It can be hard to be the smart kid.  It can be hard to have the answer each time the teacher asks the question, to painfully wait until the dingbat she wants to answer finally mumbles some unintelligible, yet probably incorrect, reply.  It’s also hard to understand why the teacher won’t call on the smart kid each and every time.

She’s a 5-year-old African-American girl in one of the head starts I visit.  Seeing as she’s the smart, assertive, clear-spoken kid, she’s not actually on my caseload.  Boy would that be weird.  Week after week as I sit in on interminable circle times, as the teacher threaten to make the circle last longer and longer until all the kids sit on their circles with their legs criss-crossed applesauce (no more Indian-style, folks), or else they’ll take away the promise of recess, which would actually be an antidote to all the sitting still and drilling numbers, letters, and animals sounds, I see this girl.  She always knows the answer.  And quickly.  The child I’m seeing needs extra processing time.  Count to ten after you ask him a question, and he’ll begin “umm”ing.  Count to ten again, rephrase the question, and give him a starter phrase, “I know that cows…”, and he might just give you a short, simple answer.  This other kid, however, has not learned about “bubblegum lips” as some other classes institute, and so she calls out each correct reply.  The teacher lectures her: “How do I know if Nasir knows the answer or if he’s just copying you!?”  and time after time, she goes to time out, sometimes multiple times in one circle.  The first time, she’s usually just bewildered.  Why should she get punished for getting the answer when other times, the teacher tells her to “give your brain a kiss” for having the answer?  As the time-outs pile-up, she gets tearful, withdrawn, upset.  Over time, no doubt this will have a damaging effect on her self-image.  I think she’ll stop calling out, stop raising her hand, stop trying to get the answer. 

Maybe she will learn to keep quiet.  Maybe some gracious teacher, trying to find a way to keep the kid’s trap shut, will tell her about bubblegum lips.  Maybe a compassionate teacher will sit her down and explain in real words how wonderful it is that she knows the capital of Uzbekistan, but that it’s equally important the other children learn as well.  Maybe she’ll find a role as a mentor in her class, tutoring other kids who don’t quite get it.  Or maybe she’ll just learn to shut up.  I wonder at the messages — tacit and direct — some teachers are sending the smart kids. 

Okay, I was  am the smart kid.  I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.  Even in grad school, I cringed, groaned, rolled my eyes — discreetly, quietly, under my breath — as professors asked questions no one would volunteer to answer.  The good instructors would engage us in discussion, not relying so heavily on fishing for predetermined answers, but there were always those deadly silences, those periods of time that stretched on and on, when I wished I could just answer the question so we all could be released from that purgatory.  In middle school, I did the hand raised high, “Oh! Oh!  Me! Me!”, clamping my lips together because I was just bursting with knowledge (except in history class).  Which did wonders for my social status.  In the intervening years, I’ve learned a little about restraint.  In grad school, I was worried about making my first impressions as an insufferable know-it-all, but it happened all over again.  This time, instead of being surrounded by people who hadn’t done the reading, or who had just rolled out of bed, I was instead in the midst of a sea of girls.  Say what you will about gender differences.  Who does all the question answering in classes?  Boys.  Especially in physics.  It’s just the way of the world.  I’m not saying teachers call on them more, or favor boys, or fondle boys, or any of that.  I’m just saying girls develop a wall flower mentality about showing off smarts.  And here I was in a “class” of 29 girls, and one 62 year-old man pursuing a 2nd career.  The insufferable know-it-all boy arrived the next summer, and immediately took all the scorn I’d perceived would have been directed at me. 

It doesn’t change really, from age 5 to age 25.  It’s still a delicate balance between wanting to earn your “class participation” points, needing to demonstrate your knowledge, and trying to mold your perception of what your peers think of you.  I hope this little girl finds compassionate people who encourage her, who help her develop her skills and her interests, and push her to keep raising her hand.  Middle school doesn’t last forever, and there’ll always be someone more annoying than you in college.  Usually it’s the kid who’s been told, “There are no dumb questions,” and believes it.  He’s the one who asks the dumb questions, and you’ll be able to turn your insufferable know-it-all face to the girl next to you, and roll your eyes in a knowing way.  She’ll roll her eyes back at you, and you’ll get the same satisfaction as if you’d answered all the questions yourself.

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