Comic by Priyanka Pai

Priyanka Pai | Staff

When I was in second grade, my teacher called my parents in for a conference to warn them about an observation she had made about me.

“She isn’t what I would call ‘gifted,'” the teacher told them. “I wouldn’t hope for too much if I were you. She can’t handle it.”

Today, reflecting on a story my parents never fail to repeat, I am struck by the tendency for teachers to place their students within categories. In the past few decades, thousands of elementary and middle schools have implemented “gifted” or “talented” programs to supposedly single out the students with potential from those without it.

These programs are not limited to elementary schools. In the school circuit I grew up in, the gifted kids in elementary schools ended up being the gifted kids in middle school and the Advanced Placement kids in high schools. These are the students that the nation ultimately sends to its top universities.

So, what happens to the other kids, the students who are supposedly not gifted? Sociologist Brenda Ring believes that self-esteems and self-concepts are immediately put at risk. Furthermore, “ungifted” students tend to stick to the label; they fail to challenge themselves, attributing this to their “lack of talent” or “smarts” for the harder classes. Ultimately, this creates a lag in the system. While a hundred students are excelling under the praise associated with “gifted classes,” a thousand more kids are cutting themselves off from the potential they are told they do not have.

According to Ann Robinson of Western Illinois University, “the gifted are labeled because they deviate from the norm in a positive way. They are ‘above average’ in intelligence or creativity or in whatever constellation of factors used to identify them.”

But what the system and, surprisingly, recent research in the field both fail to question is the supposed impact of separation not on the “gifted” but on the students who are not. What happens when a second grader is told she isn’t “gifted?” What happens when she continues to hear this until she believes it?