Why Are We OK with Calling Some Kids Gifted and Talented and Others Not?
This is one of my more humiliating middle-school memories: I’m wearing a vintage Victorian
dress with a tight neckline that’s nearly choking me to death. My sweaty fingers are clutching a
piece of fudge, smearing chocolate all over the white lace. It’s sixth grade and I’m eleven years
old, doing my best to survive my Gifted and Talented class’s field trip to Galveston, Texas.
Please pardon the humble-brag. Yes, I was in the G&T program, but I don’t remember feeling
particularly Gifted as I trudged around with my classmates to see Galveston’s historic Victorian
buildings, dressed in suffocating historic garb and sweating bullets. The only thing that felt
Gifted about that day, as I remember, was the fudge, which we got to sample at the town’s old-
fashioned candy shop. Another G&T memory I can’t shake: Watching my classmate Matt’s mom
make latkes for Hannukkah on a portable stovetop. I’d never had latkes before and I’ve
daydreamed about them ever since. I’m not sure anyone has ever made latkes better than she
did that day.
My takeaways from Gifted and Talented class pretty much all revolve around food. Buckminster
Fuller’s geodesic dome made less of an impression; it wasn’t edible, for one thing. Ditto the
time when my classmate’s dad, an inventor, came in to show us how to make wacky shapes out
of wire hangers and pantyhose. If memory serves (it doesn’t), we had other stimulating
activities that surely expanded my mind in ways I’ll never fully understand. What seems highly
dubious is that only so-called “Gifted and Talented” kids should’ve had access to any of those
lessons. What’s even more dubious is the practice of anointing one group of kids as Gifted, and
implying that everyone else is not.
The idea of separating out the “Gifted and Talented” is taking a beating lately, and deservedly
so, for its dubious methodologies and for reinforcing racial and economic inequalities, among
other issues. My mom, a retired teacher, always cringed at the G&T label, and she only
grudgingly signed me up for the program. At the time, I didn’t understand why she hated the
whole G&T thing so much (hello? We get to eat fudge?!), but now that I have two young kids, I
Still, my husband and I have to make a decision soon: Will our four-year- old son, currently in
PreK at a public school in Brooklyn, take the G&T test? The dilemma is screaming out at me
from my inbox, which is getting spammed by mass emails from the Department of Education
about the upcoming test. I’m tempted to delete them, but I’m also wondering whether parents
of kids at crowded public schools should jump on any chance to give their kids a more
stimulating experience if it’s available. What that entails in reality is harder to pin down, and
the NYC Department of Education’s latest Gifted and Talented Handbook, all 60 pages of it,
makes no attempt to explain what the program might actually involve. All it says is that “though
G&T programs vary in terms of instructional strategies and materials, they all deliver specialized
instruction.” Oh, ok. Thanks.
But let’s say for the sake of argument that the G&T program is worthwhile, and that the
instruction it delivers does stimulate and challenge some academically advanced kids in ways
they might not otherwise experience. Let’s say that parents might as well sign up their children
for the test. Can we at least get rid of that horrible name?
Calling a program “Gifted and Talented” automatically suggests that any kid who doesn’t get in
is not. “Sorry, lady, but your son is not Gifted and Talented.” Why are we allowing this to
happen to parents? I’d be lying if I said I don’t care if my kid passes the test or not. He may not,
and I know I shouldn’t care, because the latest research stresses the impact of mindset and
hard work over intelligence-test results. But what I do know is that neither I nor anyone else I
know ever wants to be told, even implicitly, that our baby is not gifted or talented.
Every kid is gifted in some way, right? Can we all agree on that? Even if a kid isn’t showing signs
of academic potential beyond his or her grade level, that kid is surely not lacking any gifts, or
any reason to get out of bed in the morning. So if there’s any case to be made for offering a
more challenging curriculum to public school kids who are ready for it—even if participation in
no way predicts future success or, most important of all, happiness—we need a less misleading,
less insulting label.
How about a more direct, clinical, even boring way of describing what “G&T” tries to convey:
Academically Ahead of Grade, for example: AAG? Admittedly, it’s not catchy, but at least a label
like that sounds way less traumatizing if denied. And changing the name is just a start: School
districts need to take a much harder look at the racial and economic factors that play a skewed
role in test results, and in who gets to unfairly benefit from programs like G&T.
For now, let’s begin with a campaign (email! phone! social media!) to get the G&T name
changed: That should be an achievable goal for the short term.
As for my family’s decision about whether to register our son for the test: I want to boycott it to
make a statement, even though the DOE couldn’t care less if I do. But I worry that the hope of
having our kid sail through the exam, and participate in whatever wondrous programming (and
snacks) it might theoretically afford, will win the day.
And if he doesn’t pass? We’ll just go out for some consolation cocktails that night with other
parents whose kids sadly lack any gifts or talents. The first round of G&Ts is on us.
Salma Abdelnour is a Brooklyn-based mom of two, and a former editor at Food & Wine, iVillage,
and O, the Oprah Magazine. She is the founder of the new site Crunch Time Parents, aimed at
anyone who is starting a family (or thinking about it) after age 35.