When We Label Some Children ‘Gifted,’ What Does That Say to the Others?

As a kid, I went to a public middle school in the Bronx, not far from where I grew up. It was one of four separate academies in the building, each with its own floor and personality. Mine was supposedly for “gifted” kids.

Even within my program, we were tracked into separate classes. When I entered in the seventh grade, there was 7A, 7B, and 7C. 7A students were privy to the best instruction the school had to offer: their teachers were the chairs of their departments, and the students built robots in science class and had after school activities. In 7C, my best friend (who I’ll call Michael) and I didn’t have those opportunities.

I thought back to middle school again recently, when a new study found students of color are underrepresented in gifted programs relative to white students. Black students in particular are half as likely as white students to be placed on a gifted track. The report and the ensuing commentary tended to focus on achieving more equitable representation of students of color in gifted programs. But it made me think about a different problem. When we label some students “gifted,” and give them access to special privileges and better instruction as a result, what message are we sending the other kids—the “un-gifted” ones?

Most of our teachers in 7C taught as if they’d been doing the same thing for years: stale lessons in monotonous tones that made us want to busy ourselves passing notes to each other and playing Gameboys under our desks. Apart from a couple teachers who made learning entertaining, many teachers we had access to in 7C didn’t make it sound like what they spoke about was worth knowing. When we saw what we were getting in contrast to our classmates in 7A and 7B, it wasn’t hard to discern the message: You don’t deserve the absolute best teaching. So we didn’t pay attention.

As seventh grade came to a close, a couple of teachers who were fond of me and wanted me to succeed academically petitioned to move me to 8B the following year. I felt like I’d been chosen. Meanwhile, Michael continued on the C track.

Michael was as bright as I was. Our only real difference was I gave a little more effort: I completed most homework assignments and hurriedly studied for tests on the public bus to school. Michael cheated off me and did what he needed to pass—which wasn’t much.

As it turned out, my half-baked effort didn’t work so well in 8B. I struggled severely at first—there were daily quizzes I flunked, and our readings and conversations were longer and more in-depth than I was used to—but I wasn’t deterred. My flailing only made me want to show my new teachers and peers I deserved to be in their classroom.

So I stopped hanging out with Michael so much. I spent more time at home studying and began to read and write for fun. Michael didn’t understand this change. He’d tease me, asking, “You think you’re better than us now?” It was middle school humor, but there was truth to it. The choice for me to advance to a higher class effectively signaled to him that I was better.

When it was time to choose high schools, I almost enrolled in our zone high school with Michael—a school known for gang violence and metal detectors. But my math teacher in 8B sat me down and practically made me apply for a scholarship to a private school in a better part of the Bronx. I went there. Michael went to the zone school.

We stayed in touch sporadically. The next time we hung out, he’d been expelled and was shuffling in and out of alternative schools. The time after that, I was 17 and thinking about applying to Ivy League colleges. He was considering abandoning school altogether. Today, I have no clue where he is.

I wasn’t inherently better or smarter than Michael, or anyone else in 7C. I fooled around too, cheated a few times, and cut class on occasion. The real difference between us? Someone in school had called attention to my potential, and given me the extra support to push me back in the right direction when I went too far astray.

When I think about where Michael—and other kids I knew or read about—ended up, I wonder: Did they spiral away because they didn’t have the potential to tackle challenging assignments? Because they weren’t, in fact, “gifted”? Or because they didn’t believe they had that potential—and they didn’t have access to opportunities to try? Honestly, I don’t know the answer. But I suspect that while choosing gifted children can be life-altering for those who are chosen, it’s perhaps more life-altering for those who aren’t. 

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Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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