Nomenclature’s back again, for what appears to be its scheduled quarterly visit. Apparently, every three months I’ll get a trash bill in the mail, a cheery reminder from the work email server to change my password, and a scolding from somewhere in the world – in this case, New Zealand – about what term is socially acceptable to use in referring to my kids.

Know what? I’m kinda done with it. I’m not surrendering on this front, per se, but I will agree that we need a new word – if for no other reason than the word gifted itself has become a charred ruin. It’s radioactive. There’s no deploying the word in conversation without kick-starting a polemic. We might be able to come back to gifted in fifty years, or a hundred, but for the moment, it’s untouchable without tongs and a rad suit. It’s just become too divisive to be useful.

I’m glad that something finally pushed me off the fence, but the article itself is something of a trainwreck. It’s not as if Stacy Hunt doesn’t make any good points; I don’t like the term ‘gifted,’ either, actually, and I’m in at least partial agreement with her as to why. It’s a word loaded to the gunwales with effusive positivism. As a term, gifted virtually explodes off of the page in a nimbus of birthday candles and tinsel. But that doesn’t really match up to the reality for most of us. Gifted kids (and adults) don’t always feel positively about giftedness. It’s not that it’s not often useful to be gifted; it’s just that somehow, the word needs to reflect the flawed, organic nature of the gift itself.

I’ll also concede the point that gifted seems to indicate an act of giving, from some sort of outside force. While it’s true in the strictest definition – hell-O, those gametes came from somewhere – it also has a sense of something arbitrarily boxed up and shipped. Gifted didn’t come from somewhere, as gifts do, and it can’t go back, receipt or no. If it’s a gift, it doesn’t behave like one in the truest sense of the word. In these two areas, at least, I’d be fine with dispensing with the term. It just doesn’t convey the whole of the condition. Like so many words in our language, it sucks at conveying the complexity of what it describes.

But having made these points, then Hunt’s got to go where all good nomenclature critics go – into the elitist argument, as if having gifted kids is just pure upside, unadulterated positive differentiation. For Hunt, our use of gifted marks us all out as the bored, arrogant, listless Eloi to her salt-of-the-earth, hard-working Morlocks. I’ll respectfully disagree, as I always do when this tired saw of an argument gets deployed by offended gifted critics. I tend to think of elite in the strictest sense of the term – one in which, if I was part of this supposed elite, I’d be lounging on a dais with a fistful of grapes in hand while my gifted children worked diligently at their own self-designed work, my life vastly easier than that of other parents as a result. That’s not the case for us, and if you’re reading this, I’m guessing it’s not true for you, either. In fact, I’m pretty sure the ten-gee gravitational environment of a two-career, homeschooling household with three gifted kids would crush our New Zealand correspondent flat within a day. (Who’s the Morlock now?)  Still, I’ll take the presence of the elitist argument in Hunt’s column as more evidence that gifted has become a radioactive word. Start up a nomenclature jihad, and this is sure to be among the first arguments wheeled out. It’s become a knee-jerk reaction, and we’re simply going to have to acknowledge the reality: it would take a great deal of work to calm those societal knee nerves down at this point.

All right, then. Whatever. Fine. Here’s your term back; you don’t like it, and neither do we, really. It does some magical things for parents still in a traditional school setting, so for them it’s worth the slings and arrows. For those of us that have brought our kids home, though, it’s nothing but slings and arrows. It’s served its time as a word that enables us to identify and talk with each other, and that’s useful at a sort of fifty-thousand-foot level. But even within ‘gifted’ as a broad-brush term, gifted sucks at specific description. We’re HG and EG and PG and 2e; we see the world through different intensities. My PG/intellectually intense E might belong under the same extremely wide umbrella as my HG/2e-emotionally intense H, but in our house they’re chalk and cheese – and A’s just as different from both of them. If I really wanted to describe them, I’d put their intensities in order behind their ‘G’ rating, so E would become PGInSIm, while H would become HG2eEInS, and A turns into EGESPIm. Descriptive? Sure. But a system like this one would read like stereo instructions.

So the term is neither accurate nor generically descriptive, and any system that would introduce fine detail – like the one above – would push the bounds of syntactic usefulness.  Fine. Where to from here?  How about using something completely non-judgmental, like…colors? Well, we’ve been through the Indigo phase, and that didn’t stick, which is kind of a shame. Indigo would have been a very agreeable and decidedly non-elitist term for kids in a different part of the spectrum. Oranges and reds and greens, and over here, the indigos. But a relatively benign basic concept got wrecked, excessively loaded down with New Age mysticism and outright bullshit (and meta-meta-bullshit), so we’re left to struggle for other possibilities.

Perhaps we can build it from the ground up, and look through our lexicon for a candidate. What does our word need to have in it? We’re different, for one, so let’s not entertain any sense of not being the Other. We are. Deal with it, society at large. We don’t see the world the same way you do. We perceive it through lenses of intensity, one before another, filtering and polarizing and changing our view of life. We think about things differently. So let’s not bother with campfire songs about belonging; we need a word that does a little bit of xenos. But not too much – because so many of our, um,useful xenos words are positively charged. Keen, sharp and bright all share a common antonym – dull – and that’s just the tip of the problematic iceberg in assessing the descriptive words as possibilities. From our own point of view as parents, too, we’re also going to need a word that isn’t strictly positive or negative. There are aspects of both to gif- er, to our children’s existences. So, you know…we’re looking for one of those emotionally ‘safe,’ culturally cautious words with immense descriptive power that can mean something daunting and challenging and wonderful and exhausting all at the same time. Good luck with that.

You have to wonder if, perhaps, we’ve arrived at a place where we’ll need to go outside of our own language to find a word that fits the bill. Just for fun, I went back to some of the wonderful work I’ve read on giftedness in other cultures and other languages. Among these is the work of Jill Bevan-Brown, who’s done some exceptional work on giftedness among the Maori. How appropriate! After all, the Maori are right in our New Zealand correspondent’s backyard. Maybe Hunt has had exposure to something better. Something more wonderfully on point, in the way that sometimes only the words of other cultures can be. Perhaps there’s a Maori word that might suit our needs.

Except it turns out that they don’t have a word for giftedness. Not in our sense, anyway. Gifted kids in Maori culture are valued and nurtured and offered ‘full membership’ in society – but they’re not labeled. I wonder if we shouldn’t try that road; labels seem to have done us little good up to this point from the society-level view. Until then, though, nomenclature has value – and just before I left Bevan-Brown’s world of Maori giftedness, I took one last look through the Maori lexicon for inspiration.

Guess what? One word – haku – means four different things at the same time: gift, flaw, open up, and flash (like lightning).

If there’s a better single word to describe what’s going on in our house, I’ll cheerfully take it. Until then, I’m thinking about adopting haku as our term  – our flawed gifts flickering and flashing as they open us up to new possibilities each day.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by christina on February 2, 2013 at 9:10 am

    “Mom, do I have to be in a GT class in middle school?” “No, of course not.” “Good, I kinda just want to be normal.”


    • …but I’m guessing what she really wants is to learn at her own level, without a label. Amazing what ability-grouping would do in our schools, isn’t it?


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