Posted by: eileenandrory | September 7, 2010

What do we do about the Bright Lights??

Most of you will know that my son started school recently, indeed, three and a half weeks ago to be precise.  Most of you will also know that he’s a pretty smart cookie.  I was full of trepidation about the schooling system and I will freely admit to anyone I talk to about it that a lot of that comes from baggage about my experiences in the ‘SYSTEM’.  I’m not being arrogant in saying that I was a smart kid, sometimes I still am :), but in the 1980s difference was discouraged and all kids had to be somewhat the same.  So even though my parents advocated hard I wasn’t allowed to skip a year.  I am one of those unfortunate children who through the accident of their own birth end up in the no mans land of the middle months of the year.  Born in May I was deemed too late to go into the equivalent of Year 1.  This meant I had 18 months of Year 1.  That’s cruel punishment for a child who could already read by the time she started school.  This sort of thing followed me no matter which school I went to, and I went to a lot of different schools, 4 primary schools to be precise.  It even continued through Intermediate and High School.  At Intermediate I was fortunate enough to be able to study French in both years.  However my High School refused to recognise that and put me into another first year of French.  As I got older and socialised more with the other schools I began to notice interesting anomalies.  The two local boys schools happily advanced students into classes that catered to their abilities and were not hung up on the age of the pupil.  The two local girls schools, one of which I was at, had no such program available.  To a budding feminist this was red rag to a bull and to this day I still do not understand the rationale behind this discrepancy.  I was quick to notice that our school had even set up a discriminatory system whereby regional sporting champs and national sporting champs were granted the privilege of being able to wear a different coloured jersey to school.  When I did the unthinkable at age 14, and sent a letter to the NZ Herald about how schools value sports over academics, and cited the different coloured jerseys as an example, I was hauled into the Principal’s office so quickly I don’t think my feet hit the floor.  I got a right bollocking and was told that end of year prizegiving was for the academic activities.  I was too terrified to remind the principal that sporting trophies were ALSO given out then.  My one ray of sunshine in all of this was that several teachers came to me separately over the next few weeks and told me that secretly they agreed with me.

I was also unfairly picked on at school for being bright, I hasten to add that this only happened once I moved to Auckland, prior to that in Wellington till the age of 8 I was perfectly happy in my schools, I was even ‘popular’ simply because I was bright.  I have no idea if that would have changed in later years in Wellington, but once I moved to Auckland my schooling schema came crashing down around my ears.  I remember vague unease at the first Primary school I went to, but it was nothing specific.  By the time I hit my second primary school and was still achieving well and not hiding it I realised that I had made a monumental mistake.  I was not one of the impossibly tall, blonde haired, blue eyed, North Shore Daddy’s girls who went sailing every weekend, were stars of the netball court and who knew words (bad words) that I had never heard before.  Nope, and within a couple of weeks I was filed, classified and labelled ‘geek’ for the rest of my school days.  It happened that fast, and let me assure you the North Shore can be a crushing environment for kids who don’t fit ‘that’ mould.  I guess the death knell of any social success I might have had came when I proudly wore the bright pink pen on a rope that my Aunt had given me at Christmas on my first day at High School.  There are some things that parents really should not let their kids do no matter how much they want to.

So yes, I have baggage, but I know that I have baggage and I can deal with it.  I was a geek and I never wanted the same thing to happen to my children.  Sure, I wanted them to be bright, but I never wanted them to be social outcasts because of it.  It was early on that I knew Castor was bright.  I have a friend who doesn’t want to know that her son is bright – because she doesn’t want him to repeat the same sort of life she had – I guess the fear of being a social outcast because of your brain can have a pretty high cost.  Anyway, I knew he was bright and I wanted to encourage that, not push it, but encourage that.  So, in looking at how he hated change and how bright he was I did my homework and decided that Montessori was best for him, and it was.  He thrived in the Montessori environment and was catered to at a pace that he could work to.  There was no class curriculum that had to be stuck to, if he had an interest in something then he was encouraged in that area.  There were many times that other parents, one in particular, tried to hassle me for being a ‘pushy’ parent.  I have never been, nor do I ever want to be a pushy parent.  Children will only learn and enjoy what they want to learn.  If Castor wanted to read something or showed an interest in an area then we went to the library and we encouraged that.  We didn’t then sit down and test the poor kid on it.  One thing we did notice was that Castor didn’t show the slightest inclination towards being physically gifted.  If truth be told when it comes to kicking a ball he probably has two left feet and ask him to catch a ball and he probably couldn’t half the time.  This worried me, and it worried Rory.  We both knew the social stigma attached to not only being bright, but not being sporty in a country like New Zealand is a death sentence.  Perhaps we didn’t encourage him enough to be outside, but in some ways you can only lead a horse to water, and if he really preferred that to reading his books he would have been hassling us about it, and he never did.

I wonder whether had we noticed that he did have a good kicking foot and did put him into football at a young age whether I would have received unwelcome comments from other well meaning parents too.  Other parents wondering if I was pushing him too hard?  I could be wrong, but somehow I don’t think so.  The pushy parent phenomenon seems to be reserved (at least at this age) to those who extend and encourage their children into academic areas.  I was even told explicitly, on many occasions, to not encourage him at all, because then he would have nothing to learn at school.  What kind of twisted logic is that?  Child show’s interest in something that is good for them and the parent says no, you can’t?  Do parents of kids who can kick a ball at an early age get this kind of advice?  I don’t think so.

Back to the here and now, after seeing and being told about his abilities by his Montessori teachers I was understandably concerned about Castor starting school. Like me he was a kid who would have to start in the middle of the year and do a few months of ‘Year 0’ and then go into ‘Year 1’.  That thought terrified me.  I chose the school well, and I have to say that on the whole they have been a whole heap better than other schools I hear about.  Had there been a local Montessori though I would have happily gone there instead.  However I still have to watch myself and be concerned about what I say and who I say things to.  There seems to be an overwhelming concern by the educational establishment about bright kids and their ability to socialise.  So many people have told me that he needs to settle in and make friends etc etc to the point where it’s just annoying.  I know that’s true, but in some ways it smacks of ‘bright automatically equals social retard’.  I wonder how much of the ‘bright social retard’ is the bright person, and how much is because we assume that the bright have to be retarded in some way, so it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.  So, for the other children who are not (and I am not being arrogant here) as advanced as Castor, when they start school they get learning AND socialisation.  When my boy starts school he just focuses on socialisation because he already has a head start?  Hang on a minute, that’s not overly fair.

What do we do about the Bright Lights then?  How do we as parents help them?  Why is it that I can brag happily to other parents to their face or on Facebook about how my son got Player of the Match or Season or whatever, but people start to cringe if I say to other parents that my son is only 5 and has a reading age of seven and a half and an equivalent age in Maths?  Why is there a difference and why is it assumed that I might have done something wrong??  Surely I should be allowed to share my joy in my children in the same way that others do?  Well, in that regard I don’t think much has changed in the last 30 years.  New Zealand is still stuck with it’s head in the sand about our Bright Lights and we wonder why we have an exodus of our brightest overseas once they exit university.

How do we feed our bright lights instead of watching them fade?  We start with acknowledging their existence and accepting the fact that there are some naturally gifted children out there, even IF they are not our own.  This is not to detract from other children who may be equally talented in other areas, but we have to have a broad spectrum approach to our praise and not make it solely about the physical achievements of our young.

How is Castor doing at school?  Well, he is doing fine – at the moment.  His teacher has not fully acknowledged his abilities and I am running the risk of being seen by her as one of ‘those’ parents, but there are some sparks of hope there.  Other teachers know about his abilities and have been encouraging and he is not overly bored, not yet.  I’m not going away in a hurry, but I have to admit that schools scare me, they have not been kind to me and I still have that fear of ‘talking to the teacher’ even though I am an adult now and they are no longer my teacher.  I will however continue to advocate for him because my love for him is stronger than any fear I have of the educational establishment, I will not let his Bright Light go out, how could I possibly let that happen?  I can’t, I love him too much.  I would prefer not to be labelled as neurotic or pushy, but at this stage in my life when I have been called many many names for being different that sort of thing is starting to wear thin, besides, I would rather it was me than him.

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