Owning – And Loving – Intensity

“She does this thing with her hands,” E’s first kindergarten teacher told us. “Kind of a grabby, flappy thing. It seems to happen when she’s excited. If you want, I can work on that with her.”

Work on that? My PG, basket-of-intensities kid does one thing that is a clear and unambiguous signal that one of her intensities is at work? And you want to eliminate that?

I’d pay a substantial sum of money to have a set of lights on my children’s heads that come on when one intensity or another is active. It would help immensely, for instance, to know that E is all imaginational and sensory on any particular morning; we’d probably swap-write creative fiction in a sea of blankets arranged on the family-room floor. Or to know that A is all psychomotor; off to the pool we’d go, on the spot. I never know precisely what intensities are at work at any given hour of any given day, but what I do know is that one of my children provides me one clear-cut signal regarding one of hers.

It’s not a pathology. It’s a lifeline. And this woman completely missed that fact. (Full disclosure: she also told us that giftedness ‘tends to even out by around third grade.’ Thanks.)

I grew up in a home that was intensity-intolerant. Intellectual intensity was fine; the others were character flaws to be abraded, vestigial limbs to be neatly removed and cauterized. It was a perspective diametrically opposed to the modern thinking of ‘gifted is wiring,’ and in having a family of my own, it was a core goal of mine to build an intensity-tolerant environment. They’re going to have to pull themselves together out there; we all do. (I do.) But in here, I very much wanted to establish a DMZ, a free-flight atrium where any and all intensities are welcomed and endorsed and engaged.

And yet, beyond our four walls, we still struggle to find them acceptance, even within the gifted community. It emerges everywhere; the gifted psychologist (!) who wants to treat A’s psychomotor intensity as ADHD (it’s not); the counselor who’s sure that H could be more focused and disciplined with particular therapies (she won’t). What I want to tell them is that they are the children they are. While I’m sure I could whittle an externally-convincing version of some societally-idealized child out of them with medication and therapy and focus exercises, inwardly, they would become gifted amputees; someone forced to indulge an intensity shamefully, privately, away from us.

I don’t want that.

In graduate school, I had a fantastic medical anthropology professor who wrote a seminal quote on the chalkboard the first day of class. It read You can understand almost everything about a culture through the study of the conditions it medicalizes. (Try a taste spoon of this concept if you like.) I loved the quote then and I love it now. In particular, I find it chilling with respect to gifted education to think that we are so highly selective of our ‘approved’ intensities and so broadly intolerant of others, choosing to apply labels to them. Daydreamer. Fidgeter. Crybaby. We think nothing of working, as a culture, to reduce the impact of other intolerant words – I won’t list them here, since they just jumped into your head anyway – but these remain.

I wonder if that is because their targets are too small to defend themselves.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Juley Allee on June 26, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    Awesome. I hope this goes viral and we get a population driven to embrace, empower and encourage gifted learners, and promote their passions so as to eliminate that 18% who don’t graduate because they are bored by the lack of rigor and volume in the schools. I’ll be back daily for the inspiration!


  2. […] dealt with the issue of how intensity is sometimes treated within the gifted community in another post, so I won’t revisit those comments in detail, other than to note that Kathy and I have both […]


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