I am not weird, I am gifted

“Samudra” (meaning ocean in Hindi) is the name we chose to give our son at the time of his birth 9 years ago. Little did we realize that our bundle of joy would in years to come truly live up to his name and bring into our lives a tumult that we are still reeling under. Just like the ocean, his presence has colored our seemingly ‘ordinary’ lives with myriad hues and moods – at times calm and gentle, at times as stormy and voracious, sometimes deep, dark, mystic and mysterious and at times playful and teasing and downright hilarious! So much so, that our lives have become anything but ‘ordinary’. More of a rollercoaster – and the feeling that we are never getting off! (don’t take me otherwise: I love my little boy to the moon and back, but there are days, when I fervently wish, pray, and even hope for the ‘ordinary’. Just. for. a. few. moments. )

But it is not to be. For Sam, like millions across the world, is a ‘gifted’ child. There, I’ve said it. That dreaded word. Yes, yes dreaded. Much like a disease (oh yes, there are many who have looked at us as if Sam’s contracted some deadly virulent disease and should be locked up or kept away till he is cured!!). Elitist, misunderstood, and hanging like Damocles’ sword over us.
(For the want of a better word, and much against my desire to label or tag any living being I will nevertheless, use it in the writing of this blog – for now.)

It’s a word that, till about five years ago, I was (like millions of people/parents) vaguely familiar with. But the reality of it, and its foibles, hit us when Sam started kindergarten. Wham! Just like that. One fine day, when the kindergarten teacher called us to discuss his classroom behavior and ‘other things’. And she was one of the kinder, more ‘enlightened’ ones, we soon found out. She pointed out his exceptional abilities in the classroom and suggested we see a specialist to well, check his IQ. She had, so to say, seen the ‘spark’. Hadn’t we? Of course we had. Like when he recognized the color blue at 7 months. And all colors and their shades by 11 months. Like when he learned to speak English by himself in 2.5 weeks listening to his favorite TV shows on BBC. When he learned to read fluently at around 4 years by himself. Or when he discussed time travel and the Theory of Relativity at age 6. These were just some ‘sparks’ that caught our attention and promised to fill our days and nights with brilliance or electrocute us just as brilliantly! Especially since I remember when he first stepped into Kindergarten, put one step on the threshold, and with one intense look at his welcoming (read unsuspecting) teacher and proclaimed: “I am not going to be listening to you!”

Yep! It’s been more than five years since that day. The social niceties are still a struggle, if not dispensed with altogether. Heck anything that comes within the definition of ‘social’ norms, or parental (societal) rules, laws, are NOT to be followed. NOT unless there is logic to it, I will simply not abide just because YOU (that could include parents, teachers, or any figure of authority) say I have to! This is a lesson we learned early in our parenting. All that we knew or had seen, or been told about traditional parenting strategies (that generations had grown up with) had to be just locked up and thrown out the window!

Then came the intensities of emotion, and the overexcitabilities (as they are technically called). It’s like you take an emotion – like joy or anger; multiply it to the power thousand and before you know it you are staring into what could become a potential exploding supernova! No, not a meltdown, let me clarify. Just intensity. And anxiety (Are we lost, Mummy? No, no Sam we are just figuring out the route. What’s going to happen now Papa? Are we going to be lost forever? Are we going to be spending the night on the road? Or I am having a tummy ache. Am I going to be sick again? Shall I take XYZ medicine? I will never be able to eat chocolate again! Or is it going to rain today? What if I get wet? Enjoy it then darling! I don’t enjoy it! I need to take my umbrella!). And extreme excitability. We either just LOVE it or HATE it with extreme passion. No greys there.

We had to sink or swim. And swim we did. The past few years have seen us read, research, or collaborate with anything and everything related to giftedness. We’ve poured over books, research papers, theses, met and spoken with experts around the world, collaborated with online communities, parents of other gifted children and support groups – all with the single purpose of making some sense of this new world we are now permanently a part of. And if there is something that I have learned in this unbelievable journey is that it is a beautiful world – not an easy one for sure, not one I would have asked for, but incredibly beautiful nonetheless.

For me, the beauty is this little soul who has these exceptional abilities (and doesn’t know it, yet) that makes each day a wonder, a delight, and a new adventure. His remarkable ability to question what is. And isn’t. (oh yes, the questions are fired 24×7. At us, at teachers, at grandparents or whoever is patient enough to answer till he is satiated) His ability to not blindly accept what is a given, to challenge and push boundaries. The ability to think, and create wonders with the power of his imagination. The ability to use logic and reasoning to solve life’s little mysteries. The ability to push the envelope. Not accept status quo. And most astounding of all: the ability to learn anything and everything with little prodding. As one of his teachers’ recently observed: “Sam is like a sponge, soaking in everything around him.” Remarkably true. A sponge with a slightly defective filter (that’s the asynchronous bit, which I will be talking about at length in a later post). But with a beautiful soul nonetheless.

A soul that has so much to give. A soul with so much passion, it takes my breath away. It makes my job rather difficult (to say the least). Because at the heart of it, he is still a 9 year old. A precocious one no doubt, but still a child.  With the intellect of a 15 year old for sure but the heart and emotions of a 5 year old! Did I say difficult? I did, didn’t I? Insurmountable on certain days. Herculean on others. To ensure that we (yes we: me and you) give him a fighting chance. To ensure that his ‘gift’ is not lost in the desire to ‘fit in’ to what is and isn’t socially acceptable. To ensure that the learning and the questions never stop. To ensure that he gets equal opportunities to live a life that is his own. To ensure that he is accepted for what he is, and not what we expect him to be. And most difficult of all. To ensure that his spirit – with all the intensities and the emotions and the social awkwardness – stays pure. Against all odds. And believe me when I say this: The odds are heavily against Sam, and against us. And against the thousands like him. Especially here. Especially now. The battle, or rather the adventure (depends which way you choose to look at it) has just begun.

 

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Admission makes strange bedfellows!

And so it begins. The journey of life – for my son as he is about to go to formal school (well, he is currently going to a play school but that’s not the same thing, is it?) And for me – one of the most anxious moments of parenthood as I go about selecting the right school for my son. Well, the second-most anxious moment, come to think of it. The first was when we discovered that my son had elevated thyroids levels at birth and that it could seriously affect his mental health.  But thanks to timely detection, it all turned out well in the end. Just as I know this will too. But till it does, it is turning out to be quite a roller-coaster ride!

“It’s all so confusing!” remarked a much-harried friend who is seeking admission to nursery for her daughter as well. As we swapped stories, we tried to make some sense of the madness that was around us. But at the end of the hour-long chat we still had no answers, only more questions. The one that had been nagging me (and quite a few equally harried parents) from the time my son was about two years old: How do you know which is the ‘right’ school for your child?  And wait that is not all of it! Even if you did happen to stumble upon the answer, how do you ensure that your child gets admitted into your dream school?

Believe it or not, it is in search for these elusive answers that most parents around me (yes, including me, I’d admit albeit grudgingly) have done things that they would not ordinarily do. But then these are not ordinary circumstances and times like these call for tough (read desperate, if not downright extreme measures!) Foes have become friends, friendship has blossomed where previously there was none, and alliances have been forged (and you thought politics makes strange bedfellows!).  They’ve struck up conversations with so-called strangers at parties or even called long-lost friends, friends of friends, relatives of friends’, colleagues, friends and relatives of colleagues, neighbors, and relatives and so on and so forth. They have joined online communities and forums for parents seeking admission to nursery, struck up inane conversations on Facebook, or even taken the boss’ twice-removed cousin out for coffee. All in the hope of getting some much-longed for answers (and also, the kind of questions that are asked at school interviews).

But I digress. I couldn’t help it. Just log on to one of the parent forums and you’ll see the kind of frenzy I am talking about.

Coming back to my question: How do you know which is the right school for your child? (This question may not be applicable for those who had the privilege of studying in some of the finest schools in the country. For them, the story ends right here. Or maybe not.) Funnily enough, it was a question I had asked a family friend (who happens to be a school teacher) out of sheer curiosity sometime back. Her answer was simple: go with your instincts, you’ll know.

Hmm. I got my instincts working overtime when I did the mandatory rounds of schools in the city. The fancy shmancy ones (with the central air-conditioning and color-coordinated potties) I had no patience for. The so-called progressive schools or experiential learning schools seemed too idealistic and were yet to convince me. The ones that had some kind of legacy (and there were just a couple in my city) – the wholesome, no-nonsense, honest-to goodness ones – well, let’s just say it would be easier to get into Fort Knox! And the missionary/convent schools – well, there were none. Nope, not a single one. Where did that leave me? Do I put my son’s life (or least the next 12-13 years of it) in the hands of half a dozen shining, brand new schools that have mushroomed overnight in the millennium city, in the hope that they will make a man out him eventually? Oh wait, that’s my job, isn’t it? Okay, so give him the kind of education that he deserves?

After much thought, (discussions on the dinner table, heated debates and arguments too) we narrowed our choices down to just a couple of schools, two of them not even in the millennium city. And that was the easy part.

The tough part was yet to come. Now that I know which school to send my son how do I assure his admission? With every school following its own system (RTE be damned!) it’s almost like a game of roulette! The only answer I got to this one was from an old friend who refused to join the admission madness for his younger son. (He has just applied to the one school where the older sibling is studying) So exasperated was he with the entire process that he is willing to take a chance this time round. He summed it up for me in one word: sycophancy.  Alright, before we put on our moral hats and get all judgmental, let’s just step back and think for a minute. However much we hate to admit it, he may be right.

The question is: why should I, or any parent, have to resort to sycophancy or curry favors or even learn roulette for something as basic as educating my child? Whatever happened to the good old system of just walking into your neighborhood school, meeting the principal and well, just paying up? That’s it. The entire process took a couple of hours, not 3-5 months. That’s how it worked for me, and my sister, and our cousins. For my hubby too. Or maybe that’s how it’s always been played; all I need to do is learn the rules of the game.

While you are figuring this one out it’s time for me to go roll the dice! Jokes apart, some thoughts on this would be welcome. I am curious to know – from parents who have already walked down this road, and those who have yet to: just how do you do it?

Hey, Mr. Teacher!

A few days ago, I was having lunch with a couple of school mates and one of my high school teachers. She happened to be one of my favorites in senior school and taught me Political Science – a subject I dreaded till I took her classes! (I’ll come to that later.) It was indeed lovely meeting her after so many years (close to two decades, I’d imagine!) – you know that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you meet certain people.

Anyhow, she hadn’t changed much – she was just as spirited and passionate as she had been when I was younger. And she still treated us very much like adults and individuals in our own right (as she had when we were school kids.) I mean, when I look back, I can only imagine how challenging it must have been to keep a group of raucous, hormone raged teenagers hooked to her lectures! But she did.

Maybe because of the beautiful stories she used to weave into her lectures. Or maybe because she was just different. (At least she did not think that we did not know what we were talking about and she did listen to what we had to say, which I must say made us feel pretty good!)  Whatever it was, it worked. My grades remained pretty good because of her, I am sure of it, as did my love for the subject. In fact, she was perhaps one of those rare teachers who taught us to think for ourselves, to look beyond the classroom and the books.

Good teachers, come to think of it, do that to you. They leave you with much more than just knowledge. Though you may not realize it at the time, they shape your lives in more ways than one, and their words stay with you long after the lessons are over.

The special ones have the ability to recognize your talent and the vision to nurture it. Just like fifteen-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen’s primary school teacher. She took special notice of her pupil’s exceptionally large hands and feet and realized that the girl had what it takes to be a winner. For all the brouhaha over China’s ‘medal factories’, it paid off. At the age of 16, Ye Shiwen has not only set a new world record, she has become a poster girl for aspiring swimmers. (Yes, I am aware that teachers in China are trained to spot school kids with special physical attributes, who are then packed off to training camps –  but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it? If anything, it proves that there is at least a will to nurture excellence.)

It makes me wonder. Do we (at least in India’s current education system) have teachers who are capable or even equipped to spot talent? And if at all, are they even bothered to do something with it? Are they willing to look beyond the ordinary, to go that extra mile? Or are they willing to settle for mediocrity (as they have been doing for years) as long as the syllabus is complete and the grades are good? Are they ready to break the mold and create winners?

These are some thoughts that come to my mind. Partly because of that stimulating conversation over lunch; and partly because my son is about to enter school life and thus begin a new chapter in his life. As a mother, I truly wish for it to be a positive and enriching one.