Smart Kids Being Dumb

I homeschooled my two boys, Noah (17) and Collin (13) from 2003 to 2009 before putting them in school. The school thing did not go well. Collin got on the B honor roll once which was the extent of either of their success with the whole thing. Noah seemed to think that not getting straight Fs was a high enough goal for him. Collin was bullied by both students and teachers. Noah contented himself with trying to make everyone scared of him so they would leave him alone. This last year I allowed them both to start doing online schooling which came with its own new set of problems, but they are finally getting the hang of it. Of course, for those who always KNEW I was making a mistake with homeschooling them, their lack of performance is proof-positive that homeschooling them was a horrible mistake which has most likely ruined their ability to become productive human beings who don’t live in someone’s basement playing video games.
If I had it to do all over again, I would never have put them in school. I would have gone straight to online schools once I could no longer continue homeschooling them myself. Noah had been on track to finish high school a year early had we continued homeschooling and now will barely eek out graduating. Collin discovered that he really was smarter than most people, including a lot of adults, and became nearly insufferable. After being in school, both of them are extremely concerned about the moral and intellectual development of their younger sisters who are just finishing kindergarten and 1st grade this week. They were not impressed with the end result of the school system to say the least.
Noah told me last night that if we won’t take the girls out of school he’s seriously considering going back to the high school next year just so he can sit with the girls on the bus to minimize their exposure to the things going on there. I told him that his abysmal performance at school has made his suggestion that they also be homeschooled a non-starter for the time being. He reminded me that I have told him that every decision I have ever made that I came to regret came from trusting someone else’s judgement more than my own. Which is true. I always thought sending them to school was a bad idea and that the odds of it going well were pretty low. Not because of anything to do with homeschooling as some like to assume. It’s the fact that my sons are two of the most difficult, uncooperative and unbending people I’ve ever known. Plus they’re fantastically smart which just makes the difficult, uncooperative and unbending part that much more intense. (Noah told me yesterday that he thinks I’m one of 12 people on the planet who had the patience needed to raise them. His dad says that he’s giving 7 or 8 people far too much credit.) The whole reason we began homeschooling was because school aren’t really made for kids like them.
At any rate, the whole thing has been a fiasco and as I said, all those who knew that the homeschooling thing was just setting them up for trouble now feel that I should be humbled by my huge error and open to their advice. In an effort to nicely turn the tone of the conversation in a more helpful, realistic direction I sent a set of links on gifted kids and school to a teacher I know. She kind of keyed in on the idea of boredom as the main factor that makes school such a challenge for my boys and other underachieving gifted kids.What follows was my response to her. I’m sharing it because I know that there are others who have or are dealing with the downsides of giftedness. And because I hope it will help others understand a bit more those incomprehesible kids who just can’t or won’t get in line like everyone else:
I think that the bored thing is a bit of a misnomer. It’s like I always tell my kids – only boring people get bored. And they certainly did plenty of school work that they found boring and pointless when they were homeschooling. (I never understand why everyone seems to think I let them do whatever they want and applied no discipline in our schooling!) You know how you always have that one outfit that just doesn’t fit right? And you forget how badly it fits until you’ve put it on and walked out the door and then spend all day tugging and adjusting it? It’s just so uncomfortable and restricting to the point of being a distraction and you spend all day telling yourself, “I am never wearing this damn thing again!” I think that’s the best illustration of what it can be like to be a gifted kid (or adult!) in a classroom that’s a poor fit – it’s like being forced to wear that outfit day after day after day. While people tell you to sit still and stop fiddling with your clothing.
Being a gifted kid in a poorly suited classroom is a lot like being forced to wait in line or sit in traffic all day. Only rarely do we actually get bored sitting in traffic – it’s the frustration at not being able to move. You know that if people would just get out of the way, stop gawking at the guy with the flat tire, learn to effing merge, stop texting and pay attention, you could move forward and get where you’re going. Instead you just have to creep, creep, creep along. Again, it’s not that doing the same thing over and over again is so boring (although it may be). It’s that it’s like being forced to walk in slow motion until your muscles hurt and all you want to do is be able to take off running and flailing your arms.
Let me give you an example. A couple of years ago Noah read a college psychology text a friend had given me. He (stupidly) thought it would be good preparation for the psychology class he was signed up for at school. The problem that he ended up having wasn’t that he was just soooo bored because he already knew everything. The problem was he had knowledge, ideas, opinions and questions about the subject matter that he wanted to bring up to discuss or ask the teacher about. But of course, the teacher has a schedule and can’t change the whole class to turn it into the in-depth seminar/discussion that Noah was looking forward to in his mind. And the other kids weren’t really interested. They thought he was being a weird jerk for trying to start a discussion when they were just trying to take notes about what was going to be on the test. So instead of being an interesting exploration of a topic he was interested in, Noah found himself continually forcing himself to hold back and shut up. He would look for some opening that might allow even a brief opportunity to go a little deeper without upsetting everyone, but those chances were few and far between. After a while he started tuning out not because it was so boring, but because it was so frustrating and the discipline it takes to shove down all of the knowledge, thoughts and questions he had gets wearing. Imagine having something you really want to share with your spouse and then when you see him there are other people around or he’s upset about something and you have to wait and shove it down. But it’s something that you’re really excited about sharing with him and so you keep waiting but things keep coming up and the opportunity never shows up day after day after day with no end in sight. Eventually you will lose your enthusiasm for what you had to share and might just let it drop entirely. It’s a lot like that.
For Collin the hardest part was all of the nonsensical rules. We all have to deal with rules that are dumb and don’t make sense, of course. He thinks that a lot of our rules here at the house are dumb and don’t make sense as a matter of fact. (Contrary to popular perception we do have rules around here and we do enforce them and we don’t only do things that the kids like and are comfortable with.) But for him school was a lot like trying to negotiate with the customer service line at Comcast all day long. He would do math problems, get the right answer and get no credit because he didn’t show his work. So he would force himself to write out all his work (much of which was unconscious so it was like being asked to explain the grammar rules you used to form each sentence you wrote.) But I had taught him to do it using a slightly different method than they taught at school. Once again, the fact that he got the right answer meant nothing. The problem was wrong. At which point he said, “you know what? Screw you.” He would ask why they weren’t allowed to wear hats in school even after hours and was told, “because you could put a gun under your hat.” If he laughed, thinking they were joking, he got in trouble for being rude. If he protested that there must be another reason because that doesn’t make sense, he’d get a lecture on the dangers of guns in school. He was given an assignment to make a poster that included certain elements, so he made a poster that included those elements along with several elaborations and was marked off for the additional work he did. He wrote essays where he was penalized for including information that wasn’t in the textbook. It was accurate and relevant, but that didn’t matter. Just on and on and on like that. For a kid like Collin it was a nightmare. (I had to ban the words “well, actually” in our house because of him.)
And overarching all of it for them – like a lot of gifted kids – there’s the never ending disapproval. Everyone thinks there’s something wrong with you, you’re doing it the wrong way, you would be fine if only you’d just (fill in the blank). And so often it’s the things that you like best about yourself that people look at and wrinkle their noses at and say (or imply), “see? That’s why no one likes you/you’re always in trouble/you’re failing.” Your intense interest. Your thoughtfulness. Your sharp observations. Your humor. Your ability to see connections where others don’t. Your sensitivity to other people’s feelings and experiences. Your empathy towards the underdogs and outcast. Your ability to make the case for unpopular ideas or ways of doing things. Your willingness to stand outside the crowd. My boys really struggled to understand that other people weren’t actually responding to the rightness or wrongness of what they said or did. Often it was just as simple as they said or did something that made the other person feel bad or uncomfortable. Most people don’t stop and say, “why did that make me feel uncomfortable?” They just subconsciously feel bad and think, “what a jerk.”
Several of Collin’s teachers told me that part of his problem with his classmates was that his sense of humor was just beyond them. It was too subtle and too mature. A kid could yell “booty!” in the middle of the class and crack everyone else up. Collin would make a well placed Monty Python reference and they’d all look at him like he’d just farted. After a while he contented himself with seeing if he could get a snort out of his teachers. One of them told me that just being in class with him was opening the other kids up to a whole world outside of their small town. Because he talked about things beyond the latest video games or clothes or pop music or gossip. (Collin still hasn’t stopped talking about the kids who didn’t know who Elvis was.) It’s hard to spend all day, every day surrounded by disapproval for everything you do and are along with the very clear message that it’s all your fault and if you dare to complain, it’s because you’re an asshole to boot. Collin being Collin, after a while just said, “you know what? Screw you.” and became more insufferable than ever.
I could go on and on. Obviously, I’m disappointed that the boys didn’t buck up and play the game and get their grades in line. But I also understand that it’s not nearly as simple as being bored or undisciplined or whatever everyone else wants to attribute their lack of performance to. It was the first time they had ever had to wear that really ill-fitting outfit day after day (again, it’s not like it was something they hadn’t experienced before. I don’t understand why everyone assumes that I never put them in situations that were uncomfortable or required ridiculous amounts of restraint and all the rest of those things that are just part of life!). They responded very badly to the experience. I wish they hadn’t, but I do understand. I also know that wearing that ill fitting outfit without complaint or rebellion often carries its own enormous price. It took me years to learn to just be myself without always holding back and contorting myself into whatever position would make everyone around me most comfortable. It took me well into my 30s to stop blaming myself for all the disapproval I get and realize that most of it is people just showing me their own hang-ups, dysfunctions and lack of imagination. The boys are very well educated, skilled, grounded, perceptive and capable people. Whatever problems they have caused for themselves by doing so poorly at the school thing, I’m 100% certain it won’t take them until well into their 30s to work through. The reality is that for people who are unusually smart, it’s rarely the book learning or skills that hold them back. Usually it’s the emotional problems, the lack of confidence, lack of character, the habitually making themselves smaller than they really are that holds them back.
I’m glad that they were able to have the experience of fitting in with various groups and people while we were homeschooling. They learned that it was OK to be themselves and that there were people who liked and appreciated them as they were. I never had that experience. When they get older, they will be able to seek out places where they fit. Where people appreciate their humor and are interested and passionate about the things that they are interested in. They still have more growing up and maturing to do, of course. But I think that people who look at them and assume that there’s a GREAT BIG PROBLEM with them don’t have the faintest idea. But everyone’s got an opinion. They’re like assholes that way. lol.
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17 thoughts on “Smart Kids Being Dumb

  1. You title this “Smart Kids Being Dumb” but it reads much more like “Dumb Systems Working to Make Everybody Act Stupid.”

    From my own schooling, and from what I learned in teacher training, it’s an education system that damages different kids different ways. It isn’t some kind of “neutral” environment that any smart kid could simply fit-into and use for his own purposes — not without some strong internal sense of who he is, what he’s working towards, how much garbage he’s willing to swim through to get there (being already a confident, dedicated & savy adult, in other words.) And it’s anybody’s guess whether that goal would be a viable possibility by the time he made it through. (The signs of these times are increasingly about falling rocks, cliff edges, Godzilla crossings & the like. Any future we’ve got coming, it’s not gonna look like Futureland…)

    I’d put the Mate book ( ) on his reading list, not to encourage self-labeling, but because the traits Mate is talking about are everybody’s — and because American life keeps getting more & more conductive to producing and aggravating them.

    And because these sound like good, sensitive kids. How well someone can live in a wood-chipper is not a fair test of anybody’s worth; and most people shouldn’t even try! People have expectations — as if everyone were always able to do precisely what other people expect of them, when they expect it, the way they expect it.

    Life has a will of its own. And will have its way.

    —– —– —– —–

    All my life I am saying
    “What’s my job?!” and
    taking whatever I hear about
    as maybe the Answer.

    My job is being crazy,
    having a headful
    of ideas that have
    driven everyone insane
    and making antibodies.

    My job is having no job
    to put before our
    job with The Big J.

    Every time I think
    I have an answer to the
    American Question:
    “What do you do?”
    it turns out sooner or later I’m
    laid off from every Identity.

    Some day, people say, the answer
    will be “I’m dying!”

    Meanwhile I’m a flower
    sneezing in the Spring air.

    Forrest Curo
    May 5, 2003

  2. Amazing! I swear you looked into into my soul and recounted my whole life and that of my daughter as well. I got lucky and found a gifted focus school for my daughter but I completely understand what you and your sons went though. I cried reading this. You just explained how I’ve always felt so well.

  3. I agree with you so much – it also took me until my 30’s and I’m damned if I’m going to let my kids go through that! Well done, you!

  4. I laughed out loud when I read about you banning the words, “well, actually.” Oh my goodness, I’ve been so close to doing that, maybe it is time. 😉 Thank you for this article. Fantastic metaphors for what our children experience. The ill-fitted clothing is a wonderful way to describe it and being forced to creep, creep along is what drove my daughter crazy – we also returned to homeschooling, as well. The positive side is that she really, really appreciates homeschooling now.

  5. I can relate to this so well, with my son. However, he had the added burden of having ADD, for which he was diagnosed. He did very well in homeschool (which he did until 4th grade). Then when I noticed he was having issues, I had him tested and he was found to have ADD. “Experts” suggested “regular” school, and so silly me, I did it. Eventually he adjusted, but he became a bully too (like one of your sons did), just to get kids to leave him alone. But I could tell he was terrified inside, and he blamed me for putting him there.

    Fortunately the next year we moved to a nice suburb where schools were not like the innercity schools, and he did much better. But 4 years later due to my husband’s job, we needed to relocate back to the city and things went downhill again for him, in an innercity, tough school that, to save money, tried to insist he was not special ed (even though extensive testing done in the suburban school, as well as the previous testing our family commissioned, said otherwise.) He flunked out of 10th grade, and if not for the state-funded online schools, he would have joined the over 50% of high schoolers in our city who drop out. He graduated the online public school last yr with honors! And in a “regular” graduation ceremony held by the cyber-charter school too.

  6. This is the best article I’ve ever read regarding smart kids and school issues. I was a smart kid, earning 100% and A+ on everything I did with minimal effort, but by junior high I had been harassed and antagonized so endlessly I finally gave up. My grades fell into D and E territory and I hated everybody of any age. Of course nobody bothered to find out if anything was going on with me; rather, they became angry that I wasn’t producing the excellent marks that would make them look good. Yes, THEM, not me. The adults could pat themselves on the back, insisting my performance was due to their guidance and instruction (it wasn’t).

    When I hear that smart children do badly in school because of “boredom” it makes me want to tear my hair out. Your analogy of an ill-fitting outfit is exactly bang-on, and if you don’t mind, I would like to use it from now on. You’ve described exactly what it’s like to be a bright kid in an unyielding environment.

    I’m lucky enough that I can homeschool my youngest, who needed it badly. He used to go to an arts immersion charter school, where he was bullied endlessly and where the teachers put less effort into academics than they did into the performing and visual arts. By the end of grade 3 he was unable to do simple math problems such as double digit addition and subtraction, he had the literary skills of a 4-year-old with the handwriting to match, and he was an emotionally broken mess. His excellent report cards did not indicate to me that he was doing poorly, but when I pulled him out near the end of grade 3 and finished that year via homeschooling, that was when I realized the staff were outright lying on his report cards.

    We’ve home schooled ever since and will continue to do so. His work is outstanding and definitely above his grade level, and his confidence is intact.

    Thank you for this excellent post.

  7. When Alli was in Kindergarten, she started making deliberate mistakes or refusing to answer questions because she didn’t want to make the other kids feel bad. Her teacher actually encouraged me to homeschool her because she felt that if Alli went to a new classroom with a new teacher who didn’t know her, and continued that way, her teacher would not know that it was an act-and that the act would become reality.

  8. Thanks for all the comments! A while back I overheard two moms talking at the Y. One of them commented that every once in a while her kid would do something that made her think “maybe he’s really gifted” but then she would realize that he wasn’t. He was pretty normal and that was just fine. The other mom agreed and said, “still it’s nice to think that maybe they actually are super smart.” I really wanted to go and re-assure them that it’s not actually that great. LOL. It’s a privilege to be raising these kids to be the remarkable people they are capable of being, but boy is it hard sometimes!

  9. I feel so grateful for the HGC (Highly Gifted Center) my son attended for the past two years (4th and 5th grade). It wasn’t just that the curriculum was advanced, there was a whole different feel to the classroom, a genuine spirit of inquiry and a culture of kindness, too. The teacher was willing to follow the kids’ lead and go on lengthy sidetracks and the kids were enthusiastic about each other’s ideas. He goes on to middle school at a humanities magnet next year. I hope it’s as good an experience.

  10. Although my son just finished Kindergarten in Montessori, I love this article as it gives me some insight as to what to watch out for going forward. We were fairly pleased with how the school allowed him to work way above his grade level but when he is done with Montessori after 6th grade, we will need to make sure he can stay challenged in the public school (I can’t afford to stay home).

    The “well, actually” line struck home as well LOL

  11. I loved the line about your son giving 7 or 8 people too much credit…..what a hoot! I read this blog out loud to my daughter, who is 19. Probably the best blog I have read to date on gifted kids. Thanks so much for insight and your humor!

  12. Your post makes me feel like I’m not alone. My 13yr old daughter is starting online school this year because – well, she is a Monty Python watching, very gifted child who has never fit in at the small school she attended. When you describe Collin- I see my Annie (He doesn’t also happen to like non-popular music like classical or steampunk?) I’m going to have to drive two hours twice a week to keep her in her music/band- but I think its all going to be so worth it. God Bless- there is another mom out here cheering for you and your kids!

  13. As a very gifted 16 year old currently in high school, this was freakishy relatable. I’m in a good private school in all AP classes, and get along well grades-wise, but school itself fits your clothes analogy perfectly. I feel as if blocks of years have gone to waste; I worked it out and I could be out of college if I had been allowed to work at my own pace. I’ve regularly asked to homeschool myself since 5th grade, and my parents decline on basis of my “needing to socialize more” (while it’s the peers whose mothers were hamsters and fathers smelt of elderberries who are making me dislike socializing – the irony (sorry, I simply had to have a Python reference once those references had been referenced)) and that I would put work off (which I do in school because I find the work dull; I teach myself more subjects in the summer than I’m allowed to take in school).
    Einstein (sorry for using the stereotypical genius figure) hated school because he disliked the structure, required material, and obedience to authority (which ended up with his Greek teacher famously telling him nothing would ever become of him, and suggestions in elementary and high school for him to drop out – ha). Chomsky says another point better than I can in this: That basically sums up my issues with the educational system. It’s not simply the pace; it’s the whole atmosphere.
    This article made me so glad there are parents who realize what a pain school can be for some kids, and I just want to say you made a fantastic decision in homeschooling. I wish that there were more people who recognized this need (alternatively, that there wasn’t a need to recognize it, but that doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon).

  14. My son is in fifth grade and I have been trying so hard since Kindergarten to get him to fit the mold thinking it would be easier on him if he did. He has struggled, gotten in trouble, been excluded and all the while he flies through acedemically. We have been to a therapist for over a year now and I think you have answered more questions in this article than any of that has done for us. He is brilliant, handsome and funny…you would think that equals success however he is frustrated, does not fit in, gets repremanded and discoraged for using his creativity and insight. I have to constantly remind him to “follow the directions” and “not overthink it”. He does not get invited to birthday parties or overnights and gets obviously ganged up on at recess but he is not mean or bullyish in any way. He just has a different way of thinking that does not go along with the crowd and maybe that’s uncomfortable for others. I don’t know, but my heart hurts for him and hearing how your sons were able to vocalize their thoughts and feelings about school makes me wonder what his innermost thoughts might be and how I can help him. Never thought I could possibly homeschool him since he fits the very description of your boys “difficult, uncooperative and unbending” the one who “can’t or wont get in line”. That is my boy. Constantly challenging and embarrassing me but in whom I am so in love with and proud of too. I think I just need to support his weirdness and quit trying to “help” him fit in better. Reading this I would be happy to be one of your kids being understood and loved for who I am by my family, even if not by the rest of the world. Seeing now I just need to do that for him and let him be who he is.

  15. I absolutely agree with all you said! My gifted son is a sophomore in high school and he complains all the time of how bored he is. Fortunately he is athletic so he has made a lot of friends thru sports but he doesn’t socialize with anyone on the weekends unless its to go to the beach. He only likes activity related social gatherings because people don’t relate well to his thoughts, etc. He is a thinker and theorizes on things that are so advanced that the other boys stare at him and he feels weird. He went to a dance (stag with friends) last year and he called me halfway through to ask me to pick him up. He said the boys were talking about the dumbest things and he was bored. He also has had a hard time in school although up until this year he has had mostly A’s. This year he has two teachers who patronize the students and give tons of busy work which he doesn’t do. He keeps getting zero’s and when I ask him what is going on he says he can’t bear to write down the answers to all these study guides he already knows. It’s so frustrating as a Mom because his grades are slipping because although he can get A’s on the tests in class, his homework grades are 60% due to missed work. He still has a B average but he belongs at a highly research oriented college with other bright kids, but now that his un-weighted GPA is below a 3.75 he won’t be able to get into a Stanford, Berkeley or Cal Tech. Its very frustrating to have a smart, well mannered boy who wants to be a physicist but will have to end up at a Cal State rather than an Ivy League school.

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