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An Unwanted Gift

I pressed the refresh arrow at the top of the page over and over again, hoping that maybe things would change if I just kept re-opening the window. How could my score have gone down? How could I have gotten a subscore of 22 on math? The private tutoring, time and money didn’t improve my score on a test that was supposed to measure just basic skills.

I was supposed to be a “gifted” student, but the third time was not the charm for me. Gifted students don’t score below 30 on their third ACT. I didn’t feel like the smart kid people always pegged me to be. I hadn’t felt like that since freshman year.

All my life, friends, parents and teachers have told me I was bright. I was smart. I was “gifted.” I mastered the alphabet early into preschool. I was always in the advanced group when we read paperback books in Kindergarten. All throughout elementary and middle school getting A’s was like breathing to me.

I started off in Enhanced Learning in elementary school, then SEEK (Students Examining and Experiencing Knowledge) in middle school, then on to “Gifted” at East, I followed the special education program the district offered for advanced learners like me. When I was seven years old, someone stuck me on a conveyor belt, stamped my forehead with the word “gifted,” and moved me along the line.

And I cursed that stupid label as I sat there refreshing my ACT score, over and over again last month. Tears welled in my eyes as I pictured scholarship money Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 1.13.08 PMdiminishing, and doors to elite schools closing when they saw my results.

That label I was given when I was seven haunts me still today. I don’t feel gifted. Sure, I feel intelligent, but nothing special. Many of those “regular” classmates from elementary and middle school have surpassed me in high school.

But my problem is a lasting one. The gifted and talented system I entered into in second grade made me believe I was some kind of child genius. But when I was set up for greatness in the second grade, there’s only so far up I could go before I peaked and fell back down.

I’m not in the top 10 percent of my class, I don’t have a 4.5 GPA and I didn’t even break 30 on my ACT. But my standards are still impossibly high. I may not be one of the smartest kids anymore, but its not in my nature to accept failure, or even average.

I only want to excel, and I have learned time and time again that sometimes it just isn’t possible. Sometimes, my best work is not A work, but C work, and thats all I can hope for. Sometimes, I just cannot wrap my head around how to solve a quadratic equation or how to balance a reaction in chemistry.

These “failures” as I referred to them by my standards were not actually failures at all, but problems with my mindset. Problems that stemmed from teachers, parents and friends all telling me I was “smart,” and me never knowing why I was smart. What made me smart? I always thought it was the test scores. The 95s and 100s. Thats what I always measured my intelligence with.

I equated the letter grade or percentage with intelligence rather than the process and learnings I gained from the assignments. This false ideal has only held me back.

It’s caused me endless bouts of anxiety and stress. It’s caused me to be a person that sometimes I’m not proud of: an overly intense, overly hard on herself person, not characteristic of your normal 17-year-old. Let’s face it, when I began drinking coffee in the 7th grade, that should have been a red flag.

Researchers at Columbia University found that children who are praised for their intelligence — rather than what they actually did to seem intelligent — were more likely to be overly-focused on results. Like me, they only see the big red grade mark, and not the skills they are learning, or even the material they are being tested over.

These children were praised for their intelligence, rather than their effort. If they did fail at an activity, these children persisted less, were more prone to quit and enjoy the task less after that point. These children attributed their failure to inability, which they believed they could not change, and in turn performed poorly in the future.

The conclusion of the study showed that these children equated failure with stupidity. I was one of those children.

If a grade wasn’t an A or B, it was an F in my mind. I would immediately get back an essay and look for the points and the letter grade. I needed the validation that I did something right, rather than focusing on the carefully-scrawled commentary by my teacher in the margins.

I would obsessively ask for grade print-outs from teachers, and not ask for help on the material. Why? Because I was result-driven. I was just like those kids in the study. I always thought I was smart was because I got As, because I was taking classes like SEEK and EL, not because of creative ability or the way I was able to make connections or analyze things.

It’s taken me over 10 years of formal schooling to finally realize my major fault. It may be my senior year, and the grades I agonized over for three years might be water under the bridge now. Even with half of my applications sealed and sent out to college, it is never too late for personal growth.

I may not fit the “gifted” mold I was told that I was when I was seven, but after sending that ACT score out to all my schools, I realized it didn’t matter. What did matter in the end was the learning, the commentary and the criticism. Not the percentages — not what I’d conditioned to believe were the true markers of my intelligence.

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Sophie Tulp

Junior Sophie Tulp is Assistant Editor and Business and Advertising Manager for The Harbinger. Tulp is also involved at East as a Varsity cheerleader. When she is not spending hours in the J-room, Tulp is a coffee enthusiast, recreational reader and professional speed walker. Read Full »

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