Touched by an Angel

Gifted children are otherworldly, Linda Silverman says. The challenge is helping them thrive here on earth.

But gifted children do not advance equally in all areas, Silverman says. An eleven-year-old boy might carry a calculus textbook in one hand and a Curious George toy in the other. Another might read Shakespeare but struggle to tie her shoes. Many gifted children also have learning disabilities such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder, or difficulty with handwriting -- problems that are often overshadowed by their talents. Others are hyperactive, inattentive or uncoordinated.

The greater the discrepancy between the child's strengths and weaknesses, the harder it is for him to fit in. And these differences make gifted children especially vulnerable. Silverman once spoke to a group of three dozen gifted children in New Zealand; one third of the boys said they had been beaten up just because they were smart.

Gifted girls, meanwhile, go into hiding, as Silverman herself did, trading their abilities for a desire to fit in. Girls become chameleons, pretending to be interested in subjects they could not care less about and acting less bright than they are. "It is not smart to be smart," Silverman says. "If they are different in any way, they will not be accepted."

Jay Bevenour
Practice what you teach: Linda Silverman has devoted her life to gifted kids.
Practice what you teach: Linda Silverman has devoted her life to gifted kids.

It's also not safe to be smart. "We're threatened," she adds. "You talk about gifted people and you push a button that says, 'I'm not as good as...' or 'I'm not as smart as....' We live in a competitive society where we feel these kids have an unfair advantage. And if someone is smarter, you've got to knock them down a few pegs."

And if they're not being bullied on the playground, exceptionally bright children are being ignored in the classroom. During the educational reforms of the early 1990s, gifted programs were routinely attacked and dismantled. One reformer wrote that gifted programs "provide a way to resegregate schools without requiring people to move." Another suggested that providing advanced subjects to bright students would make their classmates feel inferior.

"What kind of nonsense are we allowing in the name of egalitarianism?" Silverman asks. "Had we substituted the word 'disabled' for gifted, 'black' for gifted or 'Hispanic' for gifted, none of those books or articles would have been printed. But gifted programs were fair game. They were wiped out in school district after school district. Every principal for ten years was influenced by this."

Silverman sees giftedness as a mirror image of mental retardation. Where a seventeen-year-old handicapped boy has the mind of a six-year-old, the six-year-old gifted boy has the mind of a seventeen-year-old. Both have special needs. Both require special teaching methods. Eliminating programs for one child is as unethical as eliminating programs for the other, she says.

Nothing is gained in the name of democracy by making a third-grader who reads at the eighth-grade level reread the third-grade reader, she argues. Educators cannot pull the bottom up by pushing the top down. By teaching to the lowest common denominator, teachers have whittled away the rights of gifted students under the rationale that "the cream will rise to the top on its own."

"Well, the cream doesn't rise to the top on its own," Silverman says. "Some of these kids commit suicide. Some reject their giftedness because it is too painful. Lots drop out. Most learn to underachieve. Most are systematically suppressed."

Which is why Silverman continues to carry their banner. "They need protection," she says.

Silverman, too, has come under attack -- specifically, for using a version of what some colleagues consider an antiquated IQ test: the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, first developed in 1916. Silverman uses it because it is the only instrument with a high-enough ceiling to assess gifted children whose scores exceed 160. Yet her critics have accused her of being unethical and inflating scores. Some joked that parents could "buy their kid's IQ at the Gifted Development Center."

"I was badmouthed by the whole psychological profession," Silverman says. "In Denver, I was laughed at."

Her work was later validated by the testing company, however. And Silverman has other supporters as well. Barbara Mitchell Hutton, director and founder of the Rocky Mountain Center for the Gifted and Creative in Boulder, says Silverman has "really moved the thinking forward," particularly in raising awareness about the problems of gifted girls and fighting those who equate giftedness with achievement.

"She isn't afraid to speak truth to power," Hutton says. "And that's very intimidating to a lot of people in education and people who do counseling. Linda has challenged us."

Nancy Golon's two sons, ages six and eight, have tested within the gifted range. Before she met Silverman, Golon spent many frustrating hours trying to figure out why her perfectionist son had to have his sandwich cut in a certain way, consoling the other son when he returned from preschool, crying because he was the only one who could read.

"She's my savior," Golon says of Silverman. "If it weren't for Linda, we'd be a family pulling our hair out. All the doctors scratched their heads trying to figure them out, and it wasn't until we had them tested at the Gifted Development Center that we were able to understand and say, 'Oh, this is normal for our kids. We're not wacko parents.' She has put so much of our lives at peace."

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Linda Silverman is a joke. It boggles the mind that she retains any credibility after the fiasco with Justin Chapman.