Spraypainting the Time Machine

“Was your school like this, Dad?”

It was a simple question, offhandedly delivered during one of the many commutes E and I take to the school, and I think I delivered some equally light and frothy response (in part because I didn’t want to begin anything deep while I was pulling into the dropoff lane). But the truth is that my own gifted experience growing up was very different from E’s – and not for the better.  Gifted programs when I was a kid – circa 1978-1988 – were uncoordinated, often-confused efforts, the first halting steps toward the programs of today. I don’t fault the educators at the time for trying – but when program staff weren’t busy treating us like cattle, or disembodied brains in jars, they treated us like Marvel Comics mutants, as if my fingertips were going to burst into flame, or I was going to walk through a wall at any moment.

I’ll give you two examples.

When I was in grade school, gifted education was a half-day pull-out; I left the friendly confines of C.B. Smith Elementary and went with my mom to Sunset Hills, where the gifted program was held. There, we got bombarded with a strange melange of traditional work assignments, some grade-accelerated material, and the occasional creative writing or skitmaking opportunity. It was a dog’s breakfast designed to occupy hands more than stimulate minds, and while I don’t recall much of what we did there, one exercise stood out as a paragon of missed opportunity. We all read H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and when we received our assignment for the next week, my heart sank; these people didn’t get us. 

Now, there’s a zillion creative things to be done with Wells’ book. We could have described an imaginary time travel expedition to a different time, and discuss what we’d do there. We could have talked about the precautions we’d have to take in order to keep the timeline intact. We could have discussed the paradoxes involved in time travel and whether or not the past – or even the future – could be changed. We could have discussed free will, and whether or not it was possible to exist in two different places at the same time.

Our assignment was not one of those things. Our assignment was – I kid you not – to build our own time machine and explain how it worked.

This was a bullshit assignment1. First off, we’re not actually going to build a working time machine. We all know that; it was the elephant in the room. So, instantly, we’ve received an insult and a go-fetch assignment in a single package. Ha! There’s no way these kids can actually do this, because they’re just simply not that smart. But it will force them to cadge together some crap from the playroom and spin some fanciful yarn about its operation!  Second, with respect to describing the machine’s actual operation, it’s important to keep in mind that time travel is an unknown to us. As a species. We haven’t done it yet. Stephen Hawking hasn’t pulled it off, and neither has Freeman Dyson, or the other Dyson (the one with the vacuum cleaners), or the guy down the street who’s always puttering in his garage, or your Uncle Ed, or me, as an eight-year old in Central Illinois. As a result, this subject is just as unknowable to the brightest minds on the planet as it was to me, sitting on the rainbow carpet of Sunset Hills Elementary and instantly identifying an egregious and patronizing waste of time for what it was, maybe for the first time in my life. A quick look around the room provided me with confirmation that everyone else had the same “what the fuck?” reaction to this assignment. It would be like sitting in health class through the entire discussion of the circulatory and nervous systems, and having the assignment be, “go home and create life in your basement.” It was an utter non sequitur.

But there I was, fulfilling the letter of the law by cobbling together parts from every fighter plane model kit I had lying around the basement into a sort of flying monstrosity of multiple wings, cockpits, and appendages. I then spray-painted the whole thing deep metallic red, and went off to the Encyclopedia Britannica to hash up some nonsense about this thing’s operation. In the end, I mumbled something about particle acceleration using strontium-90 with a hardened F-16 fuselage as the basis for a human conveyance. Or something. Did it matter? Everyone else had some variant of this nonsense: magic horse (looking suspiciously like a My Little Pony), time pod (a plastic TIE Fighter with the wings pulled off), or, for the Mattel/Kenner-deprived, “temporal displacement chamber” – a shoebox with a forward observation port made of Saran Wrap. None of us really had any idea how to even mangle real science into sounding plausible – and, as a result, our stories fell apart quickly. The exercise asked us to know things we couldn’t know, no matter how gifted we were. In the end, we sat in a room looking at plastic bits of junk and listening to whatever madness our peers were able to come up with. As a project, it was a busywork dead-end of a time sinkhole; it wasn’t a basis for discussion, any more than a room full of creationists can hold an intelligent discussion on the fossil record. It was simply a wasted opportunity.

Flash forward to my high school gifted program experience, which I was a part of for oh, roughly sixty days before bagging the entire thing as another misguided and hopelessly confused effort. The entire TAG (“Talented and Gifted,” as if bright kids and kids who could spin a basketball on their pinky toe somehow belonged in the same homogeneous glob2) program was going – as a group – to the Pingree Park campus for some sort of uber-geeky cabin campout experience for a weekend, and I was gently shoved out the door by my parents to participate. Only on the bus, en route to this event, was it disclosed to us that we’d all be participating in a talent show when we arrived.

What?

This announcement immediately cleaved the bus in two: the gifted kids, who maybe could do long division quickly in their heads or conjugate Latin verbs at a precocious age, clung together in the icy grip of fear while the talented kids – who could, I don’t know,  play jazz flute or juggle flaming coconuts – beamed with glee. It was the clearest example yet of the error of gluing these two assemblages together, and sure enough, upon arrival, every gifted kid flamed out spectacularly while the talented kids had a banner moment in the sun doing…well, whatever it was they could do. As for me, I made up a fairly spontaneous comedy routine about how G.I. Joe was shrinking with each passing year while Barbie remained the same size. It didn’t exactly kill.

What it did do was reinforce to me the extent to which the world as a whole expected gifted kids to be able to do something amazing, as if every one of us was our own personal Rain Man, counting matches at light speed while we contemplated the timing of our favorite pseudo-legal television shows and planned underwear shopping trips. (I still get this as a member of MENSA. If I divulge this, there’s almost an expectation that I will then burst forth with something unbelievable – I’ll pluck out L’inverno from The Four Seasons on my uvula, or bend office furniture with my mind, or recite the entire periodic table in under twenty-six seconds.)

Gifted education has come a long way in the past twenty years. We have more choices with respect to perspective (“gifted is wiring”) and philosophy. The training and preparation my kids’ teachers have in handling intensity, in sparking potential into action, in helping kids navigate a world not their own, is nothing short of remarkable. The very foundation of gifted education has changed for the better, and I hope that it will continue to grow and evolve. I hope, too, that by the time my kids have kids of their own, that we’re even further down the road, and that they marvel at the advances made in gifted education during their lifetimes. Sometimes I’m more hopeful; other times I see us moving in the wrong direction. But in the darkest of moments, I think back to my frantic Krylon-spraying of a model F-16, or the slow, churning cement-mixer of fear that grew in my gut on a school bus jouncing its way toward Pingree Park, and I’m optimistic.

Things are already better, and I think most of us want to keep working for improvement.

__________________________________________________________________________

1 And I remember my very visceral reaction to it to this day. Obviously.

2 This still persists in the form of the omnipresent references to ‘GT’ here in Colorado. Yet I notice with interest that we really don’t do much in the way of talent testing; admission to the program is by and large based on standardized IQ testing.

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