LUCKY ME, I'M GIFTED
BY PRIYANKA DEWAN
If you ask me about my childhood, I’ll reply that it was happy. I won’t be able to share specific moments that illustrate my happy childhood. I simply don’t remember them. The moments I do remember are tainted with a series of numbers and labels never explained.
These moments trace back to my days in Manila, where I lived until I was eight. We lived in a big house midway up Recoletos St. The road sloped up on either side of our driveway, which flooded every time there was a storm. Perched on sturdy branches in our backyard was a tree house, just a bunch of wooden planks nailed together. It had crooked steps and a dangling rope, making it look from the outside as though it would collapse. From the inside, it felt indestructible.
One morning before school, I hid in the tree house. I was four. Our house was full of early morning noises–fried eggs sizzling on the pan for breakfast, my mother yelling at my brother to take a bath, my sister whining about swim practice. From my serene perch, I heard only one sound–my nanny’s voice shouting for my attention. I peered between the planks of the tree house and watched her look around furiously for me as my siblings waited impatiently by the car. When my hiding place was discovered, I was dragged down the clumsy steps of the tree house, my little body flung over her shoulder. I didn’t kick. I didn’t scream.
"Mama, I don’t want to go to school. It’s so boring!" I explained at my mother’s feet, using my four-year-old rationale. The car left that morning without me. I was a kindergarten dropout.
At four years old, I honestly believed I was not suited for classroom activities. Other kids in my class seemed to enjoy themselves doing the same activities each day. To me, school seemed so mundane and routine. I was always being told to draw or nap; draw, then nap. On one such occasion, Mrs. Angeles gave the class half an hour to draw whatever came to mind. At the end of our time, as she collected our masterpieces, she noticed that my paper remained blank. "Priya, why didn’t you draw anything?" she asked in her angelic tone.
"I did," I replied contently.
"There is nothing on your paper," she prompted.
I paused for a moment before giving my final answer. "That’s because I drew a white drawing."
I liked Mrs. Angeles. She had soft features and an equally soft manner. She wore pastel shades that blended in with the walls of the kindergarten classroom. I didn’t like to disappoint her and felt discomfort when she expressed concern for me.
A few weeks later, my class went on a field trip to the high school. Our assignment was to walk around and draw anything that we found pretty or interesting. I had been through the high school several times on my way to the pool for swim practice–through the hallways of tall green lockers, through the masses of older, bigger kids. My mind wandered as I followed my classmates through the crowded halls.
Back in our classroom, we were given paper and crayons. I sat for a long time, staring at the blank paper, trying to remember something interesting that I could draw to impress Mrs. Angeles. In the midst of a colorful pile of drawings of the soccer field, stick figures of happy people, and benches framed with flowers, lay my sketch of a gray trashcan. That afternoon Mrs. Angeles called my mother and requested a conference.
I sat outside the room, hearing only muted, muffled voices. Years later my mother recounted the conversation to me.
"Priya is not being pushed to her ability," Mrs. Angeles had explained to her. "We need to put her in a program that will challenge her."
I’m not sure how she came to this conclusion, but in third grade I was placed in such a program. Now, eleven years later, I look through my papers, with scattered red marks circling the many spelling and grammatical errors, and consider the "gifted program" I was placed in.
It had been a beautiful spring day, the kind when students beg their teachers to let them spend the day out on the playground. A man, whose face is a blur in my mind, came for me in my English class. I was sitting with my friends, little bodies trapped in plastic chairs with attached desks, waiting for class to begin.
"Priyanka Dewan!" my name was called out. Panic. What did I do this time?
I slid off my chair and went to the front of the room. The pillar of a man looked down at me and smiled, "Please follow me."
We walked silently past rows of little lockers, little benches and little people. Cluttering my mind were excuses to explain what I could have done wrong. I turned in my homework, I didn’t start the fight by the jungle gym last Tuesday–and we weren’t even walking towards the principal’s office.
He stopped outside an unfamiliar door and said, "You are to come here each week for a special class instead of going to English. Okay?"
I nodded, not quite understanding what he meant by "special class." He was gone before I thought to ask.
I stayed outside the classroom a few more minutes, waiting for the perfect moment to make my entrance. I realized that no such moment existed. I grasped the cold, metal handle with my slippery, sweaty palms and twisted it slowly, pushing lightly against the heavy door. I peered in through the small opening. There were other kids inside, ten or so. My instinct told me to turn and run back to my familiar classroom. Curiosity got the better of me and I stepped inside.
"You must be Priyanka," the teacher addressed me. "Have a seat."
That beautiful spring day marked the beginning of my experience in the gifted program. I’m not sure what I did to deserve such a program. My family reminds me I began speaking at 11 months old and was bilingual by 18 months. They talk about how I could multiply 12 by 12 and write my name by the time I was 4. Does that make me gifted? I still daydream during class and can’t deal with criticism. I still hate routine activities and can’t take on responsibility. Does that make me gifted?
The International School of Manila thought so. The program seemed like an endless series of games, and at 8, I felt as though I was given an extra half-hour of recess and was not sure what I was expected to do with it.
One day, we were divided into groups and each group was given one object. My group was assigned Skippy Peanut Butter. We were told to conceive a commercial for our object. The next class period was spent performing the commercial in front of the other groups. "Skippy Peanut Butter," we sang, passing the jar between ourselves. This is how I was being "pushed to my ability." My ability to do what? I’m not sure. As enjoyable as the activities were, their purpose was never explained.
After third grade, I was taken away from Manila when my family moved to Singapore. I was in a new country, in a new school, with new people. I was no longer in a special program. I was free from the mindless games and anxieties. My "gift" was not spoken of and hardly remembered until I attended a summer camp after eighth grade.
One day at that camp we took an IQ test, and I placed in the 98th percentile. Once again I was faced with numbers that signified nothing to me. When I received my test result in the mail, an invitation letter for MENSA accompanied it. MENSA is an organization for people with unusually high IQ scores. At twelve years old I curiously perused the MENSA brochure, trying to figure out who I was and what this number meant. Luckily this time we declined the invitation, and the label was avoided.
Now, six years later, at eighteen, I curiously peruse the MENSA website and still don’t know what a high IQ score determines or how I have benefited from possessing one. I sometimes wonder how my life would have been different if I had joined MENSA. Would I have gotten better grades in school? Would my teachers have liked me more? Or would they have graded me harder? Although curiosity still presses my mind, somehow I think my family and I made the right decision.
As flattering as an invitation to join a high IQ club or gifted program sounds to a child, I am amazed at how little I remember about any of it. Like any other college student, I dread handing in assignments that I know will come back with red marks circling misused "it’s and its," regardless of my special abilities. All my Manila memories lie dormant until a family member or friend awakes them. Even then, these memories seem blurry due to all the unexplained but supposedly important labels and numbers associated with them. That I was able to convince a group of third and fourth graders that Skippy Peanut Butter was the choice for them is clear in my mind, but why I was so special for being able to do so is less clear. Nobody ever told me why.