2nd July Monday
School ends on Thurday this week, and I was still busy with the parents' work at school, this time with the cookbook that we desperately wanted to get out for Speech Day on Wednesday.
Walking past the lobby I saw excitement over a list of names posted and remembered that the Prize Winners List should be up and I went to take a look, expecting my son's name to feature.
Not the 'Attainment Prize', not the 'Progress Prize', not even the 'Effort Prize'. We knew he wouldn't have won the Handwriting Prize as he didn't complete it, so that's that.
No, that wasn't that. My heart sank. It fell into my soles and if it could have sunk further, would have done so.
How is son going to react? What will the emotional fallout be? Would I be able to cope with the tantrums and the tears?
He had been so confident of winning the 'Attainment Prize'. His aim was to win it three years in a row. As he saw himself as being clearly ahead of his peers at work in class, he thought the Prize was his. How will he cope with this 'failure'?
I had to work on damage limitation. I went home and quickly wrote a note to his Form teacher. Please make sure he gets a 'class prize' so that he does not feel overlooked.
Then I had time to think through the 'why did he not get the Attainment Prize' more thoroughly.
His teacher had told us that he would definitely get the prize. He is so far ahead of his peers in work. How did he not, eventually, get the prize?
The thoughts that ran through my mind were: was there some bias? I know he is not the teacher's favourite student. He was deemed too stiff in acting, too narrow in his views, too concerned with right and wrong, and hell bent on getting the one acceptable correct answer to anything. These were not characteristics endearing to his Form teacher.
Husband happened to be home due to illness. We conferred and decided that we must email the Headmaster and asked, "If son was made out to be so clever and intelligent by all those who had taught him, why then is his achievement not in line with his ability?"
(OK, he did not get the Attainment Prize, what about 'Progress'? He has progressed further than anyone else in the class. No, that prize went to another boy. OK, 'Effort' then? How could the School who kept telling him "Don't be too hard on yourself" because he tries so hard to be perfect now turn around to say he did not even deserve an 'Effort' Prize?)
I became more and more confused, and more and more distraught. Something is not right with the 'system', if there was one.
We hoped that the list was just a provisional list and that perhaps there was a typo.
3rd July. We've had no response from either Form Teacher or Headmaster. I had a quick word with the Form Teacher at drop-off time and clearly the matter of our email had been raised with her by the Headmaster.
Her brief, almost dismissive, comment was "He just did not perform at the test and someone else did better".
A test? I was gobsmacked. What test did she mean?
O yes! At some point my son mentioned they were doing 'tests'. At the parent-teacher consultation, the teacher also mentioned tests, and assured us that son was performing up to standards in his Maths and Science tests. At that point they had not conducted the English test because the papers were not available.
So, I concluded, on the basis of the English test, son had lost his prize.
It does not matter that he is better at spelling and dictation than all the boys, or that his Maths is way ahead of everyone else, or that he tackles the most complicated issues in Science with panache. He did not come in first on a timed test.
As the boy who won the Attainment Prize also won the Handwriting Prize I then concluded that my son lost his Prize on the basis of his bad handwriting.
When we talked to him about the test he let on that he did not manage to finish writing his story. In any case, he volunteered, there were not enough pages for him to write his very complicated story. This was his way of rationalizing his inability to complete his task.
The pieces were beginning to fall into place.
He was either trying too hard to get his handwriting perfect to complete his essay or he panicked too much about completing a written task within a certain time to manage to complete his test.
I searched the Internet on 'gifted children and handwriting' and all the results tell me that gifted children often have 'chicken scratches' rather than handwriting. Many are penalized as a result. Gifted children also learn to compensate. My son's way of compensating is to write the minimum, simply because he cannot bear to see his own handwriting which he feels is not up to the standard he demands of himself.
His teacher tells us that he speaks excellent grammatical, well-structured English using the most flowery and complex figurative language. His writing however is at par with, at best, the most average student.
Clearly this dis/ability in handwriting or aversion to written tasks had not been taken into account. When I reflected on how he froze at his handwriting competition, it only adds further evidence to how my son does not like writing down anything on paper.
Next question: why was no allowance given so that he could be tested verbally or in any form other than written tests? Was the test a test on ability, attainment or handwriting?
I chided myself for not doing this research a little earlier. I must confess I had been in a state of denial about son's abilities. We assumed (wrongly, we now know) that if he is so clever, then this cleverness will show through and there is no need for us to push or do anything different. Any emotional calamity he had been facing was put down to his need to be perfect and we assumed that he would grow out of it. Well, apparently they don't.
With no response still from the Headmaster, I then sent a long email to the Second Master (who had observed him at lessons), the first person who alerted us early in this academic year to 'seriously consider' that our son could be 'gifted'. (The Form teacher does not usually check her email so it was pointless trying to write to her.)
We are really worried that if son continues to 'under-perform' in written tests he is going to give up. He is clearly very bright and he manipulates numbers and scientific knowledge very expertly. But his frequent frustration at the lack of recognition for what he is capable of was also clear.
After more questioning, we realized that he had pretty much been teaching himself Maths at school. He was given his text-book and he just followed the instructions and had taught himself fractions and long division, etc. (Most of the rest of the class are still adding and subtracting.)
At home I found him demonstrating and explaining kinetic energy and how it is transferred using his sky-rail (a sophisticated marble run).
But learning by rote is very difficult for him.
Instead of memorizing the sequence of 7 times table, for example, he adds 1 to the 'ten' column and takes away 3 in the units column. So while he is able to do mental arithmetic very quickly while 'reciting' the tables in order, he gets stumped by 'random tables' when he is thrown numbers like 3x7, 9x7, etc at random.
Spelling: he had been complaining about being bored with spelling the same simple words over and over again. We don't even drill him, but he has a 100% record.
Looking at the literature available it has become clear to me that his intelligence has to be managed and nurtured in a very different way from other children and we have now requested a conference with the staff who'd teach him next year to sort this out.
For example, he manipulates facts in a very different way from me. This was clearly the case when we had 12 fairy cakes. After three were eaten I asked him what fraction had been eaten. The answer came back almost instantly, "a quarter".
When asked to explain how he worked that out, he mumbled something about "4x3 equals 12, and I know if 4 is at the bottom than it is a quarter".
Neither my husband nor I quite understood how he got to the correct answer, but we did not argue with him.
OK, what if another fairy cake was eaten, what fraction now has been eaten? "O! That's easy, one-third." There was no hesitation at all.
What if Mummy eats another two (ie six out of twelve)?
"That's a half."
Another plea from the experts in dealing with children like him is: do not make them "show their working". Their "working" might be completely nonsensical to a teacher.
Interestingly while he is so good at retaining certain facts (thermodynamics, kinetic energy, poetry, lines from films and plays, etc), he is hopeless at remembering a sequence IF it is not first made clear to him that it is a sequence he has to remember.
So if I casually mentioned that we are going to the Post Office to post parcels, then to the shop to buy some food, then to a book shop to buy him a treat, he would be asking 50 yards down the road, "Where are we going? Why are we going there?"
If I prefaced this with, "Remember this sequence: ...." he would remember the sequence without a problem. This suggests that 'trivial' information does not register at all with him, but when he's presented with a 'whole unit' (eg a sequence of events) somehow he makes them into a sensible, memorizable and therefore recollectable body of facts.
Is that why he is often unable to tell us what lunch he was given at school, or who were the boys in his team at play or games? These facts are of no importance to him. Trivia do not register at all.
But on the last Wednesday of school when Science lesson was replaced by Art, there was no end of complaining, "We didn't have our Science lesson today. Instead we had to complete making a stupid shield."
I've also learned not to tell him he is too much of a perfectionist in his work. It appears that he cannot help it. That's the way he functions. That's the way he makes sense of the world. That is the way he approaches life. Just as one cannot tell a child his hair is too brown, please make it less brown, a gifted child cannot be told that he is too perfectionistic.
At the first opportunity I said to my son I had to apologise to him.
"For what?" he asked.
"For all those times I've been telling you to 'not be such a perfectionist'. I now realize that's the way you are special and you cannot help being like that. I shall try to stop myself from saying you are being too hard on yourself."
A wide cheeky grin spread across his face and he put his hands together, '"Yippee!"
At last, it must have seemed to him, there is a grown-up who understands that he cannot help doing things the way he does, and feeling the frustration when things do not go his way.
When I read about how children like him could be very sensitive to noise and touch, they add up further. When playing his first football match in a cavernous indoor pitch he became distressed by all the shouting and echoes in the hall. I saw the teacher leading him out of the hall.
When I got down to the bottom of the stairs I heard her telling him he just had to cope with it. I did not intervene because I thought the same: this is part and parcel of life, he just has to learn to cope with it.
He is ultra-sensitive to clothes labels, another symptom of his 'condition'. I cannot recall the number of times he has complained that the labels are bothering him and we have had to cut away so many labels. Now he has taken to wearing his socks inside out so that the seam at the toes do not bother him so much.
On Speech Day itself he coped well with not winning a prize because we primed him for it. But he got very upset that a classmate -- for what he felt was a silly reason -- pushed past him. He just went into a strop for the next half hour.
The solution is to avoid taking him to places where he has trouble coping with these stimuli.
We have a long way to go in understanding his needs and how he learns, but building on his confidence in handwriting is the project for this summer holiday.
As usual, I would appreciate any advice.