Rules for being a gifted adult, Part 1: Secret origins

Screen capture of vintage 1953 educational video.
Screen capture of vintage 1953 educational video on "School Rules."

WASHINGTON, September 2, 2014 – Funny: the lines between being ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and gifted are really seeming blurry these days. Diagnosis and/or determination of ADD seems to depend on the line of business the academic  advisor / counselor / psychologist / specialist / whatever happens to be in and the primary source from which the bulk of their income stream flows.

Oh, and no kids are just plain Bad. But that’s not the point of this piece, and antagonizing people is not its purpose. Let’s look back.

Hundreds of thousands of us—millions, really—all adults now, grew up in a time not so long ago when nobody knew anything about gifted and talented (GT) or ADD/ADHD. The latter pairing is a fairly current diagnosis describing the possible reason behind kind of overactive behavior and thought patterns that often conceal a child’s or even an adult’s considerable intellectual and creative gifts.

Decades ago, science hadn’t yet figured this one out. Teachers didn’t either, and there weren’t a lot of school administrative types and counselors around then to provide help. It was the 1950s and ‘60s after all, and disruptive kids simply needed to be stifled with more discipline and tighter control. Obedience to authority was paramount.

Baby Boomers invade post-war classrooms

After wars, people tend to settle down and make babies. After World War II, young men and women who had survived the deprivation of the Great Depression, and then had found themselves moving on and off horrendous battlefields across the globe for a few years finally discovered they actually had a chance for a real life once the Second World War had concluded.

These members of the Greatest Generation Americans felt they had succeeded in making the world right again, so they applied themselves to getting an education, getting a good job, and making more babies than usual.

Each family’s first baby was special. The second one was pleasant. But multiply that by the many baby-producing households up and down the street, and the Specials, Pleasants, and the mini-sibs who followed them all morphed into an historic, massive multitude of needy tykes—a huge new generation that had to be fed, clothed, educated, and above all, kept out of trouble, all on a gigantic scale.

This huge population of youngsters—soon dubbed the Baby Boom or Baby Boomers—attended schools en masse. Overworked teachers, particularly in parochial schools, prized obedience and conformity from oversized populations of students packed like sardines into pre-war classrooms that, when built, never anticipated the level of crowding that occurred after the war.

I recall one teacher remarking to another about her classroom of fifth graders, “I can keep up to 60 under control, but with even one or two over that number, it just isn’t possible.”

Smart kids don’t have smart mouths

Although having sixty-plus kids in a class was somewhat unusual, classrooms of 45 were common in public and private schools alike. Being a spontaneous, free-spirited student wasn’t a valued quality in this tight-packed environment; being a well- socialized student was.

The often unspoken rule in these days seemed to be: “Keep your mouth shut and your head down.” For this they called you a smart kid. Maybe a “gifted” kid in later terminology. Or at least a “well-behaved” kid who acted like a “young lady” or “young gentleman.”

If a genuinely “gifted” kid manifested externally as loquacious or overly animated, however, this dreadful young creature clearly wasn’t perceived as gifted. It was an incorrigible creature. It was bad. Worst of all, it was not “normal.”

Worse, this fidgety, mouthy, troublesome but actually gifted kid tended to get lumped together, judgment-wise, with the one or two sociopaths that seemed to have been evenly distributed to every overcrowded classroom in the country, leading to an unfortunate kind of equal treatment.

Misbehave as a kid, and mid-twentieth-century authority figures routinely demanded, “Who do you think you are?” No answer for that without risking corporal punishment. The proper response such a query was to squirm and look at the ground, perhaps muttering some kind of apology in the process.

Few of these gifted but apparently misfit kids knew that the real answer to “Who do you think you are?” was, “Nobody. I’m nobody.” There often was nowhere else to go at that time. Thus reinforced, deeply negative self-opinions often took root at this point, haunting and crippling later adolescent and adult development and abilities.

(Here’s an education film from that era describing the importance of always adhering to the rules.)

Hey, folks! We’re not nobody.

Were those of us consigned to this cadre of incorrigibles really bad kids? Nah. Look at us as we came out the other side. Most of us have had careers, kids of our own. Many of us are doing okay even after layoffs and cutbacks. There were just a lot of us and it was easier to generalize about who we were as the boom crested and peaked. And in all honesty, who had the time to pay attention to most of us anyway?

Okay, hardly any of us got that gold watch from Mega-Lith Corp. during the time we spent in the 9 to 5 jungles. But so what?  We have something better, something that stuck with us through thick and thin no matter what. It took us through the turbulent, post-education decades that those post-war rules for success failed to prepare us for.

For the longest time, nobody noticed what really made us tick, either via observation, testing, or therapy. What was it?

The ancestors among you…

Inherently and by definition, many of us were indeed problem kids on the surface, at least in the perception of our teachers and often our parents. The truth is, we were and are gifted. We’re the different, sometimes ostracized kids who survived childhood before and during the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s primarily by learning to stifle our true, inner selves.

We learned early on the importance of hiding who we were and are in plain sight. We stayed safe because we were instinctively smart enough to lay low—until now.

Next: Part 2 − Looking Ahead: Rules for being a gifted adult in the early 21st century


Fran Ponick, MA, is certified in P-ESL (Pronouncing English as a Second Language). Fran’s company, Leadership English®, offers full-service business communication skills, training, and coaching for executive and entrepreneurial non-native and native speakers of English as well as award-winning writing and editorial services for businesses large and small.

Leadership English®: Your Voice. Your Future.

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