This is part of Gifted and Female – A Series of Personal Stories.
When did you know you were different from other children? Is there a particular event that stands out?
My first memories of being different were of being rejected. I remember sitting on the floor of a school classroom working on a group project and the other kids making it very clear they thought I was different, and that different was not ok.
I started homeschooling in grade seven because the rejection in school was too hard to live with and despite the wonderful fun I had pursing my own projects – memorizing Shakespeare, designing a space colony, writing a history timeline, etc – I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was having to homeschool because there was something inherently wrong with me.
When did you understand that it was giftedness that made you different?
It wasn’t until university that I started to recognize that my difference from other kids was in how I think, and that I can be proud of my way of thinking.
What are your primary areas of giftedness?
I am intellectually gifted. I see patterns in things. I see connections that other people don’t always think of, and I like to try to tease out the little differences in ideas. I value ideas and words.
I’m also very emotional, very sensitive and with a very strong sense of justice.
Did you ever try to downplay your giftedness? Why or why not?
Yes, definitely, and I still do. I want to fit in. I want to be socially acceptable. Also, I’ve internalized the message that being proud of oneself or believing oneself to be smarter than others is rude and wrong – almost sinful, though I don’t mean that in a religious sense.
Did your parents understand that you were gifted? How did they support you?
When I was in university my mom told me that her sister, who worked with gifted students, had long since recommended that I be tested for giftedness. That was the first I ever heard of it.
My parents bought my siblings and I lots of books. They encouraged us to read. They had great dinner time conversations about things. They really encouraged us to think. That was good. They were great at supporting the intellectual side of things.
They were not good at supporting the emotional side of things. They tried, but they didn’t know how to handle it.
Do you wish your parents had handled your giftedness in a different way?
I wish my parents had looked into giftedness when I was younger. I wish they had learned more about the challenges that being gifted poses. I wish they could have helped me deal with the emotional side of things better. I think one of the messages I internalized is that I shouldn’t have emotional problems ever, and so the fact that I do just added to the sense of being a failure.
Was there a teacher or other adult who impacted your giftedness in a profound way?
Only at university. I attended a very small university where most second year and above classes were discussion classes. That was a setting I excelled at, and I had some wonderfully encouraging professors.
Was there a teacher or other adult who made your experience as a gifted girl more difficult?
At elementary school I had teachers tell me they had to prove they weren’t favoring me just because I’m a good student, and so they would punish me for things they knew I didn’t do. Sometimes one teacher would stand there and laugh while other students made sexual jokes about me. Other teachers would say that the reason kids picked on me was because I was smart and my parents were well off and other kids were jealous. The implications of what they were saying was that it is ok to pick on someone who is better off than you, and we just need to accept being picked on by others. Then there were the people who suggested that if I just knew how to handle things right the bullying would stop, so I had to be constantly striving to be perfect in some unknown way.
Without meaning to, my mom made my experience a lot harder. (Mom: if you are reading this, know that I love you and I know you were just trying to do your best, but I want to be honest about this.) My mom talked a lot about how we interpret things through our own perspective, so if I thought our family was acting in very sexist ways, it was just because I wasn’t seeing things from my brother’s perspective. So I was taught to doubt my own impressions of things. It wasn’t until I was married and had my husband standing next to me confirming what I was seeing that I could really acknowledge the ways sexism was ingrained in how my parents acted. He could help point out the ways in which as a girl I was socialized to believe that it is my job to try to make the guys feel good about themselves, to believe that my emotions are something to be ashamed of, that guys views are to be taken more seriously, etc, etc.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were in elementary school? Middle school? High school?
I wish someone would have told me I was gifted, and that there are others like me, and that it is ok. I wish that during all that time I was made to feel bad about being who I was, I could have been told it was okay to feel proud of my gifts.
I wish someone would have told me that it is okay to see (specific) other people as losers. I wish I hadn’t been left to try to do the mental gymnastics I was left doing, trying to be compassionate and understanding towards people who felt no obligation to be the same towards me.
It would have helped if I had been introduced to feminism earlier, and I don’t mean the shallow “everyone is equal” stuff that can be promoted on t-shirts and bumperstickers. I mean looking seriously about the conflicting ways people understand gender roles and how images of feminity are used to silence women. It would have helped to have real conversations about the conflicts between how societal expectations for women conflict with our societal expectations for healthy adults. As a kid I was told women can have any job a man has, but there was no discussion of the sexism that exists out there, except perhaps comments that feminists over-exaggerate it. As a child it would have been good for me to be able to speak about the sexism that was inherent within the bullying I faced too, and the sexism in the expectations about how I should handle the bullying.
What brings you the most joy as a gifted woman?
I love writing. I love exploring thoughts and ideas, and I’ll admit I love it that now as an adult I can participate in online discussions where I have people comment about what interesting ideas I bring out.
I love watching my children learn and grow, and sharing with them the interests I have. I love talking with my husband.
What brings you the most difficulty or pain as a gifted woman?
Loneliness. I find homeschool circles somewhat competative, where I have to be careful what I say because I’ve had too many people imply I make them feel insecure just by talking about the things I’m interested in. I don’t want to be in competition. I want to be myself and to be able to enjoy being myself. Then on the other side, when I am talking to others who are interested in academic things I have to face the sexism of society. It is unbelievable to me but as a grown woman I still have people calling me “little girl” as a way of shutting me down.
On top of all that is the awareness of suffering within the world. I can’t shut my eyes to what is happening in the world. I understand the complexity of things so I don’t have easy answers for things. Caring deeply hurts.
Do you or have you ever struggled with imposter syndrome? How do you effectively deal with it?
Yes, I struggle with imposter syndrome. I deal with it by doing things anyway. I tell myself that even if someday people discover I’m a fraud, I don’t really have much choice about things in the meantime. I have to be who I am and do what I want to do.
Does your faith impact how you view your giftedness as a woman? How?
Faith holds me together at times when I would otherwise be falling apart. Faith tells me that I am loved and protected in ways I cannot understand. Faith tells me that little things can have large ripples, and that my desire to help others and continue to reach out to the world is not all in vain. Faith tells me that even when it feels like my days are filled with making sandwhiches and cleaning up after the kids, I am am still called to great things.
Being a very intellectual woman makes it hard for me to find a faith community I’m comfortable in and inspired by. My beliefs are very nuanced and based on a very academic understanding of the biblical history, so it isn’t easy for me to find people I can discuss it with. A lot of things that other people tells me are very meaningful to them just aren’t to me. So my search for a faith community in some ways reinforces the sense of alienation and isolation I feel, and the sense that giftedness is a burden as much as a blessing.
As a child religion both comforted me and hurt me. My own theory is that gifted kids are more likely to be hurt by religion than other kids, because they are more likely to see the hidden messages. I believed that God wanted me to solve the problem of the bullying by acting the way he wants me to act. As a bright kid I could see that the flip sides of that, which were that the bullying not stopping was a sign that I wasn’t doing what God wants or that God wants me to suffer. A lot of religious books for children really emphasis trying to be good in a way that can be very harmful for a overthinking, perfectionist child.
What would you tell women who have only understood they are gifted now as an adult?
Do not underestimate yourself. Find what you want to do and do it.
What would you tell parents of gifted daughters?
Make sure your daughter learns how to stand up for herself.
Teach her to trust her interpretations of events. This is particularly important because a gifted kid is likely to be able to see multiple sides to an issue, so if you get them started doubting their own interpretation they can get easily lost in the complexity of things.
Challenge sexism, and doing so isn’t just a matter of saying “girls can be mechanics or anything else they want” it is a matter of looking for the subtle ways in which we communicate that girls have to be politer, more docile, more self-sacrificing, etc. Bright kids are going to internalize messages that other kids aren’t going to realize exist.
Find your daughter bright people to talk with. Find her people who can treat her as an equal, not make a big deal about how she’s smarter than them or anything. Give her a place where she doesn’t have to be an anomaly.
Christy writes at Christy’s Houseful of Chaos.