Tag Archives: creative writing and gifted children

Unopened Gifted: Gwendolyn Brooks, this is what I know

rewrite of my 2014 Portrait for a new series, “Unopened Gifted”.

From the back row I waited for the seats to fill in front of me with the fifty students, staff, and community members chosen to attend a reading by African American author Gwendolyn Brooks, a Pulitzer Prize winner in Poetry.  As usual, my anxious punctuality put me there much too early and I felt foolish sitting in the last row when there were still eight empty rows in front of the podium.

I willed blindness.  No peripheral vision.

No, I don’t recognize anyone. 

No, I don’t want to look over and have to smile. 

No, I don’t want there to be a chance of  (gulp) mingling. 

At nineteen years old I was, as I am now, awkward in social situations.  As the room started to fill, I felt conspicuous amongst the literati, the professors, and the people who didn’t just read Brooks- they taught Brooks.

The semester prior, my professor had selected a short story and a poem I had written to be published in the school journal.  After it was published she told me that I had been selected to attend an intimate poetry reading by Gwendolyn Brooks (Gulp).

After receiving the letter of invitation, I spent three weeks trying to find the perfect outfit.  It had to say “I-am-an-author-I-am-not-19-I-do-not-actually-want-you-to-talk-to-me-I-didn’t-finish-high-school-but-now-I’m-doing-better-dropout-dropout-dropout-but-yes-I-am-an-author-oh-that’s-not-to-say-I’m-an-author-at-Gwendolyn-Brooks’-level-I-just-want-to-sit-in-the-back-please-and-not-mingle-thank-you-loser-loser-dropout-dropout.”

It is safe to say I overthought the outfit I was to wear (along with every other detail).

The room filled without much mingling.  Gwendolyn Brooks entered the room last and slowly took her place at the podium.  She seemed small and branchlike behind the cumbersome mahogany.

She read three passages. By the second reading, I felt it happening.  The lump in the throat.  The sadness.  The connection.  The overpowering, overstimulated, and over-the-moon feeling of depth and words and poetry and beauty and world and universe and meaning and oh-no.  It’s happening.  Holding back the tears and so they found the path of least resistance: my nose.  There was not a tissue in sight.

I considered my sleeve and her words -words I loved so much- and I completely missed the end of her last poem reading in my effort to maintain.

While others took notes and nodded their heads in some sort of intelligence commiseration, I just sat there, my lip trembling, my eyes bulging, and my nose watering.  Physical limbs expand, and outlines receded, vanish… and we are part of the world, the atmosphere, the blue sky and the blue water.

And again, the tears.  The ugly kind.  The can’t-take-her-anywhere tears.

At the end of the reading and lecture, there was a small reception and I watched as the  smarts got into their smarts line, holding their smarts books, while they smiled with admiration at Gwendolyn Brooks.  They handed her their books to sign.

Oh no!  I didn’t bring one of her books or even a copy of a poem or a loose-leaf sheet of paper or anything at all for her to sign. It just didn’t occur to me; I had her works memorized.

I took an obligatory cookie and a triangular cup of punch and I stood there, willing invisible.  People pressed past me, heralding Brooks’ work as they pressed, and they moved on toward the door together: a beaming, wonderful feeling, smart group of people.

I wasn’t sure if leaving would be considered rude so I made an exit plan which involved the last two people in line and slipping out behind them.  My nose was still running with my mind and suddenly I was in front of Mrs. Brooks and a quick look behind me confirmed that I was the last in line.

My jaw locked and my tongue stuck to the backs of my teeth.

I searched frantically for something intelligent to say. What was that thought I had the last time I read “We Real Cool”?  What was that connection I made while she read “To the Diaspora”?  Nothing.  A blank.  I real cool. Me.

I didn’t have anything for her to sign. All I had was a napkin holding up my hand and a half-eaten cookie. I quickly set the napkin with the cookie on the table in front of her.

There it was: a half-eaten chocolate chip cookie on a small white napkin between us.

She looked at it and smiled. I flushed.  Why did I do that?

Before I could think, the cookie was off the napkin and in my mouth.  My mouth was dry, really dry, and the cookie made it worse. I willed that cookie into small enough pieces that they could slip down my throat and out the door.  Take me with you! I begged.  The napkin I gave to Gwendolyn Brooks with the grease spot was eyeballing me from the table.

“Are you an author?” She asked.

I nodded.

“What do you write?”

I swallowed the cookie bits and told her the truth, “I don’t know.”

Mrs. Brooks pulled out a folding chair.  She took my clammy hand in her fragile one and told me to sit next to her. She asked me many questions and I answered them all. She would laugh and get uncomfortably close to me.  I could smell tobacco and chamomile on her breath when she laughed and her laughter blew back my hair.  I told her which poem of hers was my favorite and she made me recite one of mine.  She’d press one long finger under her head wrap and scratch a moment and then lean in until I could see the pores smile where her glasses had been.

“I know you can do it,” she said, leaning back and adjusting the napkin on the table.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.  She smiled with her chamomile tobacco teeth.

The custodial staff started to fold and stack up the chairs.  She just kept talking.  It’s too much for here, let alone my soul, but the bits that fall out when I hold them:

“Write what you know… write what you know, girl.”

“What if I don’t know what I know?”

“You know what you know.”

“I don’t think I do.”

She just smiled and said, “That’s just talk.”

When it was time to go, I thanked her and stood up. She leaned forward in her chair and slid the napkin toward her.  She wrote something on it and then handed it to me.

It was an address in Chicago.

“You take that.  It’s my personal address. And when you figure out what you know, well you send it to me because I want to be the first one to read it.”

I drove home that night with whirling words and mind.  And I kept the napkin.

It went with me all the way across the pond to England.  I hung it on my dorm wall and it watched over me while I studied English Literature and wrote frantically between pertussis fits.  It accompanied me to University in Illinois and then it stayed safe in my files through marriage, children, and suburbs.  Through it all, it was with me, a napkin with a greasy eyeball and a very important opportunity.

When my son was born in September of 2000, I started to write my book.  I remember the moment I proclaimed, “I know what I know!”

For two years I slaved over the pages.  When I was satisfied, I dug out the napkin and considered it.  She would think I’m crazy.  She probably meant to say, “Go on girl, send it to me sometime in the next year or so, sometime in the not-too-crazy future, not in 25 years.  Yah, that’s crazy, that’s what I know.” She’d say.

I should probably look her up online first. 

In June of 2002 I looked up Gwendolyn Brooks and read that she had passed away in December of 2000.  Just three months after my son was born.  I wish this was a fiction, a creative tidbit, a cool spin… something to make it interesting and poetic.  She could have stood up, having fulfilled her contractual duty, and gone back to her hotel and rested.  She could have signed my napkin and moved on.  She could have done a lot of things.  But instead, Gwendolyn Brooks gave me a gift.  This woman who grew up gifted in a racially-biased society, with her face not recognized for gift because of something as arbitrary as the color of her skin.  This woman, this artist, who spent a lifetime sitting with authors after hours, after readings, after classes, after after, is the woman whose address I have on a napkin in a file in my desk drawer.  That’s what she did.  And now I can only wax poetic about the things I did not.

What I know: I sit in the back row.  I worry over social events.  I show up too early.  I sob uncontrollably when something moves me.  I always forget to bring tissue.  I love words.  I bleed words.  I need words.  I love words.  I love words.  They become more than a body.  They are part of the world, the atmosphere, the blue sky and the blue water.  This I know.

The rest of it? Well, that’s just talk.

“I am a writer perhaps because I am not a talker.” -Gwendolyn Brooks

Comparing Gifted

Recently I had a conversation with an amazing group of parents trying their best to keep at bay this monster of a job we call Parenting-the-Gifted-and-2e-Child.

“We just want the teachers to see his giftedness for what it is,” one said.

“What if they do?” asked another.

“What if they don’t?” we all worried.

We compared their journeys to our own and to other children’s even though we knew we shouldn’t.

“Comparison is a path which leads to insecurity and unhappiness,” One concluded.

“All kids are different and so comparison is futile,” another added.

“But still,” we all worried.

Does comparing beget more comparison? Does any good come from comparing one child to another or from comparing our experiences to our children’s experiences? To compare is human; or so the saying (should) go.

This blog was born from comparing and conversing about the habits, needs, and experiences of my children against the norm. For me, learning disabilities hid my giftedness and giftedness hid my learning disabilities. When I was young, I would compare myself to images of giftedness; and each time I did, I found that I fell short. Dropping out of high school was the final proof that I was not at all, in any way, gifted.

c170a5133b3f0a8ec97d72b60e3f38f8

I was not gifted. I was not gifted.  I was not gifted when compared to…?  That elusive end to the sentence. When compared to … to whom? To what? Rice noodles? Einstein? Border Collies? Sarah Johnson from two doors down? Integers? Lip gloss? Digital clocks? Gertrude Stein? Post it notes?  Random lists?

If we are going to compare, let’s get to the point. What exactly are we comparing ourselves against? Gifted kids were just “gifted kids.” Generic, shiny, fantastic, and perfect Gifted. Who can compare against that?? You see, therein lies the trouble with comparison: it is always against this strange and elusive norm. Normal gifted or normal normal. It is why we are encouraged not to compare our children to other children or compare their experiences to our own. Comparison has become a dirty word.

But I think we would serve our children well if we compared them; in fact, I think we are doing our amazing, fantastic, and whimsical wonders of overexcitability and asynchronistic-ity a disservice by not ever comparing them against one another.

We need to compare our children, swap notes, and consider what each gifted and twice-exceptional child is going through. We need to do this until we find enough similarities and differences that we can be sure that no child falls through cracks (and by cracks, I mean the gigantic vortex-y chasms that exist in both the identification and education of the gifted and twice-exceptional child).

Imagine if the world saw more than just a generic “Gifted Kid.”

I can imagine that world. It’s what I strive for with this blog. I am a high school dropout. It doesn’t matter how many degrees are accumulated after that fact; that fact remains. Let’s imagine I was in high school and could compare myself with the gifted dyslexic or the gifted underachiever. What if I had compared myself to a gifted high school dropout?  Yes, what if.

The face of gifted, the words of gifted, and the comparisons of gifted need to change if we are ever to completely serve our children’s needs and our own as their parents.

Compare the following statements and questions. They are all very real. Can you find similarities and/or differences? Can you find merit in the world hearing this gifted? Could comparing your child to their children help to motivate you?  Can you see a way we could help the community find their children’s place?

  • “My son doesn’t test well, but I know he is gifted…. I’m so frustrated!”
  • “My daughter was placed in a Special Education class to help the school handle her behavioral problems. She struggles with authority, but she reads Hawkins every night. What do I do?”
  • “My daughter writes at a 1st grade level, but she completes algebra assignments for fun. They put her in a gifted pull-out program but she doesn’t like the extra workload. How can I explain to the school that she needs a challenge but still needs remedial support?”
  • “All of my children are so emotional. They can barely make it through the day or to school in the morning, let alone a structured class or an accelerated program. Isn’t there anyone who understands?”
  • “I have never heard of a gifted program; besides, I’m an only parent and my kids need to go to the neighborhood school so they can take a bus.”
  • “My family and I are transient. My children get two of their meals a day from the school. I’m so afraid they won’t finish school or they’ll fall into the wrong crowd. They are so smart, I just wish they had the opportunities every other kid has.”
  • “I am dyslexic and I don’t know if my son is or not because it costs too much to test him. Children’s Hospital has a program with a 1-2 year wait, but they need a referral and the teachers don’t see any issues. I think he’s doing grade-level material because his giftedness is hiding the disability. What can I do?”
  • “My daughter just learned English and didn’t understand the test they gave her.”

Gifted looks different to and on everyone.  Gifted crosses all cultural and socioeconomic lines. Gifted is not one-size-fits-all. Gifted needs to be compared and we need to use the comparisons to start the larger conversation that all Gifted children, from all walks of life, with all abilities and disabilities, require specialized instruction and a place within the budget so that teachers, administrators, and lawmakers can meet each of our children’s unique  social, emotional, and academic needs.

“We have to do something,” said one.

“What if we do?” asked another.

“What if we don’t?” we all worried.

Play on Words: To Punctuate or Not Punctuate That is a Statement

Encouraging your child to write without punctuation is a metaphor in practice.  It is very difficult to do (seriously, you try it first!).   And moments after you suggest this exercise to your child you will most likely experience the “You crazy!”-eyes and the “No way, no how!”-crossed-arms.

At first.

It doesn’t take long before you notice something amazing: the words begin to matter more than they ever have before. Where once there was a period there now can be a well-placed conjunction, an interesting combination, a juicy juxtaposition, or a clever continuation.

Without punctuation the words seem more poetic, more purposeful, and more playful. We don’t punctuate when we think, do we?  Finally, words are delicious. Finally, your children feel as though their words are playing. No rules, just write!

Oh no!  We worry.  What if they forget how to write properly?  We fret.  Why are you doing this to us!!??!  We over-punctuate.

Let’s take a deep breath.  In then out.  Just when you think all advances in grammar, punctuation, convention, and sanity are lost… something very interesting starts to happen.  You see, nothing makes punctuating –that is, punctuating without it getting in the way of stream of consciousness and creativity- simpler than removing it altogether.

in other words when you do not use any punctuation it all seems to fit together naturally and even the beginning writer starts to see logical places where punctuation might be helpful even better they start to see beyond what they can name and what they have learned they realize there is more than the end more than the period and more than just getting the job done to get the grade they think what could I put here that causes the reader to pause but ends a sentence and how can I make this more dramatic or express my real intention there must be something that exists that would break this up in a creative way

When a child writes without punctuation, the sentences become more than a structure they are learning to build. The sentences transcend into a realm that your children might think only exists in their books, their minds, and their futures. While you can’t write without punctuation all the time, it is a critical, imaginative, and brilliant place from which to begin real creative brainstorming.

It goes without saying, that the first step toward true and deep creative writing for your gifted and twice-exceptional child is the freedom to be creative when they write. Nothing promotes creativity more than the removal of borders and rules.

So get out there, in there, over there, wherever there…. and write.  Write with abandon.  Write without pause without punctuation and without worry everything will be okay and I believe you will be surprised by and pleased with the creative results

Tune in next time for “Speak, Words. Speak!” she exclaimed with her hands in the air, her hair in the air, and her mind fantastically distracted.  “Awww, who’s my good Words? You are, that’s who.”

It’s time to explore the exciting but intimidating world of dialogue. While adults tell me that they shy away from speech in writing, our young children seem to gravitate toward dialogue, and it soon becomes a whimsical place to grow their writing voice and encourage sharing.