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Gifted Underachiever

Gifted and Talented Expert Advice from Mary Ruth Coleman, Ph.D.

Q: Hello, I'm 16. I've never been in a gifted program, nor will I ever be. I've been told many times that I'm very smart, although that has been said by people judging me from my words and ideas, not my grade point average. My thoughts have always been ahead of my years, but in school I'm just average. In fact, standardized tests rank me between the 30th and 50th percentiles -- the same as my brother, and he's learning disabled.

It has only been this year that I have realized that my low GPA is due to the fact that I fear both success and failure, and I'm extremely hard on myself. There are nights I don't even sleep because my mind debates every subject under the rainbow. At the end of the day I hate myself for not being able to talk to people my age the way I wish I could. I feel as if typical words can't convey what I feel inside. When I don't think I'm coming across as intelligently as I'd like, it makes me so angry I want to kick the wall in.

This past year I've spent many days in the counselor's office nearly crying because I felt stupid. At my lowest point, I desperately wanted to drop out because I felt there was no place in school for someone like me. All I can say is that most days I feel extremely angry at myself. Right now it's 1:53 a.m., and I just had to get this off my chest. My thoughts have always been ahead of my years. In 4th grade I didn't think it was right for the teacher to make people improve their handwriting. I felt that handwriting is part of your individuality and even if it's messy, that's just who you are and nobody should make you change it. When I was 10, the teacher was on the phone and the class was being loud. The teacher said, "Shhh, I'm on the phone with an adult. Be quiet." I resented the fact that she had to emphasize that an adult was on the phone. I thought respect should be given to everyone regardless of age. I also hated it when kids were told not to talk back to adults, because I felt that there were two sides to every argument and it was totally not right to disregard somebody's words just because they were younger. That leads to poor communication between parent/child and student/teacher and it only makes relationships worse, not better. Plus, in my mind it violated the first amendment's freedom of speech to openly express your opinion.

There are nights I don't even sleep because my mind debates every subject under the rainbow. At the end of the day I hate myself for not being able to talk to people my age the way I wish I could. I've been reading words out of the dictionary for fun since about age 9 and watching the discovery channel since about 7, but in school I'm just average. In fact, standardized tests rank me between the 30th and 50th percentiles, the same as my brother and he's learning disabled. I originally started reading the dictionary to learn words I didn't know, but these days I read the dictionary out of frustration because I never feel as if my own vocabulary is expressive enough. I feel as if typical words can't convey what I feel inside. When I don't think I come across as intelligently as I'd like, it makes me so angry I want to kick the wall in. This past year I've spent many days in the counselor's office nearly crying because I felt stupid. At my lowest point I desperately wanted to drop out because as far as I saw it, there was no place for somebody like myself who was insightful far beyond their years yet so average in academics.

I know giftedness is generally associated with early development and what not; my mom told me that when I was about 9 months old I would climb out of my crib every morning before anyone was awake, and she would find me in the corner of the living room, looking at magazines. I also took an interest in my picture dictionary very early and could name nearly all 243 pictures when I was 2, although I don't know if that's typical or not.

All I can say is that most days I feel extremely angry at myself. Right now it's 1:53 am, and I just had to get this off my chest.

A: Hi. It may sound strange to you, but I can identify with your story. It is not so very different from my own growing-up. As it turns out, I had a learning disability and was gifted. This may be part of what is going on for you. Why do I think this? Well, your brother is LD -- and guess what -- these things run in families. Also the way you talk about your struggles in school fits the pattern of a gifted individual with a learning disability. If you have never been evaluated for this dual combination, I think it would be worth the time to check it out. If you were tested for LD but not by someone who understands that you can also be gifted, you might want to find a different person. Hang in there, your self awareness and insight will pay off in real life when you survive school. And in case you are wondering, college is actually often a better fit for folks like us than high school, so don't rule it out!

More on: Expert Advice

Mary Ruth Coleman is the director of Project U-STARS (Using Science Talent and Abilities to Recognize Students) at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Coleman has taught in both general and gifted educational programs in both public and private schools.


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