Gifted and Talented

Who among you remembers those golden days when a middling high school student—a kid with respectable grades but with ACT scores in the toilet, with daydreaming making up a solid sixty percent of her extracurricular activities—could get accepted into the only university she applied to? One offering affordable, in-state tuition?

“If you can make it through high school and still fog a mirror, Bob’s your uncle.”

I can’t recall who shared that observation about the admissions process, but I can tell you that the listener, the middling high school student, was me. I can also tell you that in the decades since I heard those words, I’ve reflected many times on how lucky I was—not just to have gotten into college but to have done so without having to toil through the emotionally fraught college-prep boot camp that the K-through-12 years have become for many students. Years in which—for far too many youngsters—daydreaming is seen as a weakness at best, as a character flaw at worst.

In her insightful, moving, and incredibly funny new novel, Gifted and Talented, Julia Watts takes us into the heart of what can be the most unsparing of educational boot camps: classes for gifted students—in this case, an honors class at a fictional magnet school, Fairmont Elementary, in Knoxville, Tennessee. At the center of the novel are Crispin, newly enrolled in Fairmont and its third-grade gifted class, and Crispin’s parents, Rachel and Ethan.

Though Crispin enjoys Fairmont’s arts classes and the new friends he’s making, and though he adapts fairly well to the heavier homework load, Rachel and Ethan are soon troubled by various forms of segregation they notice at his school. For one thing, most students in Crispin’s honors class are “[w]hite as a block of cream cheese,” while most of the so-called residential (i.e., non-honors) students are non-white.

Other forms of segregation are at play, as well. Early in his Fairmont days, as part of a homework project, Crispin makes an Iroquois longhouse out of popsicle sticks and tempera paint, which turns out to be no match for the other creations displayed during the school’s Native American Celebration Day. Among these creations, Rachel observes, is “a three-foot, hand-carved, elaborately painted wooden totem pole, allegedly made by [Crispin’s classmate] Theodore.” Studying this “towering phallus of achievement,” Rachel thinks:

Was there a third grader on earth who could actually have done this project? Would any adult actually give a nine year old boy a log, an assortment of sharp blades, and a picture of a totem pole and say, “Go to it, kid”? And even if a parent were insane enough to entrust such a dangerous and difficult process to a child, was there even a remote chance that the result would be a work of art instead of a trip to the emergency room?

As for Crispin’s longhouse, Rachel learns that it has been relegated to a supply closet by his teacher, Mrs. Zane, who claims to have found fault with “the materials he used.”

Even more troubling is the honors class’s segregation by ability, an “academic caste system” that Crispin describes in this way to a horrified Rachel:

“The macaws are the highest reading group. It’s the one Theodore and Hannah and I are in. And now Jaden is too. All the reading groups are named after different rainforest animals. The macaws are the best readers, and the monkeys are next. The tree frogs are the kids who are just okay, and the dumb kids are the anteaters.”

Jaden, the biracial child of a financially struggling single mother, pushes against the school’s segregationist tendencies, gaining admission to the honors class when he’s discovered to be exceeding his grave level in reading and math skills. But when Jaden begins to outperform the heavily stage-parented Theodore, things get ugly—and potentially dangerous—quickly.

I don’t want to give away too many of the details of this plot line, but I do want to point out how deftly Watts describes the extremes to which some parents will go to push their children ahead of their peers, despite the negative consequences all around.

Through Jaden’s story Watts also explores, in moving detail, how bringing together students from different socioeconomic backgrounds may only go so far in bridging class divides. Of all of the honors-class parents—who tend to range from borderline middle class to well-to-do—only Rachel and Ethan seem to respect Jaden’s mother, Krystal, realizing that there’s a very good reason why she hasn’t been able to attend many school events or to push Jaden ahead as much as the more fortunate parents have pushed their own children: she can’t afford to take time away from her draining, low-wage job.

Yet, at points in the novel, even the good-hearted Rachel finds herself on uncomfortable ground with Krystal. Rachel tries to help Krystal out now and then, by looking after Jaden on occasion, among other things. And she also comes to regard Krystal as a true friend. In one key scene, coming during a very stressful time for the two women, Rachel expresses love for Krystal and Jaden. Here is Krystal’s reply:

“You love Jaden because he’s like you and all your smart friends. Plus it’s so ‘amazing’ that he’s that smart when you see where he comes from. It’s like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs. But don’t say you love me when all I am is a project to you.”

These words hit hard. And like so much else about Watts’s thoughtful novel, they get to the heart of squirm-inducing yet important-to-recognize realities.

In the end, Rachel and Ethan seem to ask themselves, What’s the alternative to this seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time school? Rachel’s own answer to this question feels like a very sane and healthy response to an unhealthy situation. It wouldn’t be everyone’s choice, but it’s comforting to think that, for at least some parents and students, a degree of choice is still possible.

Would My Pick be Your Pick?

If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ The novels of Richard Russo (especially Straight Man)
▪ Education trends and policies, especially regarding student achievement and charter schools
▪ The increase in “helicopter parenting”
▪ Stories about parent-child relationships