my mom and work my way through school. I got a degree in computer science. Now I do .net development.

What would you tell your younger self?

I would tell myself the story of the pottery class.

In Tim Ferris’s book he talks about an anecdotal study that a college professor did to see the different results he would get. There were two sessions he was teaching. In one session he said, “We’re going to work on different types of pottery. I’m going to grade you based on a piece you choose.”

In the other session, he said, “We’re going to work on pottery. Your grade will be based on how many pieces you turn in.”

The students who were graded on quantity also ended up producing the best work.

Honestly, I’ve told this to people before, and I feel ridiculous saying this out loud, but I feel that I didn’t really understand what practice was until I was a young adult. I never really…I don’t know. I didn’t believe it? Didn’t understand it? It never really sunk in. Things got better for me once I realized that it was okay to have a bad version, but I NEED to produce a bad version.

What did the schools get right? Your GT pullout?

Well, it’s hard to dissect it because I didn’t look forward to that day. I would get back and have three hours of homework, so it undermined the good feelings. I had two gifted teachers, one was Miss. Necessary, and I thought that was interesting. I liked them, and I liked the activities, but it was bittersweet.

It was getting it right that they got gifted kids together. [At this point, his mother chimed in with, “They should have left them there all week long.”)

In my 8th grade year they let me go to high school to do some 9th grade classes – math and Spanish – just a tiny bit of acceleration.

What could the school have done differently?

That Essentials program in high school was hit or miss. I had a huge disagreement with the English teacher in 11th grade who was prejudiced that I had a single mom, and I switched to the regular class which was boring, and I would test the waters a little bit.

We had to read Metamorphosis (by Kafka). I thought the teacher was just looking to see if the blanks were filled in, not really looking at the answers. I put in, “He was a bug” for the whole worksheet.

I got it back with a checkmark. I thought, “Well, there you go.”

For the most part, when they had the gifted students together, it was a better experience. We would actually discuss it with each other. Even in college, we would go down side alleys. In regular classes, if you go off topic, some kids is going to ask, “Is this going to be on the test?”

What do you think the school could have done – if anything – about your disengagement in your senior year?

You know, even when there wasn’t a joy of learning, I still a huge level of curiosity, even if I didn’t want to be there.

The biggest reason for having senioritis was that I had a lot of nonacademic stuff upsetting me – the death of my grandfather, my parents’ divorce, a lot of things hit me.

The school could have provided some real counseling. They had this weird thing they did where once every three weeks or so, all of the students had to get together and go to this randomly assigned group and have this group therapy session. This was very strange to me. I didn’t understand why they were doing this at all. The group was a regular classroom size, but not a teacher I knew. The teacher would ask, “Is there anything you want to get off your chest?” Um, not really…

I felt like they were trying to cover themselves by saying they were providing counseling, but they weren’t really reaching out to me. Not once did they ask me why I was absent so much…What’s going on? Talk to us.

It didn’t happen until near end of the school year. They didn’t address it until it became a conundrum of I couldn’t graduate because I had too many absences, but I was on the honor roll. They still didn’t really address it. The remediation was you have to make up the time. The thing that would have been better would be if they’d addressed it when they noticed the sudden shift.

How has your giftedness impacted your adult life?

It’s helped me help my daughter. It’s been a real struggle, but my being gifted has helped so that it hasn’t been as much of a struggle as it would otherwise have been because I understand where she’s coming from.

I know what should be happening and I can address it. As I better understood giftedness, it made me better understand other gifted people.

People would say, “Oh, you’re in Mensa. You must be sitting around talking about particle physics.”

No! It’s not like that at all. What we had in common was that everyone was very curious.

Even if you couldn’t explain what you were interested in to others, you could have a good conversation about the guest speaker. It helped me change my expectations.

I grew up with people saying, “You’re going to do amazing things.”

I thought, “Oh man, I’ve got go do amazing things.”

Now I realize I don’t have to meet other people’s expectations and I don’t have to have those expectations of others.

I’ve learned that giftedness really is more about thinking in a different way and being curious and looking at the world in a different way, but maybe not the way people think of when they think of gifted.

I’m learning how to deal with people as they really are.

Interview with a Gifted Kid Series

The Interview with a Gifted Kid Series seeks to create a body of voices that will be persuasive that gifted students have needs, that giftedness isn’t some “get out of hardship in school free” card, and will give hope to gifted individuals that they are not alone.

Do you have a story of growing up gifted? If you’d like to be interviewed, please contact me. I want the stories told. I am happy to interview gifted children or adults, so feel free to reach out.

Wrapping Up:

There is so much going on in Sheridan’s story, and his own self-awareness makes it incredibly valuable. If you’re a teacher, it’s important to consider some of the dynamics he describes. In what ways do we send subtle messages to others that our GT kids are somehow fair game for teasing. It just seems like there was an incredible amount of system failure going on here, even when they were trying to meet his needs.

There’s a lot of food for thought in this story, and when you read his mom’s interview (coming up), you’ll see how generational giftedness creates some intriguing dynamics.

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