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The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part II

Part of a series on truth-telling in life and art. See the first post, Dare to Be Yourself, here.

This post follows on from The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part I.

I started trying to pass for normal before I had any idea I was gifted. All I knew was that I was different and that different was bad. I have no memory of the beginning of the process. All I know is a story my parents tell, one that in retrospect shows a problem that nobody thought to address. For decades, this story has been told as an example of how clever I was. It is only now as an adult, going through the process of recognizing my own identity that I see it as a cautionary tale.

I was born in England and attended early school there. My father took a sabbatical in the U.S. when I was 5 and I started Kindergarten. I was one of two students who entered Kindergarten already reading and my only memory from that year is of the two of us lying on the floor by the coat cubbies reading while the other students learned the letters of the alphabet.

The story my father tells goes like this.

“Kate has always been a talker. Once she started, there was no stopping her. At the first parent-teacher conference in Kindergarten, we were shocked to learn that Kate never spoke up in class unless directly asked a question by the teacher. She was still talking up a storm at home. ” Pause, accompanied by facial expression conveying confusion. “The next time we met with her teacher, it was a different story. Kate was talking at school the way she talked at home – but in an American accent. She had waited to talk until she had mastered the local dialect.”

I was 5 and I was hiding myself to fit in. It is a habit I am still trying to break.

As a teenager, the disconnect between my deep truths, the truths I let myself be aware of, and the facade I was presenting to the outside world became unmanageable and I suffered an existential crisis. In the midst of that crisis, I found the ground of my being, and moved forward, but it certainly looked like all was lost for some time.

If my life were a novel, that crisis would have been the final turning point where I rallied and strode forward into the fight that would lead to the novel’s resolution. But life is messier than art. In life, the protagonist doesn’t always make the choice to fight. And, resolution is not assurred. But, that turning point is the place in my memories that I need to access in order to write about the descent into deep crisis that will push my protagonist into change.

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The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part I

Part of a series on truth-telling in life and art. See the first post, Dare to Be Yourself, here.

“Passing” is a term from the history of racial discrimination in the post Civil-War United States. At the end of this post is a little more information about that context. I apologize in advance to anyone who thinks I am being insensitive to the history of the word in using it in the context of this post. 

Gifted girls face enormous pressure to be more average than they are. Because giftedness is not a visible difference from the norm, they have the option to do this.

“Because of their enhanced ability to perceive social cues and their early conditioning about the critical importance of social acceptance, gifted girls are much more adept than gifted boys at imitation….They fit in by pretending to be less capable than they really are, disappearing into the crowd.” – Linda Silverman, Counseling the Gifted and Talented

This leads to under-identification of the giftedness in girls:

“By the age of 9, highly gifted children may hit the ceiling of the tests, and gifted girls may be socialized to hide their abilities.  Unless they are absolutely certain they are right, gifted girls are often unwilling to guess, which lowers their IQ scores.”Linda Silverman, What We have Learned About Gifted Children

Highly gifted teens who suffer existential depression are at an unacceptably high risk for suicide and are adept at hiding their troubles from everybody. Because these teens often present as highly successful, they are very hard to help once they have started suffering. They have also generally learned to distrust adults and are suspicious of proffered help. Prevention is key in helping these children. And that means identifying them early and helping them see their own true colours. And, we must listen to them and take them seriously.

“Gifted people often adjust what they say so that they will be accepted. They sometimes feel that other people do not take them seriously. This can lead to not trusting themselves. Careful listening can also be a lifeline. It can convince children that there is someone who thinks that they are valuable and worth understanding.” Betty Meckstroth

**A Note About Passing

In American usage, “passing” without further reference to what one is passing as refers specifically to light-skinned black people assimilating into the white community to avoid racial discrimination. When explicit discrimination was law, any traceable mixed-ancestry qualified a person as coloured. This meant that a sizable portion of people legally identified as coloured could “pass” for white if they left the communities where their family history was known. What I know of the psychological experience of passing in this context comes from literature, in particular two books I read in my law school class on the legal regulation of intimate interracial relationships, Passing, by Nella Larson and Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy who Discovered He was Black, by Gregory Howard Williams.

Passing involved isolating oneself from one’s family, denying one’s ancestry, and constantly living in fear of being found out. For some people, it was the better of two evils, but it was an awful way to live.

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