The day came and went and my heart is still heavy with grief for at times, it feels like our hearts are one. I am referring to the heart of my son because I have always been deeply attuned to his feelings. He recently tested for the Academic Centers for Chicago Public Schools for 7th and 8th grade (and beyond if you are lucky) and despite a stellar academic record and standardized test scores, he did not get accepted because he didn’t do as well on the test as he should have and it certainly didn’t help because we live in a Tier 4 neighborhood. This story is not just his but of countless of his classmates who did not get accepted to their first or second choices (or none at all). Hearing/watching the heart-wrenching experiences of these kids is no easier than watching a slow and deliberate train wreck.
Some of you (especially those of you that don’t reside in the city of Chicago), would wonder why so much emotion, so much grief for a seventh/eighth grade spot? It is so much more than that. This journey for us began a long time ago when we got on the CPS train. Once you are on it, it is really hard to get off.
I also realize I have been holding on to a secret of sorts and a part of me wants to unburden myself because I tend to grasp on to it rather tightly, almost like an armor of self protection, when it really doesn’t need to be. Hopefully as you read our story, this will soon become illuminated.
My son was born exactly on his due date and metaphorically; everything moving forward with him has been precise and ordered. When he was very little, he would line up his toys in a straight manner and insist on not only cleaning up when he was done playing at our home, but also when we visited friends. I thought I won the jackpot (I still believe I did) when he came into our lives. When he was little, I had friends (the benefit of having several friends in the mental health field) tell me how bright they thought he was. I would casually shake this off knowing that as a parent everyone thinks his or her child is the brightest, most beautiful star in the world. When he was a mere few weeks old, he flipped over from his back to his stomach. We watched in awe as his then tiny 6 lb. body did this. At our next pediatrician appointment, we told our pediatrician what had happened. She told us it was a fluke until he (as if on command) flipped over in her office as well! A few weeks after he turned two, I was driving in my neighborhood and was attempting to stop at a stop sign. Before I even reached the stop sign, my then two year old exclaims “Mama, S-T-O-P, Stop! You need to STOP!” You can imagine that this mama screeched into a halting stop and looked back at my son in disbelief, as he sat there casually playing with one of his car toys.
All the milestones were hit very early, crawling and pulling himself up all in the same day at a mere several months. I still was in denial of it but I had this feeling, a slight feeling that my son was different than others.
Finally enters the CPS process (which we started at 4). My son was born at the end of August, just days before the Illinois school cut off date of September 2nd. At age 4, we knew he was different but we couldn’t put a finger on it. He looked at life differently, literally carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, and was hyper-vigilant of his surroundings. Themes like poverty and hunger impacted him even more than I saw most adults being impacted. As we navigated through the kindergarten process, we knew that the neighborhood school would not meet his needs. My husband visited a well reputable neighborhood school in our community and asked how the school could meet our son’s needs. He was told that the curriculum could not be changed for him. The kids were learning their colors and alphabets and my son at age 4 was already an advanced reader and doing complex math problems in his Montessori preschool. We grappled with the choices that we had, one was to send him to the neighborhood school (and risk him being bored which we had already began to notice in certain situations), and one was to send him to a school that would attend to what we thought at the time were “unique” needs. We ended up applying to a suburban school geared toward gifted children. We didn’t have the financial resources and we certainly did not want to move way out in the suburbs but something about having a child with special needs changes everything.
We ended up applying to this school in the suburbs that worked with kids that were gifted. We didn’t know whether our son was gifted, we just knew that he was different. As a psychologist, at that point, I had been working with children in some capacity or the other for almost a decade. It was hard to see my child in an objective manner; I just knew that he was different and that as a parent, it was my job to meet his needs. The school out in the suburbs was a reach for us geographically and financially, but we became desperate parents wanting to help our kid. As part of the interview process, our son needed to be tested to determine whether he met the criterion of giftedness. Both my husband and I wanted to be so conscious of this being an unbiased test of his abilities that we chose someone from the list the school provided that was in the far suburbs who did not know him, and did not know us or the CPS process.
My husband accompanied my son to the test. My son was his usual cautious self, taking in his surroundings before immersing himself. When the psychologist took him inside, he separated easily and took all the time that he needed to complete the test. A couple of weeks later, we were called into the psychologist’s office to learn his results. As my husband and I sat down, I was nervous and concerned. Were we one of those parents that just thought our child was smart or was this really the case? Was there something wrong with him? When the doctor shared the results, I almost fell out of my chair. My son had tested in the very superior range of intellectual functioning and his scores were in the top 2% of 4-year-olds his age. It was not just a biased parent’s perspective, our son was truly gifted. This explained so much and we sighed a sigh of utter and absolute relief. A whole reality became available to us, one that we had denied and pushed down. I am not sure why we did this, but we did. The constant questions, the concern about the world around him, the hyper-sensitivity to his surroundings, pieces of the puzzle finally started fitting together.
From there on (and actually it started before that) we became the parents who would hide their child’s intelligence. We didn’t want to talk about it with other parents because inadvertently it led to awkward conversations. We would downplay certain aspects of his behavior. “No, he is not reading, he probably has that book memorized. He is just very sensitive. It takes him time to warm up. He worries too much and carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.” We said this not only to assure other people in our lives, but also to assure ourselves. At one time during a social gathering, a friend asked him to read for her, partly in awe and partly in disbelief as he effortlessly read the words from the book that was handed to him. For those of you that have these types of kids, you know exactly what I am talking about. It is like a secret club that you belong to and you only come out as a member when you encounter others that are similar to you. I wouldn’t call it shame but maybe self-protection or anonymity. Honestly, it is hard to put into words but it definitely felt different. I am also very much a parent that likes to praise our kids in private but don’t like to do so in a public forum. It’s not my style and I can blame it on my being Indian! I also feel like the gift of humility is what I can offer my child, and I never wanted him to feel as if he is better than anyone else because in my opinion, his intelligence is just one aspect of who he is, it doesn’t define him.
Fast-forward to just before age 5 and our son got accepted to Decatur Classical School, a selective enrollment school on the north side of the city. For some of you that live in Chicago, you know that getting into one of these schools is literally like winning the lottery. Thousands of kids apply to a limited number of spots yet so many brilliant kids, who don’t have the resources or knowledge, are left behind. Our son was one of the lucky ones.
On the first day of school, my tiny 5 year old that had just turned 5 a few days before school, walked into the school doors. At the time CPS did not norm for age in the testing process and the majority of the class was older than him. Still nervous and reserved, he eventually cried when he separated but he held his own and truly has, ever since.
It is hard to believe that almost 7 years later we are still in the same boat yet this time; we don’t have a definite school to go to in the Fall. My son coasted through Decatur. School was easy and at times, I desired a more challenging atmosphere for him. Still, because he was the youngest in the class and a hard-core perfectionist, we had challenges of our own. Decatur families provided a wonderful nurturing environment and many of his teachers also nurtured him and saw his unique qualities. The only time I saw my son work his tail off was during school projects. His perfectionism would get the better of him and he would be up way past his bedtime perfecting his work. I felt at times that his brain was racing ahead of his little body.
The CPS school system thus far has worked well for us but the lack of 7th and 8th grade has led to a system that is currently failing us. What am I am supposed to do for my child who coasted through an accelerated program? Despite his intelligence, he struggles with tests and there is a huge discrepancy between his intelligence on an objective test measure and the CPS test. None of his intellectual tests suggest that he has a learning disability but I suspect that something happens when he is in a group testing situation. Gifted kids tend to overcompensate on sub-tests to make concessions for areas that they may be relatively weak in. I don’t know the answers to all these questions, I just know that there seems to be an issue. Still, having a child who has high academic and cognitive needs may very much feel like a first world problem, but the reality is that it remains a very difficult one. I am constantly trying to assuage my perfectionist child, making sure that he sees failure not as a personal one but in this case, a systemic one. How can one test determine the future of my child when other aspects of his personality have not even been considered? Does CPS care that my child coasted through school with the best grades, is involved in a plethora of extra-curricular activities and continues to present not just as a stereotypical geek, but also a child who is well rounded. Student Congress co-president, a winner of the history fairs, Science Olympiad, the list continues. I want to strongly and emphatically clarify, this is not a ledger of my child’s attributes but more a declaration of how difficult this process is and how little control I have over it as a parent.
Nursing my child’s deeply wounded ego and self-esteem has been nothing short of an insurmountable, difficult task despite his resilience. Our family has always seen the silver lining. I would even venture to say, it is how we embrace life. We travel extensively and are very cognizant of how fortunate we are compared to the rest of the world. This week we were in Guatemala and saw a 4-5 year old child selling us goods. Early on in life, she knew how to negotiate not only for herself, but also for her family. My child will hopefully never have to experience such hardship and it is my hope that, no child ever will, but that is certainly not the reality for countless children. We know in the grand scheme of things that everything will be okay and that 7th and 8th grade (or school for that matter) will seem like a distant memory. As parents, we may even laugh at how much importance we put on it. What doesn’t change however is that moment when your child finds out that he/she did not make the cut, did not get recognized for all of their efforts. The moment when they are consumed with self-doubt and agony for not getting accepted to the school of their choice (especially when everything in the last several years at Decatur is geared for this very moment). It all comes crashing down. We can justify it cognitively and believe me, I have for the past several days, but what happens emotionally is inexplicable and while the rest seems inconsequential, it really isn’t. It creates a deep emotional wound and yes, it will be okay in the future but right now, it feels like utter crap.
It is hard for me to explain to my 11 year old that failure is inherent in life and that this isn’t his first setback, it certainly won’t be his last. But why engage in this unnecessarily insane dance when we have some control where our child ends up? The CPS system is inherently flawed but I don’t have a second’s regret of having both my children in two of the best schools in Illinois. What I have qualms about is that when you take these tests, a single test date determines how your child’s future will unfold. This is a systemic problem that many organizations deal with, not just CPS. Again, cognitively, we make sense of it, but emotionally building those pieces of your child’s ego back is no simple task. I am still trying to find these answers myself and as a family, this feels like a trying time. I also don’t envy the position that CPS is in but to me, it makes sense that all schools should be equipped with dealing with children with differing intellectual abilities and special challenges. Also, there are plenty of people who take advantage of this system and this feels unfair especially since I know how hard my husband and I work to make a good life for ourselves and our family.
Parents of gifted children have their hands full and the issues are somewhat different than those that are accelerated learners. Truth be told, I have often wished that my kids were more achievement oriented rather than gifted. You may think I am crazy but it brings on a whole different set of issues that are hard to contend with. My children think about the world often in black and white ways, they both are hard-core perfectionists, and at times it seems like they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. I say this not to garner sympathy or praise but to really explain how difficult it can be to parent such kids, especially in the face of rejection. This morning my 7 year old was practicing her keyboard on the lowest possible volume. When I ask her why she was doing that, she reported it was because when we hear her playing we would praise her for doing well, even though she knew that wasn’t the truth. These type of children are constantly putting themselves under a microscope and at times, it is difficult to discipline children that are already so hard on themselves. The issues are never-ending and vacillate from endearing to frustrating and everyday parenting seems like a work in progress and often a daunting task. I wouldn’t trade my amazing kids for anything but I want you to know how difficult this process can be and hopefully, I can appeal to other parents in similar predicaments.
This is the first time I am essentially “coming out” with this information. Barring my parents, I haven’t shared any of the details of our children’s cognitive abilities with anyone and in a sense, it feels like I am lightening my load by being so public about this. So, why now? Why put myself/my family out there like this? I believe it is because I have learned not only as a therapist, but also as a person that when we are hurting, connecting with others is paramount and hearing people’s experiences make us closer. Aside from our basic biological needs, isn’t that the ultimate goal for survival? I hope my disclosure is not met with judgment but with compassion for these very unique needs not just of my children, but for countless children who remain in a predicament where there are systemic challenges and little recourse on how to overcome them. For those of you that have shared your stories, I know how much you are hurting. I also know many of you that are part of this club that I am referring to and I hope that I speak to you as well. I know that I am not alone in this predicament and my heart hurts…literally, for people that have limited choices. Luckily, my husband and I are educated and have the emotional and financial resources to fight this battle but there are countless others who don’t.
I sincerely hope that you find your own voice (if you haven’t already) in this posting and reach out and connect with someone that may be having a hard time, with this process or with life. Building a community of experiences strengthens our alliance with one another and makes us stronger, happier individuals.
I know this much is true.