Confessions of a Former Gifted Kid

Phoenix Lee
5 min readDec 14, 2019

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This is not me, but this is a rough estimate of my emotional state in grade school.

Growing up, I was what one might call a “gifted kid.” I learned to read at age 3 by repeating my older brother. I was skimming my parents’ old Encyclopedia Britannica at four years old. I got straight A’s in third grade and B-averages nearly every other year between fourth grade and my senior year of high school. I played the flute in the school band in middle school and did drama and painting in high school. I got scholarships to three of the colleges I applied to at 18. It was then when things started to turn…

When I went to college for the first time, something unexpected happened; I burned out. I enrolled at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County in 2005 with the goal of eventually double majoring in animation and theatre. But…that didn’t happen. Going away to school was admittedly something I wasn’t ready for. Granted, my experience wasn’t a total loss; I did have my first steady job there (as a cashier in the dining hall), I was able to make friends pretty easily, and getting involved with the campus’s LGBT club provided me with my first crowd of openly gay, lesbian, bi, and trans friends (and yes, I was your typical queer kid who started off as an overly invested “ally” years before coming out myself). My positive experiences aside, my grades tanked, and I ended up going home and taking community college classes the next year.

So what happened? I was definitely a smart kid whose head was almost always in a book, so how could my grades have gotten so low? Looking back to that time in my life fourteen years later (having worked more jobs, completed a B.A. in English, and lived on my own as an adult), I think I have a bit more insight.

I completed this one myself…

These days, I spend a lot of time thinking back to my younger self; that awkward, seemingly gay kid who was considered “weird” by her peers for being introverted and loving to read the dictionary. At home, I was the second of what was eventually five kids, and being noticed wasn’t always easy (not because of any lack of care on the part of my parents; it’s just that between working full-time, daily life pressures, and raising a brood of five, they had their work more than cut out for them). So growing up, bringing home good grades and honor roll certificates was a way to grab attention and praise.

You might be thinking “But Phoenix, that sounds like a good thing. Where’s the problem?” I don’t want to downplay the importance of praising your kids for their achievements. I don’t have any kids of my own, but I do understand the basic psychology of positive reinforcement. If your kid brings home good grades on math tests or book reports, give them a pat on the back for their hard work. Take them out for (vegan) ice cream to celebrate the end of a school year they completed or after they’ve graduated from middle school to high school (side note: personally if it were up to me, every kid who made it through middle school would get $1,000 and a lifetime pass to see any movie they wanted for free, but that’s neither here nor there). So where’s the problem, exactly? Well, to put it bluntly, all this praise can create a mindset in a gifted kid wherein being gifted becomes their entire identity.

I was praised for reading voraciously by my 8th grade English teacher, to the point that she was shocked when I did poorly on an essay assignment. My parents and high school English teacher scratched their heads at my boredom with Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (I honestly found it incredibly dry) because of my love of reading. Honestly, I did my best work when reading what I wanted to read (I recall writing my junior year term paper on the theme of rebellion present in the work of Kerouac and Kesey; I earned an A- on that). I floundered when reading material I couldn’t get into (the aforementioned Steinbeck, and The Catcher in the Rye, for example), but couldn’t live with bad grades in my second best subject. So…okay, full disclosure, I’m not proud of this, but I read the Cliffs Notes to know what was going on in Catcher because I was so annoyed by Holden Caulfield (side note: suburban Maryland honors classes happen to be filthy with Holden Caulfield wannabes, and dealing with those types in real life was too much, but I digress).

I hate that I ended up taking that route, but this is the kind of thinking that often goes through the head of a kid who’s praised for being smart and…not much else. Keep in mind, by this point, in 2003, I was diagnosed with depression, on medication, and at this point, my grades were really all I had. I needed good grades to get scholarships, I thought. I have four brothers, and my parents can’t afford to send all of us to school out of their own pockets. What about extracurriculars? I’m exhausted, but I should have some extracurriculars to get into college. I’ve never even had a job…I’m not in any honor societies…what do I have going for me???

I’ve changed a lot in the past three decades; even within the past few months, I’ve fallen, broken down, cried, healed, made amends with my family, and started getting my life back together. I’m back in school, going for a Ph.D. (eventually) in Sociology. My family was gracious enough to let me move back in with them for six months while I go to class, work, and get my life on track. I’d rather not go into everything I’ve experienced in the past year, but it’s been a real learning experience. I embrace still being book smart, but understand that I still have a lot to learn about life, including money, responsibility, and self-care. I make sure to go to my doctor’s appointments, to be social and not shut people out, not to spend like there’s no tomorrow, and remember that even if my body is a little sick, it’s still a temple that requires care.

I did this one, too…

So to all those former gifted kids (and even current gifted kids!), remember this: grades aren’t everything, and there’s life after high school. Peace and love!

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Phoenix Lee

Black vegan anarchafeminist crippled queer (they/he/she). Giver of hot takes and spiller of tea.