Imagine that, one day, you awoke to find yourself transformed into a seven-year-old child. Yes, an adult, cognitively speaking, trapped in a child’s body. How terrible, how incomprehensibly terrifying, would it be?
I am perfectly aware that in Singapore, people love to talk about giftedness all the time. The power of this amulet of giftedness is not limited by the actual giftedness of the person wielding the gemstone: apparently even non-gifted adults feel they can be experts on giftedness and how to train and deal with gifted children.
The truth, in fact, could not be further from what these decidedly non-gifted adults claim. Growing up gifted – the way I and the ostensible 1% of Singaporean children did – was sheer terror. It wasn’t the Gifted Education Programme (GEP), which actually was the one wonderful thing in my childhood, however impermanent (the impermanence, incidentally, being another source of angst and terror). It was everything else.
I remember that before I entered the GEP, I couldn’t count the number of friends I had on one hand. Because I had zero friends. I recall meeting children who played weird Chinese vampire games on the school bus and got into arguments over the plausibility of Bloody-Mary-slash-Pontianak-
As a child with uncanny awareness of the adults around you, I learnt early on that intelligence is no match for sheer power derived from the prevailing social hierarchy. A Mathematics teacher in the first week of Primary One told my class a story about how birds did not die from sitting on live wires because they were not in contact with the ground, but that if they stood on a live wire and subsequently flew to the ground they would die immediately. I protested (perhaps a bit too self-assuredly) that this was not how electricity worked; he responded by drawing a circle in chalk on the floor and making me sit in it. There is no advantage to being intelligent when any adult can wield brute power over you and force you to be silent.
And indeed, I would argue, that is one of the most important and life-changing lessons any gifted child learns: to hold their tongue and not argue with adults who might nevertheless be less intelligent. One learns that the person who has power gets to define the truth presented – a very valuable lesson, in retrospect.
All other beneficial phenotypic expressions of genes arouse uncontroversial admiration: tall people, naturally lean people, and so on, can flaunt or at least put to use their genetic advantages without being explicitly shamed for it. But being gifted is different – one moment you are held to an impossible standard as the apotheosis of a perfect child, and then the next condemned for merely being intelligent, seeming arrogant, being unable to connect with the mainstream, or simply being different. Even after entering the GEP, where I finally made like-minded friends for the first time in my life, one was not free from hostility.
As my English teacher in secondary school put it – why should it be that gifted children are separated from the mainstream? Why should they be given more opportunities than the other students? She viewed us gifted children with suspicion by dint of our giftedness, but the natural rejoinder was that we were not to blame for being genetically more intelligent or being selected to be part of a system that none of us had set up. We were just trying to live our lives, duh. Of course, I had learned enough by then to hold my tongue, so as not to evoke an existential lecture from her.
This was the most terrifying aspect of being gifted: having to constantly reassure others that we were not really all that different, that we were of use to society, that we would pay back a hundred-fold – a hundred-thousand-fold – whatever advantages had been showered upon us. When teachers tried to force-shout illogical and outrageously surreal assertions about the world down our throats, we always ended up nodding mutely but scornfully, for anything else would have been typically gifted arrogance and inability to conform to the mainstream. And therein lies the paradox. In Singapore, gifted children are expected to be completely different, yet utterly the same.
The convergence of all kinds of extraordinarily potent symbolic values is precisely why Singaporean society still doesn’t know what to do with gifted children. They are at once a vision of enormous future potential and, at the same time, inequality and the dirtiest of dirty words, elitism. Naturally, as preternaturally gifted children, we were aware of the politics of giftedness by the time we were teenagers – we just didn’t have the emotional depth or maturity to process or handle it.
To clarify, being gifted was not all doom and gloom. But that is beside the point. The point is that being gifted is nothing like the magical fairytale presented by the aforementioned decidedly non-gifted adults. For me, at least, it was a childhood of learning very harsh realities about the world, human nature, and human fallibility.
There is a saying that one should not look a gift horse in the mouth, and you might be tempted to think that this is some positive spin on the gift of giftedness. But as any gifted child would tell you, sayings like these are incredibly outdated (the industrial revolution happened like centuries ago, seriously) and to even think that they have any relevance to a postindustrial non-agrarian hyperreal society is quaint at best and an ontological category error at worst. Also, who on earth in their right mind would actually ground their worldview in ridiculous catchphrases that agricultural workers came up with hundreds of years ago before mass literacy was a thing? Did I just say that aloud?
Yet I will offer a faint glimmer of socially requisite positivity to finish off this article – the gifted kids I knew and grew up with generally turned out ok. We might not have ended up making the same life choices as others, but surely that was the point of being different in the first place. And perhaps we will, in our own ways, contribute to society – just don’t expect it to turn out the way everybody expects. If you really think hard about it, you wouldn’t expect anything less.
Finally, if you’re a parent of a gifted child, here are a few real pointers on how to treat your gifted child – straight from the horse’s mouth.
1. Always reason. Never force ideas and never use the “I’m an adult so I’m right” strand of non-reasoning. Your child will remember these moments as traumatic and life-changing. That photographic memory is not only good for memorising facts and equations but also internalising horrible experiences. For life.
2. It’s ok to be different. Plenty of children identify with their school, their favourite sport, as Swifties, etc. It’s ok for gifted children to self-identify as gifted kids and it is not a sign of arrogance or elitism.
3. Keep the flame of idealism burning. Trust me, there are a million reasons why gifted children in Singapore become cynical and socially withdrawn. Yet they can also be wonderfully vibrant and idealistic children, but only with the right support and environment.
4. Don’t emotionally manipulate your gifted child in ways that might work on other children. They may acquiesce temporarily but only because they understand the workings of power, and have marked you out as someone fundamentally untrustworthy. They will reciprocate by having no qualms about emotionally manipulating you in return.
5. Your child’s intelligence may be that of a little adult trapped in a child’s body, but gifted children do not have the emotional depth or maturity to handle the real world. As children we could easily identify teachers who were awful to us and psychoanalyse them (“Her marriage failed” “She just graduated and is overeager to prove herself” “She enjoys wielding arbitrary power over helpless children” etc.) but we didn’t know what to do with this knowledge except to provoke the teacher further, which was counterproductive anyway. You can’t bluff your way through the harsh realities of life, but you can contextualise it for your gifted child.