Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Letter

            An envelope came home in Pip’s backpack this week. It was an envelope we’d had our eyes out for since the school year began. Inside it was a letter informing us that Pip had passed the penultimate checkpoint in the process of getting a placement in the county school system’s accelerated program and that the final determinations would be made using a cognitive abilities test that would be administered in the coming weeks. We signed the necessary permission forms for him to take the test and sent it back.
The accelerated program has been on our radar since Pip first entered kindergarten in part because Pip and Polly’s school is one of three sites in the county that host accelerated program students in grades 3-5. This coincidence has made the program particularly interesting for me because it would allow Pip (and later perhaps Polly) to participate in a more challenging academic environment while still remaining part of our neighborhood school. This seemed like a best-of-both-worlds situation for us, and I imagined from time to time how nice it would be. Now, we have to deal with the uncertainty of whether that vision can actually come to pass.
            Pip is a thoughtful, wonderfully curious, and engaging kid. He reads extremely well and likes to do math. He knows how to be serious and articulate with adults and patient with other kids. However, he is not what I would consider to be a preternaturally ‘gifted’ individual. He doesn’t work things through obsessively. He doesn’t have an immediate and uncanny feel for numbers. His ‘gifts’ are mostly a matter of growing up in an environment where learning is valued and his willingness to ask questions about complicated subjects.
This combination has largely kept him working at the front edge of the subject matter in his class, but it has always felt sort of precarious, like we’re gaming the system a bit. He reads because we taught him to read. He does math well because we do some extra math in the summer. With this cognitive abilities test though, it feels like the game might be up. We don’t know exactly what’s on it. There’s no way to really prepare for it. It’s a big black tunnel which Pip has to walk through and we have no idea what the test will say about him when he comes out on the other side. Maybe he scores high enough to garner one of the 25 odd spots at his school. Maybe he doesn’t. I have no way to even guess where he stands.
This black box experience is not novel, of course. It is part of any endeavor where there are many people vying for a limited number of spots - college applications, job interviews, astronaut training programs, etc. But as we’ve never had to chase after a spot in a daycare or preschool, this is our first time going through this particular wringer, and it’s unnerving. When we first talked about what the letter contained, Pip got teary-eyed. He saw in the test a judging voice that might proclaim him unworthy and said aloud that while he knew he should and would take it, he didn’t really want to. As the bearer of the letter, I felt kind of sinister sitting beside him.
Fortunately, he’s already had an experience with being intimidated by something and going for it anyway. Back in November, he’d wanted to try out for a solo in the school’s winter show then got cold feet as the day to actually try out approached. At the time I pushed him to do it, reasoning that the more things you try for, the more opportunities come your way. I didn’t have any real evidence for this but I pushed anyway. Now I feel vindicated. As Pip talked more about his feelings with respect to the test, he specifically compared them to how he felt before trying out for the solo and how that hadn’t been so bad.
The other psychological challenge for Pip to overcome is the feeling that this test marks a culling point, a moment wherein he either gets to keep being one of the ‘smart kids’ or has to find a new identity altogether. The reality that things are much grayer than that doesn’t register in his emotional knowledge. It feels like an all or nothing proposition to him and the best I can do is to tell him to keep his head focused on his long-term goal – he wants to be an engineer doing space-oriented work – and know that there are many routes to achieving it. This test does not determine his future. It only marks another gate in the wide-array of possible trails he can follow. He seems to believe me, for now.
            In fact, Ava is somewhat dubious as to the actual long-term value of putting kids into an accelerated program anyway. She sees it as potentially isolating kids from the range of interests and personalities they will eventually have to negotiate in the world at large and leaving them ill-prepared to deal with people who do not treat them as special. In her position as a professor at a regional university she has seen a number of students in the university’s honors program complain about having to do the same kind of work as everyone else. They have been told they are special for so long that they have trouble taking instruction from others or doing the kind of menial grunt work necessary to overcome real world challenges.
            I tend to have a softer view. This is perhaps because I had the opportunity to participate in an accelerated math and science program during my final two years of high school and it made a significant impact on what I was able to learn during that time. This is mostly for two reasons. First, the students were all operating at a high level of knowledge and motivation. They generally wanted to learn. They were willing to do the homework and engage in class activities. They weren’t angels, and they didn’t follow all the rules but they were all there to do something and were generally excited to take advantage of the extra opportunities the program provided.
            And second, the teachers were much better. For example, the chemistry class at my regular high school was taught by a Vietnam vet whose main objective was to get everyone their C so they could graduate. The main thing I learned from him is that you can actually light the gas coming out of the Bunsen burner supply line and not blow the whole school sky high. To this day, I have a miserable understanding of how the chemical world works. The following year I took physics in the accelerated program from a teacher who was able to model vector forces on a computer, have us do motion experiments with sophisticated tracking sensors, and build a hologram to demonstrate the wave and particle properties of light. I can still see the world as it looked through these experiences.

            It is for these reasons that I’ve been thinking about Pip’s test frequently since the letter arrived. He has an opportunity to get in to an accelerated program early in his school career and have access to an educational track that can focus on doing more than meeting mediocre standards. If he gets in, it will require more intense and exacting work from him, but I think the payoff of that is an educational experience that offers chances to learn to see the world in fundamentally different ways. That is something I want for him, and I hope that it isn’t some one-off test that gets in his way.

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