Coloring Outside the Lines

“What grades are they in?”

It’s the most benign of parental greetings, really. A closed-ended question that’s built to launch another, more substantive conversation from itself; “what grades are they in?” isn’t intended to be much more than a HELLO, MY NAME IS nametag for parents at playgrounds and sports practices to break the ice.

Unless, of course, it’s more complicated than that. It is in our house; I’m guessing it might be in yours, too. I’ve tried to work mine down to under a minute in length, but even with that, I can sense the fidgeting and discomfort begin at about the twenty-second mark. Well, E is socializing in fifth, but taking honors algebra and honors creative writing through Northwestern at home, so she’s kind of a high school freshman who still likes California kickball and hot-lunch pizza. H is a fifth-grade socializer as well, but she’s doing eighth-grade writing through Northwestern, and fifth-grade math through Connections, even though her 5GT classmates are doing sixth-grade math. A is in second GT full-time, they use the third grade curriculum, and he was early access, so he’s a year younger than his classmates.

Strange little cultural meme, isn’t it? We don’t do this at cocktail parties and barbecues and tailgaters; if we meet someone new, we’ll just ask, “how do you know X?” or “what do you do?” or simply launch into the regulation-issue small talk that adults are masters of. We don’t really have age-related bins to drop ourselves into. Life has given us very different roads to follow since the last time we were referred to as juniors and seniors and such, and some of us have accumulated mostly gentle highway miles, while others of us have been out four-wheeling the whole time. Relating our age wouldn’t say much of anything about ourselves, so we don’t employ any such system.

But we love to put them into these categories, our kids; doing so groups them into convenient boxes and provides us a means to reduce social tension by finding shared points of experience. Welcome back! How was the summer! Ready for fifth? Or are you new here? Where are you coming from? What was fourth like there? We orient ourselves via these mechanistic, school-year-length slices of homogeneity, and in doing so, I can’t help but think that something gets lost. Not everything fits neatly within the grid squares that the school system has to offer, and to ask every kid to squish into those confined spaces can feel Procrustean for the most forgiving of them. Gifted kids often color themselves outside those conveniently pre-inked lines, mad scribbles of fuchsia that depart the confines to occupy uncharted swaths of white, a blossom of teal that erupts outside of the norm in one area or another. Their blossoms bloom in the cracks of the school grid, refusing to be neatly herded into squares and given a label.

I often ask them if they’re all right with all of this, the loss of convenient identity that goes with this sort of higgledy-piggledy assemblage of courses and ‘grades’ and whatnot, and more often than not, they greet that question with a broad affirmative grin. They like that we’ve endorsed coloring outside the lines, I think, and I hope that the same sense of freedom goes with them as they grow and learn later in life. There are amazing things to be done out there, exciting new things to be learned, and I like to think that some of them will belong to those who dared to jump the gridlines and color where they wanted to.

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