A new girl came to my school when I was in the first grade. I think we all knew something was different about her right away because before she ever set foot in the school her parents came and spent a week sitting in folded chairs, observing our classroom routine. Our teacher acted overly humble and kind of awed whenever she had to speak to this couple. The third day they were there we were told we would no longer have painting time and instead would all go into the commons area and do vigorous exercising for a half hour. Pushups, jumping jacks, running in place.
Afterward, on my way back to the classroom, the observing parents stopped me and asked if I had enjoyed the exercises. They both wore huge idiot grins as if to encourage me to say Yes. I told them it was OK but that we used to do painting, which I really liked.
"So you mean you kids don't do this every day? When we asked your principal about it he said you kids do this three times a week," the woman said.
"No," I told her, "we just started this today."
"But you must have liked getting the exercise?" she asked.
"Well yes," I told her, "but we already get exercise at recess. We all run around like crazy so I guess they thought that was enough exercise."
They asked me my name and then asked me why I thought the principal had lied to them. I said I didn't know but probably so they'd like us and would think we were a good enough school for their kid.
"Well don't other parents observe the routine before sending their children here?" the man asked.
This made me laugh. I said No, I'd never seen any parents do that before. I told them other parents just figured the school must be good enough, because it's a school. I asked them why they never brought their little girl with them. Why didn't she get to observe too, since she was the one who was going to be going there?
This made the parents exchange a look and then the lady said that was a good idea.
And so the next day their six year old daughter came with them and she got her own folding chair. She sat, barely moving, for six hours, something I could have only done if my parents had tied me to the chair with rope.
At first glance, she made me think of Alice In Wonderland, except with something wrong. Her dark blonde hair hung straight and she had large blue eyes that were somehow full of doom. She seemed deadly serious for no reason and she kept her mouth closed in a tight straight line.
By the end of the week she was allowed to be in the class and her parents stayed home. The rest of us noticed she behaved strangely and she made grownups act strange too. We were told Claire had been tested and found to be a gifted child. Our principal and our teacher both seemed a little afraid of Claire, like they were worried they wouldn't live up to Claire's standards.
Judging from Claire's range of expressions which went from Serious to Bored and then back to Serious again, it seemed they were right. The nervousness of the grownups, the way they seemed so anxious to please her, it gave us the impression there was something of importance about this girl, that we were somehow lucky to have her among us.
She did not fidget or laugh, not in class and not at recess. Her voice never went up or down but always stayed in a kind of monotone and at the exact same volume. Efforts to involve Claire in games were met with her refusal and a dirty look. "I'd rather sit and read," she would say. And in her voice the message was clear: if we weren't stupid, we'd feel the same way.
No running around crazy for Claire.
The rest of us only knew terms like Smart and Dumb and we soon came to an understanding that when she would act peculiar it was like a symptom of this being gifted; not her fault and something she could not control, much like if she had a disease. The way the grownups acted strange around Claire, that seemed like a symptom Claire's giftedness made the grownups have.
My friend Peggy and I were working on being witches. We had read a wonderful series about girls our age who could do all kinds of magical things and this inspired many an afternoon with Peggy and I sitting on our mother's borrowed broomsticks, attempting to fly.
"I think I got at least one inch into the air!" we would exclaim. And we'd keep trying.
We practiced our cackling (two kinds: evil and delighted), drew sketches of our future witch outfits, complete with accessories of hats, shoes, capes and jewelry, and tried out different names we might use once we went witch full time. We both loved making potions and would steal items from our mother's kitchens: eggs, baking powder, anything that might not be missed, and would mix them in Mason jars. We hoped to someday be able to make potions to shrink people or possibly love potions. We wondered how we could trick a boy into drinking one. Sometimes these mixtures turned colors and sometimes we had to keep them out in the garage or hidden under our porches because they smelled really bad. THAT was how powerful they were.
We tried to involve Claire in the witch game. At first she was interested in the idea of reading a three book series but then read all three books in one afternoon and told us our games were silly.
"They are not silly," Peggy said, "They're fun."
But Claire disagreed. Whereas Peggy and I thought of books as a way to jumpstart our imaginations, Claire thought of a book as something to finish so that she could read another book.
We didn't dislike Claire. We just thought this being gifted business must not be such a great thing if it meant you never wanted to have fun.
We finished first grade and then second grade. And then in the third grade we all had to take standardized tests, using #2 pencils to fill in circles. None of us thought the tests were important but the adults must have thought they were. It turned out that three of us, me, Claire, and a boy named Jack, had all had high test scores and would be the three third graders from our school to go to the district offices for a week of further testing.
And that was how, a week later, we found ourselves with about 30 other kids our age, sitting at long tables in a classroom. There were many instructors, all of them almost disturbingly upbeat. We were told we'd get to use all kinds of materials and do all sorts of things. Puzzles, games, writing, and the most important thing was to be creative and have fun.
On one of the days I was given a microscope. Not a toy one, but a real one, just like in a doctor's office. I asked one of the instructors, What if I break it? And he laughed and said Oh you won't, just experiment and play with it. And so I knew these grownups lied a little bit. I knew microscopes were really expensive. But when was I going to get to use one again? And so I did what they said and had fun. No matter what we were doing in each class, the instructors stood off to one side, each one holding a clipboard, and they jotted down notes as they watched us.
At first this seemed strange, but we got used to it.
Each day for a week we spent three hours in this classroom and we had lunchtime and recess just like at regular school. The district office had a playground equipped with monkeybars and swings and a variety of play equipment. But they even made recess seem like a puzzle.
Each day we had to pick one of three things to do at recess. We could play a group game with other kids OR we could use a ball or a jumprope or a hula hoop OR we could stay inside and read. Once we chose, we couldn't change our minds and the next day we'd get to choose again. "There's no wrong answer," they told us.
And this was a lie.
Jack chose playing with a ball one day and playing the group game four days. I chose the hula hoop one day and the other four days did the group game also. But Claire chose to sit inside reading all five of the days. I had noticed when they were explaining about the choices, Claire had looked fearful until she heard she could choose to sit inside. Then she relaxed right away.
During each recess the instructors continued to stand with clipboards, making notes.
And then the week was done. Jack's parents and mine knew each other and they came in together to find out how we had done and then take us home. The head instructor said she was glad they had come in together so she could talk to both sets of parents at the same time. It turned out Jack and I had scored exactly the same, and she said we'd both be welcome to join the program.
Jack and I were standing right next to our parents but noticed that as the instructor was explaining the details to them, she completely ignored us. She told them we'd go to a different school for three hours each school day and attend our regular school the rest of the day. We would do this for the rest of the year.
"We did notice one area of concern but it's nothing we haven't seen before and we feel confident we can correct it in both Jack and Amie."
Both sets of parents looked worried, and waited to hear what the problem was.
The instructor told them that we hadn't actually been tested on any of the things we did in the classroom; they already knew we were gifted from our test scores. The only time the children were evaluated was at recess. She said that when given the choice to read inside or play with other kids, Jack and I had consistently chosen to play with other children and that we had both seemed to be genuinely enjoying ourselves as we played. "This was observed in both children, on numerous occasions," she added.
Both sets of parents waited to hear what the bad part was. The instructor said nothing more and to break the awkward silence, Jack's mother asked, "But that's good, right? That they like to play with the other kids?" and the other three parents nodded their agreement.
The instructor said the program required kids to spend a lot of time alone, inside. She said their research showed kids who enjoyed playing with others had a harder time adjusting to this. She asked our parents if they knew Claire. The parents said Yes.
"Well now Claire chose to stay inside every single day! But we can work with Amie and Jack and in time they won't feel the need to play with the other kids. In time they won't even find those things fun at all. We can make them just like Claire."
And that was the very worst thing she could have said. This time it was my mother who piped up. "Yes, Claire, we know Claire. The child who brings a book to a skating party. We don't want our child to be like that."
Jack's mom nodded. "We like our son to play outside. It's good for kids to get fresh air, and good for them to be around other kids. We don't want to change that."
Both fathers were nodding but kept quiet, letting the women run the conversation.
"Why would you even want to change that?" my mother asked the instructor.
And the instructor couldn't answer that question, or maybe she decided she was wasting her time. She got a hard look in her eyes and it occurred to me that maybe she'd been a Claire and still was.
Jack's parents and mine decided, on the spot, that they wouldn't let us in any program that taught us fun was bad. We went back to our regular school, with our regular routine. And beginning the next week Claire was gone half of each day, but no one really missed her that much.
In fact Jack and I didn't see much of Claire until high school when the three of us had the same classes again. Jack continued to enjoy pretty much any sport that had a ball in it and I kept busy in pep activities.
And although all three of us went on to college, only Claire went to an Ivy League one. And she wasn't done. She went on to get her Master's and then her PhD and became a college professor, finally being allowed to do the job of teaching correctly.
And somewhere along the way, Claire married and had two kids. Her kids didn't need her to go ahead of time to observe any school routines because she refused to allow them to attend any school but homeschool until they were old enough to attend college.
I saw a photo of them once but found it difficult to figure out if they resembled her. The only feature I noticed, and then could not stop noticing, was that both children had her expression of Serious Doom in their eyes. As if they agreed with her that childhood was a serious business.
This story is from the collection Starfish On Thursday by Amie Ryan, available at www.amieryan.com