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Every child loves the attention and acceptance of being complimented by teachers and parents. Being called bright, gifted, and special carried more weight than the words funny or loyal. I remember leaving my classes before the end of the day to work in the “gifted and talented” room. What I was too young to realize was that the attention would slowly stop while the expectations would quickly rise. By the time I reached my senior year, my brain was overwhelmed and my mind lost all energy. How does one go from a bubbly child to a teenager at her breaking point?
As a child, I excelled in various activities including reading, critical thinking, and athletics. Teachers would say, “Your daughter is bound to succeed. If she keeps up in school, college will be a breeze.” I knew what pressure was when I was five. I knew what failure was at seven. I knew what was good enough and what was not by nine.
My expectations were sometimes my own. I never went home with a disciplinary note or a bad grade. Most gifted children brag about their accomplishments and are proud to be remarkable. My parents, whether they admitted it or not, realized I was the child they did not have to worry about because of the “gifted” title.
I went through all of elementary and middle school with the same mindset I had always had. Stress, pressure, and anxiety came with intelligence and drive. At least, that is what I was taught to believe. I always wanted to succeed because failure was my greatest fear.
However, going to high school changed my life in a bittersweet way. My freshmen year started rough with moving schools and changing my academic schedule. I figured out the difference between a child with abilities and a teenager running out of steam. I filled my schedule with honors classes, clubs, and sports in hopes of relighting the fire that once burned in my heart. It did not work. As awful as the tension felt, giving up was even worse. My grandma would tell me, “It’s harder for you to fail than get an ‘A’” and I would respond with “Let’s see if that’s true.” I never tested that theory. I would call my grandma and say, “I wish I could catch a break. What’s the point?” What was the point of working myself into the ground for a decent report card? She would answer and say, “Think about your future.”
I packed my senior year with AP and college courses, multiple clubs, and jobs. On my first day, my anatomy teacher told my class “Only 3 of you will get A’s and most of you will barely pass.” As a teenager accustomed to earning A’s, hearing that only three of thirty would have the top grade was shocking. On the other hand, this was a teacher I had before who had plenty of faith in my abilities. This was enough for me. It was not enough for everyone.
I do not remember the actual number but I went home with a “C” on our first professional exam. My dad saw the grade and asked, “Why didn’t you study?” I explained how my grade was high and my teacher was working on a curve. He ignored my response when he answered with, “No more hanging out with friends if you have a test during the week.” His response spoke volumes. My work was not good enough.
There were times I cried and broke down over the pressure on my shoulders. When I took my second exam and received an 88, I was beyond proud. I brought the test home and showed it to my parents with a smile. They looked at me and asked, “How long did you study?” I thought it was a joke, but they were serious. “An 88 is not bad, but we know you can do better,” they said, dismissing all the hard work I put in. That was when I gave up on being that smart, perfect child.
After this massive turning point, I spent the rest of my senior year reminding myself to prioritize my mental health and to stop basing my worth on grades. Throughout the summer, my parents began to see burnout control my life. My dad finally understood the weight I had been under and chose to talk to me about it. He asked, “Are you okay?” He meant it. I explained how I felt like I would never be enough. My dad did apologize for making me feel like my entire life was only as valuable as a report card.
As a first-year college student, I have made an effort to focus on myself and less on achieving A’s. I still struggle with being a burnt-out gifted kid since I spent 17 years under that label. I never really blamed my parents for how I felt because it technically was not their fault. The teachers at school told them how great I was and how much I could handle, forcing my parents to raise their expectations. The teachers at school started the equivalency of grades to self-worth. If I planned to blame anyone for how gifted children turn out, I would blame those who started creating this pressure in schools.
Email Delaney at email@example.com