My kids and I took a little trip today to a local cave. It’s a sight seeing sort of place with some cool geology and stalactites and stalagmites and such. We’ve been there before, but not for a couple of years, so it was new enough for my boys for them to enjoy it again. I was, however, kind of disturbed to learn that they let the bats that overwinter in the cave stay in the attached gift shop as well. At least I think they said they let the little guano machines hibernate there – I was a little distracted corralling my girls.
What was interesting about this trip for me, however, was to watch the reaction me and my kids got from the various people on the tour with us. You see, half of the group was attending through a local Young Mensa field trip group. The other half were just random folks who had the bad luck to take the tour at the same time as us. My kids were the youngest ones there and, as usual, they made a spectacle of themselves. My girls (almost 2 and 3) did get obnoxious towards the end, but that was just a part of the problem. You see, my boys are just very outspoken – quick to answer any question, even the rhetorical ones. And they ask enough questions to get a reference librarian to tell them to give it a rest. Plus they say odd things like, “I find these stairs more disconcerting than I remember them being last time.” (The 9 year old.) or “I can’t wait to get off of these stairs so I can put my feet back on terra firma.” (The 13 year old.) The (almost) 2 year old pretended to be a cat-dog (a puppy that meows) most of the time and dramatically warned us, “no touching” if we got too close to walls or “look out – monsters!” when we were warned about a creepy part coming up. The 3 year old suggested that there might be a tiger behind a gate leading to a dark area she couldn’t see and pointed to every calcium carbonate formation in the place.
What I noticed and what I finally have something of an answer for, was that half of the group did not seem to enjoy our presence. One older woman in particular repeatedly glared at me and my kids. Her husband kept shaking his head at us as if to say, “what has this world come to?” These are the responses I have become quite familiar with: the disapproving looks, the stares which seem to say “why don’t you make them shut-up!”, the averted eyes which indicate that we’re embarrassingly weird. I get them everywhere I go it seems.
However, I noticed a quite different reaction from the folks with the Young Mensa group. I caught of lot of knowing smiles and some rather reassuring nods from the parents whose kids had already made it through the younger, more rambunctious years. They too probably knew what it is like to have kids who talk too much, ask too many questions, are too smart for their own good and unnerve the more normal people around them.
I live in a part of the country which is largely populated by much more somber, serious and conformist people that I am used to. There’s a joke which captures the flavor of a lot of the people here which goes: “Did you hear about the Norwegian farmer who really loved his wife? Yeah, he felt so passionately about her that he almost told her.” We, on the other hand, are from Chicago. We were socialized by intense, argumentative Poles, lively, talkative Irish and rowdy, playing-the-dozens African Americans. Even if my kids weren’t the sort who go around using words like “undulate” and “non-sequituer” in a sentence, we still wouldn’t fit in real well here.
However, it’s only been in the last couple of years that I have come to realize that being unusually intelligent accounted for much of the reason that my husband, kids and I don’t fit in very well. I used to be really skeptical about the whole notion of giftedness. I figured that intelligence is just one part of who we are and that it is probably an overrated one anyhow. Plus, all the parents insisting that little Bobby wasn’t really a nose-picker who had stunted his development by eating too much paste, but simply a gifted child waiting for the right moment to show his true genius had turned me off to the concept.
Then I read a book called The Gifted Adult by Mary Ellen Jacobsen. In it she talks about ways that the personalities of people who are gifted are fundamentally different from more normal people. For example, there’s a level of intensity and focus which is common to gifted people, but which is simply foreign to most people. She also outlined some of the problems which are typical of adults who are gifted, but who were never labeled or affirmed as such. It was a chapter long description of pretty much all of the problems I have struggled with my whole life.
I’ve done a fair amount of research into giftedness since and have found it to be rather healing. For years, I felt badly that people would react oddly too me. I thought I was doing something wrong. I also felt bad that so many people were clearly put off by my kids. It seemed like there were some set of rules for conduct which we were missing and I felt the disapproval of people everywhere we went. Now, I realize that we’re not actually doing anything wrong. We’re just different. And the truth of the matter is that when we were in Chicago where there are simply more people and quirks are enjoyed rather than cause for consternation, it didn’t matter so much. But here on the frozen tundra, “different” is much more likely to be a passive-aggressive insult than anything resembling a compliment. So people often respond badly too us.
But it was nice to spend a tiny bit of time with other people who know what it’s like to be different. Even if I was so busy trying to tame my girls that I didn’t have time to actually talk with anyone. But some times a sympathetic smile from someone who knows goes a long way to ward off the bad vibes coming from some crabby old lady who wants my kids to disappear.