About twenty-four years ago, I screwed up the entrance test to Honors English. I remember it incredibly vividly. In the last week or two of eighth grade, some of my classmates and I were brought to the junior high cafeteria for tests in English and social studies to take tests that would determine if we were enrolled in honors classes in high school (the honors classes in math and science had already started in the seventh and eighth grades, respectively). The English test was done in two parts–a multiple choice exam and an essay–and I’m pretty sure we took it over two days.
I guess that detail’s not important; what is important, however, was the essay. The writing prompt was: “Using one of the books you have read in the last year, write a letter from a character.” There may have been a second part to it, but that was the gist of it. My favorite book from the last year or so had been Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon, which I had read in the fall and even though I was currently engrossed in the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, King’s fantasy novel was still my absolute favorite. So I wrote a letter from the point of view of one of the main characters and wound up being the first one out of the cafeteria. Little did I know that I’d sealed my high school fate.
I thought that the English teacher who’d picked up my essay had a weird look on his face when he was reading my essay but I didn’t think anything of it until my friends and I were talking about the test and I realized that “book you had read in the last year” meant book you had read for English class. I had not followed the directions and the following year found myself in Regents-level English where I stayed for the next four years. In Regents-level English, I was a solid B+/A- student. Looking at the numbers, it would appear that the class was the right fit; however, I often struggled to keep it a top priority and sometimes found myself unable to hide the feeling that I felt the class was beneath me. I was an honors student when it came to all of my other core classes and took AP classes and not being in honors English was an unjust black mark on my record. Why should I sit through classes that were going slower than I was with people who weren’t as smart as me, some of whom I couldn’t even stand?
Yeah, I realize that the last paragraph comes off as incredibly arrogant, and for what it’s worth I did my best to hide my disdain for some of my classmates, although there was that time when we were going over titles and authors to prep for the Regents exam and when a girl responded to my knowing Daniel Keyes wrote Flowers for Algernon with, “OMIGOD, how do you KNOW that?” I yelled, “God forbid we retain any information!” But all of this is exactly what I thought about when I read Jay Matthews’ recent Washington Post piece, “Why geniuses don’t need gifted education.” For at least the first three years of high school–senior English was actually awesome because most of my classmates were former honors students who didn’t want to take AP English–I wasn’t happy with my English class and carried a huge chip on my shoulder about messing up that honors entrance exam, convinced that had I been put in honors English I would have kicked its ass so hard.
Matthews falls into the typical trap of thinking that because gifted students don’t necessarily get something out of gifted programs, they don’t need their own spaces and will either enrich themselves on their own or their presence will bring everyone else up to their level. And while I think that differentiating instruction is an excellent concept, I know that I can speak for most of my colleagues when I say that it’s often extraordinarily difficult, especially given the lack of time we often have to prepare said differentiated instruction and that it doesn’t always bridge the differences in behavior within such a classroom. I have lost count of the number of students I have sent to advanced English the following year because I wanted them to have a more challenging class, knowing that despite my efforts to stimulate them I often was distracted by the immature tomfoolery of lower-achieving students. Some, I’m sure, were as resentful of their peers as I was in high school sometimes.
If extraordinarily smart or even above-average students are going to feel like they’re getting their money’s worth (so to speak), they need to be given the chance to be around other students like themselves. Yes, that sounds like I’m putting down lower-achieving students as if they’re not worthy of being in the presence of “the smart kids.” But if you look at it from the other angle, the smart kids don’t often feel like they’re pulling up others; instead, they feel dragged down. They want to be stimulated by how their peers challenge them intellectually, not annoyed by how their peers challenge the teacher behaviorally. Of course, I don’t know everything here (actually, my lack of credentials should tell you that I don’t know much about anything) but I do know that those who think like Matthews (and there are way too many of them out there) make the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and the result may be leaving behind those students who could make a real impact on their school communities.
Oh, one more thing before I go and that has to do with the personal history that started this post. Although I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder in high school when it came to Honors English, I did my best to internalize it because I blamed myself for not being in that class and really beat myself up for not following the directions on that test. I also didn’t advocate for myself by asking my guidance counselor what I had to do to get into the Honors English class. I guess that I assumed I was done the minute I entered high school and if I wasn’t, the magical Honors fairy (or maybe my guidance counselor) would see my worth and put me there. And since I would have rather undergone invasive surgery without anesthesia than get my parents involved in situations like that, it was all on me and I eventually learned that often you have to take the initiative, even if that’s just asking the right questions. Which is something that I’m still learning, of course.
But I am not a victim of “the system” in any way; in fact, I took full advantage of what my high school had to offer in just about every other area and am very grateful for my education. I just wanted that to be noted.