That fall, when Grace started the gifted school-within-a-school program, was not spent focusing or doing what she was supposed to. Her teacher was emailing, albeit carefully, letting me know that she was hoping Grace could focus a bit and give her best effort. These emails made my husband and I smile. She was getting in trouble because she had found her community.
Suicidal. Nine years old. Beautiful, bright, creative, and existentially plugged in. And gifted. And suicidal.
Bedtime. “Mom, was it ever so hard when you were a kid that you just didn’t want to live anymore?”
As a gifted coordinator, I was thrilled that my children had been chosen via lottery to attend an alternative, multiage school. What a better way than to differentiate, especially for my gifted daughter? Classrooms were primary (with kindergarten, first-, and second-grade students) and intermediate (with third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students). Each room had seven students of each grade level.
Later, I found out that this structure had been devastating for my daughter. When, at the end of the year, the second graders moved on to an intermediate classroom, Grace grieved the loss. She grieved profoundly and never mentioned how much she missed her older friends. As a way to cope, Grace made it her mission to make sure no one felt alone. When the new kindergarteners arrived, first-grade Grace scooped them all in and made sure they were taken care of and had what they needed. She used this role as a way to balance the deep ache of loss she felt for the third of the class who had moved on to an intermediate classroom.
The grief cycle continued for Grace every spring and fall while in this school. As an educator, it didn’t occur to me that this class configuration was a potential downside for sensitive, gifted children. I did not recognize her empathetic, nurturing actions were a coping mechanism, although being steadfastly nurturing and inclusive are two ways she serves the world even today.
The following year, Grace’s younger brother joined her classroom. I expected some irritation or exasperation from having five-year-old Sam underfoot every day, all day. When I asked how it was going, she relayed that it was kind of hard sometimes. I said that yes, that it was understandable having a little brother to bug her in her classroom would be hard. I explained it was unusual for them to be in the same room. She looked confused at my comment at first, and then she clarified what she had meant. “No, Mom. It is hard to share Sam with the other kids.” She walked away, leaving me speechless.
The beginning of third grade was a significant transition. Grace was leaving Mrs. S., her teacher for three consecutive years and who she loved deeply. Grace’s new teacher was a veteran educator who felt the love of teaching in her bones. She loved kids, curriculum, and being a teacher. I sincerely appreciated and admired this teacher professionally. My husband and I felt fortunate Grace would be a third-grade student in her classroom. We hoped she would feel at home with the other third graders, the fourth graders, and the fifth graders. I knew Mrs. W. could get Grace to use her intellect and ability, along with her empathetic nature.
As an educator, I knew that the transition from primary to intermediate grades is often difficult. I was bracing myself and trying to prepare Grace to be a small fish in a bigger pond with more rigorous expectations and more responsibilities.
At the beginning of the school year, things seemed fine. I kept waiting for Grace to settle in, make more friends, and discover what a fantastic teacher she had. My waiting never ended. All through the fall, Grace spent time at the nurse’s office with stomachaches, headaches, and just “not feeling good.” We took her to the doctor, an intuitive, brilliant pediatrician, Dr. J., who identified with Grace’s giftedness and had been a great help when dealing with typical gifted issues like tactile sensitivities, food, and noise sensitivities. We repeatedly took Grace to have her assessed. There was nothing physically wrong with Grace.
I might mention here that Grace had become more selective with what she was sharing with us. Considering we were encouraging her like, “You can do this! Try asking the adults for help if you feel stuck” (thinking she might be academically struggling), it’s no wonder she stopped sharing. We were utterly missing what she was going through. Her response was to shut down.
She was concerned we would worry if she shared how she was feeling and what was going on. She thought she could handle things on her own. A frequent issue with gifted kids is that they take on adult-level worry without practical experience regarding how to process and/or cope with such powerful emotions; my daughter would also prefer chewing off her arm before asking for or admitting she needs help, so a potential disaster was almost inevitable.
A common characteristic among Gifted children commonly prefer spending time with older kids. These chronologically older kids tend to be a better match intellectually than agemates. Being a “mini mom” in her last classroom, I imagine Grace was hungry for more intellectually stimulating conversations. In a multiage classroom, Grace naturally gravitated to older, fifth-grade girls. Now, if you have ever worked at an elementary school or had an older elementary school girl in the top (read oldest) grade in the school, you will understand that there is typically a group of Mean Girls.
Fast forward to an evening in February. Bedtime. Sitting on the edge of her bed, she and I were talking. About what, I have no idea now. I only remember the moment she said, “Mom, can I ask you something?”
“Was it ever so bad when you were a kid that you didn’t want to live anymore?”
The world tipped on its axis. A roaring in my ears began. All the isolated incidents threaded together before me. She had been being bullied since…when? The beginning of the year? Before that? The stomachaches, headaches… she had been trying to escape. And we had shoved her back into the lion’s den. Telling her she had to stay in class and couldn’t go to the nurse anymore. And I, an educator for more than twenty years at the time, had missed it.
Murderous rage flooded my mouth and gut. My vision narrowed and spun. And then, I snapped hard back into the moment. I clicked into professional mode. I didn’t let myself panic. I still can hear my own breath in my ears. Each breath, deliberate.
Imagine a perfect storm of an open, curious, friendly, innocent third-grader gravitating to fifth-grade girls in her class. She wanted to share her ideas, ask questions, play games, talk about books. The group of older girls she kept approaching (from her class) were not interested in her ideas, her innocence, or her pure intentions. Almost as a rite of passage, these girls were hyper-focused on appearances, determining the social status of others, and annihilating anyone they targeted as weak.
Subtle and sinister. Girl bullying is sneaky, hard to spot, and pervasive. It is also tough to stop. Mrs. W. would turn her back, and one of the girls would shoot Grace a look…narrowed eyes, one eyebrow raised…mean and snotty. Every day, all day, all week long. Hopeless despair.
The next year and a half included coordinated visits between our pediatrician and a therapist who supposedly had experience with gifted children. I believe a great deal of time was spent with Grace avoiding talking about her real experiences and feelings. After eighteen months, the therapist suggested we go back to the pediatrician for help. Based on mental health assessments, Grace still exhibited suicidal ideation and pervasive signs of depression.
After agonizing over the decision as to whether or not to explore medication, a pediatrician friend told me, “Kris, being ten years old doesn’t have to be this hard.” Our pediatrician recommended Prozac as it had the “best” success for children and teens when paired with talk therapy. We changed therapists, started medication, and over the next few months, she began to feel better. The sparkle returned to her eyes more and more frequently.
Grace describes her medication as providing a hammock effect for her mental state. Since my husband and I are both on medication to address depression as well, we are very clear about what our focus needs to be. Our family’s focus was and is on quality of life.
Fast forward to the fall of fifth grade. With a more stable mental health situation, I was hopeful for the first time in what felt like an eternity. Grace had been tested for and accepted into a self-contained gifted education program, called Quest, in our local school district. Students testing in the top 1-3 percent in the fourth and fifth grades could attend Quest, with teachers who had received extensive training for working with gifted children.
Once in middle school, they traveled together as a cohort through the four core classes: math, English, science, and social studies. The remainder of courses they are mixed in with mainstream classmates. In high school, they had one more class together as a group and full access to all course offerings.
That fall, when Grace started the gifted school-within-a-school program, was not spent focusing or doing what she was supposed to. Her teacher was emailing, albeit carefully, letting me know that she was hoping Grace could focus a bit and give her best effort. These emails made my husband and I smile. She was getting in trouble because she had found her community. She was euphoric like a pig in mud. Kids in this class understood her. Finally, she had come home—to her community of gifted kids, like her.
Curious, a bit mischievous, talkative, and engaged. Achieving. Learning. Happy. Quality of life? Excellent. Finding community. Life or Death? It was for us.