The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part II

Part of a series on truth-telling in life and art. See the first post, Dare to Be Yourself, here.

This post follows on from The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part I.

I started trying to pass for normal before I had any idea I was gifted. All I knew was that I was different and that different was bad. I have no memory of the beginning of the process. All I know is a story my parents tell, one that in retrospect shows a problem that nobody thought to address. For decades, this story has been told as an example of how clever I was. It is only now as an adult, going through the process of recognizing my own identity that I see it as a cautionary tale.

I was born in England and attended early school there. My father took a sabbatical in the U.S. when I was 5 and I started Kindergarten. I was one of two students who entered Kindergarten already reading and my only memory from that year is of the two of us lying on the floor by the coat cubbies reading while the other students learned the letters of the alphabet.

The story my father tells goes like this.

“Kate has always been a talker. Once she started, there was no stopping her. At the first parent-teacher conference in Kindergarten, we were shocked to learn that Kate never spoke up in class unless directly asked a question by the teacher. She was still talking up a storm at home. ” Pause, accompanied by facial expression conveying confusion. “The next time we met with her teacher, it was a different story. Kate was talking at school the way she talked at home – but in an American accent. She had waited to talk until she had mastered the local dialect.”

I was 5 and I was hiding myself to fit in. It is a habit I am still trying to break.

As a teenager, the disconnect between my deep truths, the truths I let myself be aware of, and the facade I was presenting to the outside world became unmanageable and I suffered an existential crisis. In the midst of that crisis, I found the ground of my being, and moved forward, but it certainly looked like all was lost for some time.

If my life were a novel, that crisis would have been the final turning point where I rallied and strode forward into the fight that would lead to the novel’s resolution. But life is messier than art. In life, the protagonist doesn’t always make the choice to fight. And, resolution is not assurred. But, that turning point is the place in my memories that I need to access in order to write about the descent into deep crisis that will push my protagonist into change.

10 thoughts on “The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part II

  1. Tom says:

    This was very poignant. I was also just “different” and my father tells a different story about me and being really good at figuring out how many cattle were in fields in Nebraska. The “punch-line” when asked how I did it so fast is that I counted the legs and divide by 4. It’s not a true story so much as he always noticed that I figured things out differently. I would come out with the right answer, but to many people it didn’t make sense how my mind worked.

    I too tried to fit in as best I could, and equate it whittling off the edges to fit in as a round peg, but they grew back. It has taken a long time, often painful, to realize how much of a square peg I really am and that maybe I was designed to stand out and not fit in. 🙂 I am better at being myself than anyone else, so I figure I need to just be me and find the benefits in being so different.

  2. Kate Arms-Roberts says:

    Here’s to the square pegs! And the pyramids and the heptagonal cylinders and the irregular polyhedra and all the rest!

  3. What a cute story! I love it! It’s sort the of opposite of when my 20-year-old was around 8-yrs-old and she had a part on an assembly program for our church’s circuit (so that would be like 5 -7 congregations meeting in one large auditorium). She was supposed to talk about an experience she had with a classmate, and during the rehearsal, this Southern California born and raised girl, (who comes from parents also both born and raised in Southern California), spontaneously broke into a British accent! My husband and I were incredulous and at the same time, trying to not giggle out loud. We had to keep practicing with her at home to speak in her normal voice, because every time she started with her experience she would use a British accent. She thought she should do this because she thought this was how grown ups talk when they are “being fancy.”

    • Kate Arms-Roberts says:

      Your daughter’s story is a cute one.

      Strangely, my original British accent showed up in my first acting class in college. We were playing with speaking in pitches outside our normal speaking range. When I shifted my entire range of spoken notes above or below my standard range, the British dialect emerged.

  4. […] you notice how my writing got analytical and vague last […]

  5. […] I could have been raised and educated in a way that didn’t leave so many scars. I had started hiding in plain sight by the time I was 5 and it took me 30 years of underachievement to understand […]

  6. gilibug says:

    I was 18 months old when I was taken from Israel to live in the USA for a year. I had an age-appropriate vocabulary in Hebrew, but I stopped talking entirely for a brief period of time when we moved. One day, the story goes, I suddenly piped up and said in perfect English, “apple juice”. My mother was thrilled that I had picked up the new language. She asked me, “now can you say that in Hebrew?” So I thought for a moment and said, “orange juice?”

    Kids are highly adaptable. I’ve had many of the same difficulties growing up so I don’t mean to downplay the possible unhappiness that some of these behaviors mask, but with multilingual kids it is very common for them to use their different languages exclusively in different contexts, or even to seemingly change their apparent level of proficiency to match their environment. For example: at home they might speak a second language with an accent and mistakes typical of immigrants, but at school they’d be accent-free and fluent. A period of silence is also typical when switching to a new environment with a new language. I see this as a positive sign of the ability of kids to adapt to social environments. I’m guessing something similar happened with you, even though American English and British English are considered the same language.

    As the mother of an ASD child, I can tell you that one of the first things that marks him as different from other children is his inability to modify his language when speaking with different people. He uses the same bombastic expressions whether he’s talking to a teacher, his siblings, his classmates or his pets. He prefers a more formal and sophisticated vocabulary, even in settings where simple language would serve him better. All this while speaking his NATIVE tongue. I don’t doubt your insight regarding yourself, but there is an important positive aspect to what you describe, beyond the cuteness of an old family anecdote.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts says:

      Thank you for this fabulous set of stories. There’s lots to think about embedded in there.
      Code switching is a very valuable skill – as you point out in the context of your son’s inability to make those linguistic shifts – and I am sure the sensitivity that led me to switch dialect is the same sensitivity that helped me when I studied foreign languages in school and that I use now as a dialect coach for actors.
      I am thinking about the reading I have done which suggests that the vulnerabilities associated with giftedness are in many cases caused by the same underlying neurobiology that allows for the precociousness in the areas of strength.
      This would suggest that parents, teachers, advocates, etc. should be looking for the vulnerabilities when we notice the strengths. So many of the advocates I work with came to advocacy because the vulnerabilities had already become problematic behaviour and were masking the gifts.

  7. Teresa says:

    OMG I’m still a teen. But I’m doing exactly what you did! I’m hiding myself. And it is difficult being the only one (at lEast, I feel that way 🙁 ) being like this. I just don’t know how to cope and I always feel like there’s a vice squeezing on me. If I let myself be, I will be seen as different, but if I don’t, I feel stuck and struggling… what do I do? not to mention I have a very very traditionalist mother who is exactly opposite from me and is always reinforcing the fear of being different…

    • Kate says:

      The first things to do is to keep aware of who you are under all that hiding. Choosing to hide is always an option, and sometimes it is the safest option. The most important thing is to keep some space in your life where you connect with what is deeply true for you. It could be in a journal, artwork, stories you write, songs you listen to, books you read.

      It is scary to be seen as different, but it can be liberating, too. Maybe there is a small thing you can do to test your courage. You need to find the people you feel comfortable opening up with, and that will take daring to open up and seeing who responds positively.

      Also, remember that you will not be in high school forever. As you move beyond high school, you will have more choices about how you express yourself and more options about who you spend time with, and that will make it easier for you to find the people like you.

      In the meantime, you can find the people online who you fell you can connect to and read their writings, engage in conversation with them, find places to speak with your own voice.

      Being different isn’t easy and it isn’t always fun, but it is better than always hiding.

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