What is gifted and talented supposed to look like? What face is on the ideal lifetime of gifted contribution? Which pieces of the puzzle do learning disability, life circumstance, and opportunity support or hinder?
It is no secret that I made poor choices when I was younger and I’m sure many, and I do mean many, gifted adults would commiserate with me. They would shake their heads in wonder at some of the things that they have done. We would all wish for a gigantic broom and rug so that we could sweep, sweep, sweep some of those pesky little details underneath and out of truth.
As for me, most of my time was spent in the world of addiction. Addicts and I had a lot in common and there was comfort in their chemical-induced extremes. I never liked to do anything that took away my ability to retreat into my mind and I suppose that tiny fact saved my life.
Observer. That was the face behind which you’d find me. It was a great hiding place. No one thought to look for me there; and if they did, I’d see them coming.
I sat back and watched the beautiful and passionate people around me turn their passions and their ideas into spaces to fill with more drugs. I was their note taker. I was the person who wrote it all down in a brain not too damaged by addiction. I observed. But I did nothing. That was my addiction, I suppose, an addiction to feeling like I could not say, I could not be, and I could not do. Observer, for me, was just as strong as their drug.
Now, I am out spreading the word. The words we tell kids is that life is all about choices. We make good and bad choices all the time and our futures are driven by them. The Bad Kid fears that his or her choices make them bad people and the Good Kid fears that his or her choices are the hinge upon which their entire universe is balanced.
There is no need for hindsight. Let’s tell our gifted kids that their method of overthinking decisions is truth. That’s right; it is my belief that the truth is both and neither. Both choices are right, both choices are wrong, and neither choice is right, and neither choice is wrong. Choices are infinity-fold and the gifted teen knows this innately. They were born knowing it and they breathe it in daily. Telling a gifted teen to make that one and only good choice… telling them to choose right or left, right or wrong, good or bad… it can become an external struggle for the ages and an internal struggle from which they may never recover.
Infinity-fold choices. No right. No wrong. All right. All wrong. This is what I would tell them.
As I said, I was knee deep in a group of addictions. I played the role of Observer. But there was a moment –a singular choice I made – which removed me from that scene indefinitely. It is a story, one of the million stories which stay with me, that seeps into my dreams like heroin finds its way into a former addict’s nightmares. I wonder, always wonder, what I would change if I could. There are so many moments to choose from.
This change would come first.
It was cold outside and I had moved back home with my mother. She and I had just fought over my refusal to take the GED. She desperately wanted me to go and take the test, she had set the appointment; and I, foolish daughter, was too scared to go. I hid that fear behind refusal and apathy. After all- who wants to take and fail the GED?
I ran to my friends for moral support. Please tell me it’s okay to be, to say, to do nothing… and I received that support in spades.
We ended up at a friend of a friend of a friend’s apartment. We sat around a card table smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. It wasn’t long before the hard stuff came out. I wasn’t in the mood to drink and I never did like the hard stuff.
As usual, I was well hidden in my role as Observer.
Late into the night I observed. Leaning back, smiling where appropriate, smoking cigarette after cigarette, and secretly worrying about the GED. I mean, really, how hard could it be? I had read the GRE study guide. Surely this had to be easier than the GRE? But what if there are bubbles to fill in…. what if there are –gulp- multiple choice math problems?
It was past midnight when I heard the sound.
It was quiet at first. My ears pushed through the hot, the smoke, the noise, and the lifeless conversation… it sounded like a kitten mewling. Was it trapped somewhere? Was it outside in the cold? Did it need help? As soon as I started to pinpoint the direction- it was gone. I tried to brush it off.
There it was again.
I stared at the door. Outside I knew there was a long hallway with ten similar doors. I followed the sound with my ears, visualizing the hall, the dirty carpet, and each door. I tried to find the door behind which the sound was most intense.
The sound was constant now. It wasn’t a kitten.
From somewhere deep in the building it was howling. Like a train mournfully tearing across a wheat field covered in snow, muffled yet intense, and as keen as it was distant. The sound was as sad as it was driven by purpose.
Laughter pulled me from my thoughts. A girl I didn’t know was laughing. Too loudly.
She covered up the sounds I was so desperately trying to locate. Her head was pale and exposed by a recent buzz cut. She had left her bangs long and blonde with hot pink ends which covered one eye. She had as many piercings as she had volume and both flashed too loudly for my senses. It was time to go.
I stood up just as she did. We looked across the table at one another.
“I’m going to head out.” I said and started towards the door without saying goodbye.
“Wait, I’ll go with you!” buzz girl said, grabbing her cigarette and bouncing towards the door.
We opened the door and the intensity of the noise hit me square in the chest. It was coming from the left. Buzz girl went left. The exit was right. I went left.
The noise from our party was nearly erased by the sound of wailing in the hallway. With only two lights, both encased in 1970s amber-colored glass, I could barely see; but I could hear. I could hear the cry, the scream, the whimper, the fear…
I could hear the baby.
Buzz girl stumbled back and forth, cigarette in her mouth, a ping pong ball on her way down a urine-soaked hallway to her innocent child. I walked steadily behind her. My stomach grew heavy. I could turn and run. I should. I was going in the wrong direction.
When she arrived at 6c she opened the door. It wasn’t locked.
Inside a small metal lamp offered the only light. Centered in the room was a dirty square playpen. A small child was sitting against the netting, too tired to stand any longer, wearing only a very full diaper. The acrid smell in the apartment was hard to mistake: a mixture of human waste, heroin, booze, and filth. The heat, which was regulated by the superintendent, was on full blast and made the small room an oven.
I stood in the doorway. I wasn’t sure what to do.
Buzz girl stumbled into the small studio kitchen, opened a dirty bottle, and filled it with water. She opened a cupboard and took out a bag of white sugar. Reaching into the bag, she closed her fist around as much sugar as it would hold. I watched as sugar fell through her fingers on its way to her other hand holding the bottle. She opened her hand and grains of sugar fell all over, some landing in the liquid, others landing on the counter, the floor, and her clothes.
She closed the lid, shook it twice, and looked over at me. When she saw my quizzical look she just shrugged, “Milk is expensive. This baby gonna eat me out of house and home.”
She leaned over the playpen, her silver piercings catching the light, as she handed it to the baby who took it eagerly and fell over backwards in eagerness for that first useless sip.
Buzz girl hurried out of the apartment and shoved me out of the way of the door. She slammed it shut without locking it and leaned back. She looked at me as if to say, “There, we did it.”
She wiped the sugar off of her hands and headed back towards the party.
I stood there.
She opened the party door, the noise intensified, and then it was closed. I heard her annoying laughter once more.
I stood there.
The baby had quieted but I could hear small sobs. The door was unlocked.
I stood there.
At the far end of the hall an exit sign buzzed, on and off, the letters had broken so that it read E IT.
I stood there.
The sobbing finally stopped. I was certain the baby had fallen asleep.
I stood there.
I was so tired. So tired of not knowing who I was capable of becoming. So tired of pretending. So tired of watching it all go down. But most of all, I was tired of who I was allowing myself to be.
I walked to the party door. I kept walking. I walked to the E IT sign. I kept walking. That night I walked out of that hallway and into a new life. I walked into a life in which I was an active participant who needed to act worthy of the opportunities she had been given to achieve something.
It all sounds so majestic, but the fact remains- I never opened that door. I walked away and into my own life without opening the door and doing something. I observed. I observed to my and an innocent life’s detriment.
What I would tell gifted teens and lost teens and young kids and all kids is that addiction, of any kind, does just that. It walks away when it shouldn’t. It is selfish, unkind, and unrelenting. Walking away from that apartment building was the best and worst decision I’ve ever had to make; and even now, twenty-five years later, I cry for Little 6c and wonder if anyone ever opened the door.
We can’t sweep it all under the rug. Gifted doesn’t look like me and gifted doesn’t look like you. Gifted doesn’t look like anything at all. It is not perfect and shiny, quiet and capable, beautiful and prepared. It is, just like all things, something from which we start; and from there, we can go in any number of directions. Infinity-fold. That’s the truth, that’s the dust, that’s the rug, and that’s the sound I was following.
Little 6c, I’m sorry I never opened your door. I should have. I could have. But I walked away instead. Ever the Observer. The best and worst decision I ever made. It’s what my gifted looks like; it’s what my gifted feels like; and that, dear readers, dear gifted teens, dear gifted adults, dear unidentified gifted child locked behind the proverbial door, is what my gifted sounds like when I close my eyes.