"I can't," she said. "It's not going to happen. I'm dumb now."
I paused for a second, thinking I missed something. "Done?" I asked. "You're DONE now?" Yeah, she did just retire... I get that she may feel done with doing so many things for now.
"No," she said, "I'm DUMB. I am not gifted anymore, in fact, I'm just dumb now."
I giggled, "ok, right mom, you are not." (Did I mention how brilliant and funny she has always been? It's not like that has changed...)
"Yeah, really. I think my brain got worn out. I had that meningitis years ago and ever since, it just hasn't seemed the same. And I'm old and tired now too."
"Uhhhh, no. I still don't buy it," I told her. "You don't just lose giftedness. Besides, you still have all your gifted quirks."
"Nope," she insisted, "I'm just normal now."
I reminded her that gifted people can be twice exceptional, having disabilities and giftedness. "So maybe you now have a brain injury, if that's even true... But you're still quirky and weird, Mom. And this proves it- No one else takes pride in getting less smart. Obviously you are still gifted."
"I may be weird, but it's kind of nice to not be gifted. It was exhausting."
And on that note, I changed the subject. You know how fun it is to argue with gifted people... You rarely win.
That was one thing that got me thinking about giftedness and brain capacity. Another thing came early last week in the form of an email. You see, I recently left my job as the state gifted specialist, but my school district gifted coordinator community hasn't left me (and I promised not to leave them.) Over the last few weeks since I left the job, I've received many emails and messages, asking me for advice regarding gifted education questions. One of them was about a child who had so many head injuries (I assume from football, but I didn't ask for the health information...)
"This child was gifted before, but we tested him again and now his IQ is only around 100. What should we do?" The concerned staff member asked, referring to the state law that requires a 130 IQ test score for a student to be identified as gifted.
My response was something like this:
"A student who is gifted will still have social emotional needs as a gifted child, even with a brain injury. He is now twice exceptional, and since he has already been identified, you do not have to ever retest him for that criteria. You also are under no obligation to exit him from the gifted program."
I continued, "The issue here, is finding the right placement for him in an academic environment. But he shouldn't have to leave his friends or be forced to move to another location. I would suggest you sit down with the family and look at a lot of different things – what they would like to do with the situation, what makes sense socially for the child, and what academic accommodations you could bring into his gifted education classroom to enable him to continue to learn at his own pace."
I was sad for this child- he obviously had a lot to worry about. Moving classrooms and leaving his friends wasn't going to help him. But the proper academic supports could help him continue to function in school, while allowing him to continue with the social emotional support from the gifted endorsed teacher and his peers.
The reality is, people are so adamant that we measure giftedness by mental capacity, that we forget that there's so much more to being gifted. Having less mental agility than you once had, cannot erase the experiences that have formed your personality and the way you engaged with the world while learning about life to begin with. Sure, you now may have to adjust to a new reality- your thoughts may not come so quickly, you may not be able to use your once witty sarcasm, or pull impressive vocabulary out of thin air. But just as any person who has to adjust to diminished mental abilities must feel frustrated and confused by these changes, gifted people with brain injuries or memory-loss issues have a lot to deal with too.
I look at my grandmother who has been losing her mind slowly over the last ten years or so, and I remember how active she used to be. Now she can't remember where she is half the time, or who any of us are. She can't watch movies or read books or articles, because a few sentences in, she can't remember what she is doing, much less what anyone said earlier in the story. She can't take care of herself at all, and I know how horrified she would be by her loss of privacy and dignity.
But most of all, I know how mad she would be about not being able to do anything interesting or useful. I've seen her get so angry about it before- yelling about how she needed to go places and get things done (yelling at grandpa, who she divorced years ago and who has been dead for a while anyway... And cussing about things she hasn't been able to do for years... But wow, she has been mad, and I don't blame her.)
As a gifted person, she never stopped being obsessed over justice and wanting the world to be a better place. She still perks up when we talk about world events with her. She forgets almost immediately what we tell her, but she still notices and wants to hear that things are good in the world. And she is upset when they are not.
She also still gets excited by the creative things we show her. She loves hearing my daughter sing Broadway songs, and she has beautiful photos all around where she sits. The many books she published in her younger years sit on shelves around her. And all the furniture she has painted decorates the rooms in her house. She can't write or paint anymore. She can barely walk to the bathroom on her own. But she still shows us glimpses of her former self. And I hold on dearly to those moments.
So like the child with the head injury, and my mother who insists she isn't as smart as she used to be, I still think my grandmother is gifted. She is no longer able to perform the things she used to do. She won't pass any standardized tests, (except for those designed for proving memory loss...) and she won't be writing any best sellers or winning any art awards. But she still sees the world through the lens of a woman who had big thoughts and lived a very interesting life before.
Non-gifted people lose their memories too, and I'm sure it's a huge loss for every family member to watch this process happen to someone they love. But seeing someone go from an overexcited ball of energy, passions, and intensities, to an inanimate blank canvas at times has been a huge loss- going from one extreme to the other.
Can you lose giftedness? Obviously we can lose everything at some point. And eventually we will all die too. But while we are here, even if we can't perform like we used to be able to achieve certain things when we were first identified as gifted, our experiences and abilities that formed the way we look at the world do not leave us. And those quirks that gifted people have don't just go away (unless everything goes away...) So they still need the understanding and support that they deserved prior to any brain injury or memory loss. In fact, I would argue, they need even more. What a cruel, confusing and scary world it must be to someone who used to feel they had so much mental control. And those with a tendency for anxiety or depression must have even more battles to fight when their worlds get harder from the inside-out. Gifted traits may get even more intense and even more intimidating and frustrating, the less a gifted person is able to understand them or express themselves well. That goes for people of any age or any stage of diminished mental capacity.
As it's been said by other gifted experts- giftedness is not what we DO, it's who we ARE. And who we are doesn't go away until we do.