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21. Gifted & Talented Blind Kids

As many of you probably know, I can be quite a bit of a perfectionist. It's why I have an intricate color-coded Google Calendar, a spreadsheet documenting all of the dogs I have met since March, and for most of my life, why I prided myself on my record of maintaining straight A's. School was always my thing. When I tried ballet in preschool, I fell off the stage. I could never quite get into sparring when I had my stint with karate and I was picking dandelions instead of standing in front of the goal when I tried soccer. But school clicked for me. Studying and learning came easily. And consequently, I started to define myself by my ability to get good grades.

But something interesting happened last semester. I got my first B on a report card since the fourth grade. Now, if this had happened to me during high school, I would have cried hysterically about it and been upset for months thinking my chances of getting into a competitive university were dashed. But now I'm at a place where I understand that I am so much more than my GPA and that one B isn't going to end the world. So what exactly changed and how are these attitudes towards grades related to my blindness? Well, folks, that is what we are here to talk about today, so stay tuned.

*Intro music*

Hello everyone. Welcome back to another episode of Legally Blonde & Blind. I am praying that I do not sound nasally in this recording. I actually tested positive for COVID at the very beginning of the month, a few days after releasing the white canes in the wild episode, and was in isolation for a little over a week. I had a fever, cough, chills, muscle aches, and a sore throat. It was not good. But even after I tested negative and got to leave my tiny dorm room to experience social interaction for the first time in a week, I was still feeling pretty nasally and congested. So I waited a while to record. I think now it's been two weeks after the fact, and this is one of the first days where I truly feel normal.

I think now is the perfect time of year to start discussing academics and perfectionism, specifically how they relate to disability, because this is when things are really getting started. People are having their first exams, quizzes, or midterms. High school juniors are starting to tour colleges. Seniors are writing their common app essays, starting to submit their applications. This is when the pressure gets real in my experience. And in the blind community, there are so many people who are incredibly smart, hardworking, and dedicated. If you look at the people who win NOAH’s or the Lighthouse Guild’s or the NFB’s scholarships, they are amazing students. I think most of the blind and visually impaired people I've met throughout my life would describe themselves as ambitious or hardworking. But my question for today is, when does that go too far? When does that become toxic? And as a whole, how can we raise society's expectations for blind people without feeling like as individuals we have to be perfect?

So on the internet and at school, I've seen this idea floating around of the burnt out gifted kid. I wanna talk about what this phenomenon is and how I think it more heavily impacts students who are blind. But first, it is admittedly a very first world problem. There are so many schools in the United States and throughout the world that don't have the funding or resources to provide students with a gifted program. So this idea of complaining about having this privilege is kind of silly. That being said, I think the perfectionism that gifted programs and advanced classes foster have a significant impact on our mental health and our self image, especially as blind students. So it's important to talk about, but I think we need to keep in mind that we are very privileged to have access to these resources and educational opportunities.

So what is a burnt out gifted kid? Essentially, some people are labeled bright, smart, or intelligent when they're very young and possibly separated from their peers in some form of a gifted program. I know in my elementary and middle school, they would have this class once a week instead of Spanish or gym. So that made me very happy, but I know there are some programs or schools that are entirely designed for those who are labeled gifted. What usually happens then is you are bombarded with praise for making the principal's list, doing well on your math test, getting straight A's for X amount of years, and you begin to tie your self worth with how well you do in school.

And this can happen even if there is no direct external pressure to get certain grades. My parents never complained about my report card. They didn't look at my grades throughout the semester. They never read my college applications. I know some parents practically wrote their kids' essays. They just let me take care of it. But even with this lax attitude, I still felt immense pressure to perform well. I think I just believed people saw me as this self-motivated, diligent, and hardworking student and that if I wasn't the highest achiever, I would somehow fail or disappoint them.

I had won 12 or 13 academic awards in eighth grade. It was some absurd number. It got to the point where they basically had me stand up on the stage the whole time, but I thought people expected that every year after the fact. I thought I was somehow a disappointment in my freshman year since I had only brought home five awards and don't even get me started on how I felt sophomore year when I only had two. Looking back, I can laugh at these things, but they've legitimately stressed me out and kept me up at night. I felt like some of my extended family and family friends only saw me for my academic achievements. It felt like school was the only thing I was good at. I thought, if I'm not at the top of the class, then who am I?

As you can see, these competitive environments foster perfectionism and create an environment where students care more about exam scores and grades rather than learning and skill building. According to Healthline, “perfectionism can make you feel unhappy with your life. It can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and self-harm. Eventually it can also lead you to stop trying to succeed.” This quote alludes to the burnout component, and that usually occurs when students reach a point in middle high school or even college where the work becomes significantly more challenging to the point where you're no longer at the top.

What was kind of unique for me in this sort of transition, which I think happened pretty smoothly, was I always liked to study. That was something I always enjoyed doing, but in middle school, the work was not very challenging, so I wanted to achieve literal perfection, like hundreds in all of my classes. That was squashed in high school, and I'm very grateful. I had teachers who pushed me academically, who encouraged me to take more risks. So my problem was never really the study habits and the time management. It was more managing my expectations about grades. This idea that as you progress, you're going to be moving on to larger and more challenging courses, where getting those 100s or those 98s is no longer possible for you. So my transition throughout life to increasingly rigorous academic environments was pretty smooth, but it still took a lot of introspection, therapy, and honestly Prozac to feel good about myself, to have a healthy self-image that wasn't tied to external markers of validation.

While I was researching for this episode, I saw several memes that were essentially “burnt out gifted kid” bingo, and I wanted to read a few of the items on these lists because I think they highlight the lasting impact that these mindsets have on our mental health as we become adults. Some of these, not gonna lie, hit a little too close to home. Some symptoms, if you will, could include losing interest and quitting anything that doesn't come easily to you on the first try. A fear of not living up to your potential, refusing to ask for help, believing that you peaked in eighth grade or high school or whatever absurd marker you have in your head, Issues with authority, the need for instant gratification and validation issues with time management and procrastination, and finally, the inability to set realistic goals and expect.

At this point you might be thinking, Marissa, you haven't talked about albinism at all in the past five minutes. How does disability intersect with these overachieving tendencies? Well, at least for me, I noticed that as I progressed through elementary and middle school, people started to shift their attention away from my albinism as I began getting good grades and winning academic awards, and as somebody who was deeply insecure about how they were different from their peers, this was a welcome change for me. I noticed that the other “smart kids” in the room didn't have accommodations, at least to my knowledge, or didn't have aides helping them out. I felt like I had something extra to prove because I gathered at a very young age that teachers have this implicit association with IEPs, 504s, and any other accommodations with being in the lower level of the class. I didn't want to be lumped with the other students that had disabilities. I wanted to show that I was somehow different, and I think another huge factor was I never found any sports or non-academic extracurricular activities that stuck with me over the years. It felt like school was the only thing I was good at.

As I got older, I started to observe that some people in the albinism community, especially parents, are very achievement oriented, and I know everyone likes to brag about their kid. My mom does it. She still does it to this day. But I noticed the sentiment of, “oh, you don't have to worry about your newly diagnosed child. My child has albinism and they got into X University. They have a driver's license, they're a doctor, lawyer, whatever.” I think this is where a lot of the indirect pressure starts to play a role because I know the intention here is to alleviate the anxieties of new parents, but it makes me feel like I have to overcompensate for my albinism, like I have to prove it won't hold me back by getting into a certain university and maintaining a certain GPA.

It turns out I am not the only one who feels this way. I made several Facebook posts a few months ago asking people what they thought about perfectionism and disability. A lot of you guys express the same sentiments, this weird inherent pressure to prove that disabled and visually impaired people can do. This idea that you have to do more to seem normal. And this leads us to, you guessed it, society's low expectations for disabled people. The theme that this podcast keeps coming back to again and again. There is such a strong association between physical and intellectual disabilities that many people will automatically assume you are incompetent because you have an IEP or because you're looking close at something. And of course, no one wants to feel dumb or have people think they're dumb, so you feel this inherent pressure to prove them wrong. A few months ago, I remember seeing these albinism business cards, which I feel like I should make a version of someday, and one of the lines on them said, “Albinism doesn't impact my intelligence.” And the fact that we have to write that down on some card to give to ignorant people says something.

One quote that really stood out to me, I'll link the article in the description, was:

“Raise your hand if you've ever wanted to. Raise your hand if you've ever asked yourself, How much more do I have to do before I've done enough? How much more of myself do I have to give? How smoothly do I have to polish myself before I can move through the world without friction?”

I think what can happen too is that if a disabled child does well academically, they receive even more praise from parents and teachers because they're often overcoming additional barriers. And that's not to say we shouldn't praise and congratulate children for their hard work, but it was so easy for kids like me to begin tying our self worth to grades, especially if we aren't taught how to set realistic goals, how to manage stress, and how to implement healthy coping skills.

On that note, I think that there are several aspects and prevailing attitudes to the US education system that are the root of the problem here, that are leading us to value grades over our personal, professional, and academic development. First is the prevalence of a fixed rather than growth mindset amongst parents, educators, administrators, and consequently students. It's the belief that qualities like intelligence or talent are inherent. They are set in stone. The results, the numbers, the test scores, the GPAs, they are the only thing that matters. Success is about outperforming your peers. If you have to try hard, if you are struggling, that is a sign of failure. I mean, I look back at high school and the only thing my friends and I cared about were the test scores. We didn't care how much we learned in AP United States history or environmental science. It was about whether we got a four or a five. The way people got into my elementary, middle, and high schools gifted and talented program was through an IQ test. So it didn't matter how much you liked learning or how hard you worked in the classroom, what mattered was that single test. What was interesting for me is that I never got a qualifying score on one of these exams until I was in fifth grade. So I remember before then seeing my friends doing these really cool projects. I remember one time I saw two of my childhood friends dressed up as Greek goddesses, and I thought it would've been so cool to do research on them, but I didn't have the test score, so I wasn't a part of the program. And I think that example, as silly as that sounds, demonstrates how early in life we are sent these messages about our self worth and what really matters.

And if we're led to believe that traits like giftedness are something that's quantifiable, that some people have and other people don't, we get to this place where we don't wanna challenge ourselves. We don't wanna fail, we wanna prove that we're smart. We want praise, not criticism. And that's ultimately why it's called a fixed mindset, because we don't see opportunities for growth or improvement. There is no room for feedback or constructive criticism when you have a fixed mindset because. All you're thinking is, “I failed.” That's it.

Another problem is that we moralize academia quite a bit. I think we all knew somebody growing up who got in trouble for getting a bad grade on their math test or who got their Xbox taken away because they got a C on their report card. And that's not to say I think kids should be allowed to slack off without any consequences, but many of us take it way too far. My parents were never the type to punish or get mad at me if I got a bad grade. But even so, if I performed below my expectations, I felt like a bad person. I used to tell my friends that it felt like somebody died, and for the longest time I thought that feeling was normal because I thought grades were tied to who I was as a person.

But the truth is, human beings cannot function at maximum capacity all the time. People, especially those with chronic illnesses or disabilities, cannot always put a hundred percent into every single homework assignment, test, or essay in their life. And it took a long time for me to realize that's okay. I am a person, not a machine. By nature of being a human, getting tired, getting sick, dealing with external circumstances, I can't always perform at my best. And that doesn't mean I'm a failure.

This leads into my next point, which is that we tend to view productivity and success interchangeably. Without getting too much into political or economic commentary, capitalism essentially has led us to believe that we are more valuable as people if we can perform a standard nine to five job. This especially poses challenges for those who have chronic illnesses or disabilities with flare ups because while they are sick and unable to work, they feel less valuable. They feel less useful. And so when they're able, they overcompensate, they push themselves. I think this can happen with blind people too, because there are certain careers that we simply cannot do because of our low vision. We can't be airplane pilots or surgeons. So I feel like many of us feel this pressure to make up for that by doing well in school, it's almost a means of showing, “Hey, we can contribute something too.”

And finally, this will surprise no one who has ever set foot in a classroom or sat down for the SAT, but American schools for the most part, prioritize results over learning and do not have the resources to adequately care for our mental health. I don't wanna get into this too much because it's a very broad topic, and I think there are much more comprehensive resources if you're interested. But I will say as a student, I definitely noticed how much teachers and administrators cared about standardized test scores. This was way before the SAT or AP exams. Being in an environment where test scores are front and centers amplifies these feelings of needing to prove yourself.

So now that we've talked about some of these root causes, what can we do as blind students to start tackling some of these toxic mindsets towards grades and success that for many of us have been building in our heads since we were five or six? Well, it's not easy. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that there are worse things that could happen or that you should stop thinking about it. Because I know that won't work.

What I will tell you to do, however, is to find hobbies outside of school that you enjoy, preferably those that are not competitive whatsoever. I think one of the most amazing things that has happened for me in college is I have been able to implement so many things into my daily and weekly routines that I like to do that I would've never even thought of in high school. Things like hosting this podcast, writing episodes, posting on my dog Instagram page, taking spin classes, going for walks. I never did any of those things in high school. For the most part. I did DECA, Mock Trial, and my homework, which were all competitive and academically focused. That's not to say I didn't enjoy these things, but they were never truly for me. And they didn't really decrease my stress.

But if taking SoulCycle classes and asking strangers to pet their dogs isn't up your alley, there are two things I recommend. First go for walks. I learned this during the Coronavirus Pandemic when my dad made me get up off the couch and walk around the neighborhood with him, but getting outside does so much for my physical and mental health. It is an extremely low impact form of exercise that you can modify according to your needs. And it may be kind of challenging at first to schedule daily walks into your busy routine, but as you get used to it, you'll start looking forward to those parts of your day and naturally include them in your schedule.

Also read a book, and I don't mean a textbook or the New York Times. I feel like reading for pleasure is such a lost art amongst college students because we have so many homework assignments that by the end of the day we want nothing to do with any written text. But I challenge you to read something just for you. Just for fun. It doesn't necessarily have to be fiction. One of my favorite things is to read books about niche topics that I have never gotten a chance to study in school, like religious fundamentalism in America or the film industry in North Korea. It doesn't matter what it is. But do it for you

Next, we need to ditch the labels. What I mean by that is we as students need to stop seeing descriptors like smart, talented, successful, as fundamental to who we are, and obviously it's easier said than done. It took me years of introspection and eventually therapy to get to the place where I am now. And even though this is probably the healthiest relationship I have had with grades in my entire life, I still struggle with these feelings sometimes. It's not like something that's just going to go away. One thing that has helped me is to think about myself from an outsider's perspective, to think about why I admire my family, my friends, and how I would describe them. I wouldn't use superficial and arbitrary labels like smart or gifted to describe why I love them, and if the people in your life were asked to do the same exercise, they probably wouldn't either. I think it's interesting how much we can cling to these labels, especially this idea of being extraordinary. When I was in grade school and high school, the idea of placing in the middle of the class, or heaven forbid, towards the bottom terrified me. I felt like I was supposed to be the smart girl. If I wasn't, then people would see me as incompetent and lump me in with all of the negative misconceptions and stereotypes about disabled people. But the truth is we don't always have to be number one. We don't always have to be great at every single thing all the time. Like I was saying earlier, we're humans, not machines. And so in some areas you might be great and those labels might apply to you, but in others you might just be an average run of the mill human.

And that's okay. And finally, I know I have mentioned this in other podcast episodes, but I think it's worth repeating. Self-care is a necessity. It is not optional. It is not a luxury. It is not a distraction. We had a guest speaker in my meditation and leadership class who was talking about the importance of self care, and I really liked the way he put it. He said, “life is not tough it out cowboy style. You are a human being that has limitations despite what your mother told you.” So do all the things they list in fancy Canva graphics. Practice meditation, do some yoga, go for a walk, call a family member or friend, whatever floats your boat, but don't be too competitive about it. One aspect that I really liked was when he was talking about when he teaches meditation and mindfulness to college students, he notices that a lot of them go in with this idea that they are going to be the best at meditating. They are going to do everything right and be perfect at it, but that's really not the way you should approach self care. It is a process and there is no one set way to take care of yourself.

On that note, thank you all so much for listening. I hope you found today's message helpful and encouraging. I especially wanna thank everyone who responded to my Instagram story and my Facebook post about this episode topic. I wasn't sure if I wanted to do this. At first, I didn't know if other people could relate to it, but many of you do, and it was really encouraging to learn that I'm not alone. Let's just say I definitely needed these reminders as midterm season ramps up.

One last tangent. I learned that there is something harder to find than missing AirPods, and that is a missing apple pencil. As I'm recording this outro, I have lost my apple pencil twice within the past 24 hours. I usually don't lose it, but it seems like I have been having exceptionally bad luck. The thing that makes it worse with the Apple pencil is that there is no way to track it on Find My iPhone. So you're just stuck wandering around the school without any idea as to where it could be. Because I'm a busy gal, I walk around and if it fell outta my backpack, it could literally be anywhere.

Anyways, in these trying times, keep your friends close and your Apple pencil closer. If you like today's episode, make sure to subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or YouTube. You can also follow my social media pages on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram at Legally Blonde & Blind for more updates. Thank you all for listening, and I hope to SEE you soon!


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