I spent the summer before my sixteenth birthday in one of my favorite places in the world — on East Campus at Duke University at TIP, now known as Duke TIP. It was horrifically hot and humid and utterly un-air-conditioned, but I would have loved to stay there for the rest of my life, because when I was there, I could be fully myself. Everyone there thought it was fine to read Tolstoy because you wanted to, or that solving complicated math problems was fun, or that taking macroeconomics during the summer was a perfectly good, if not ideal, way to spend one’s vacation. None of those ideas was considered weird, and all of them would have been acceptable if not heartily endorsed.
At that time, TIP was absolutely my gifted utopia.
As an Air Force brat, I was never in any one school for very long, and being a gifted kid made the contrast with the unique experience of TIP all the more obvious. Every time we moved, my parents would seek out a school with the best test scores in the area (remember, this was pre-internet, so my mother would write an actual letter to the state school board to ask for this information) and I’d happily go off to yet another day as The New Girl at my public school. For innumerable reasons, that plan usually didn’t work tremendously well, so after that year, my parents would put me in a private school instead. I’d then spend either one or two years at that school (New Girl, redux), and then we’d move, and the process would start all over again.
(Before you feel badly for me, you should know that I have come to realize that the constant moving was actually a tremendous blessing — learning all those new buildings and teachers and students and local cultures actually kept my mind plenty busy when it was perhaps not being challenged very much academically.)
So when I went to TIP for the first time after 7th grade, I was not entirely prepared for the environment I found. I had never been in a school with an all-gifted program, so being surrounded by nothing but gifted students was an entirely new experience. It was both exhilarating and humbling, all at once. My North Carolinian roommate had scored a perfect 800 on the math SAT, at age 12. (I had most definitely NOT.) One of my classmates from a very isolated town in Arkansas was taking 3 different correspondence courses: French, German, and Japanese (1984, remember: actual correspondence, using stamps and letters). A Texan friend down the hall was taking math courses at the local community college every day instead of at his school (it turned out that many of the students I met were in community college classes, in fact). There were a LOT of kids there who were clearly blisteringly, don’t-look-directly-at-it-for-it-will-burn-your-eyes brilliant. And while that was a little intimidating, it was also a revelation. Because some little part of me thought, “Hey, if they are here, and I am here, too, maybe I am a little like them,” which was thrilling, in and of itself.
Despite all manner of differences in the things that interested us, we bonded quickly and formed intense and important friendships. All of these amazing, brilliant, wonderful kids were, like me, in love with learning. And that made us all so different from our peers at home that it was just utter relief to be around them.
IMAGINED PERFECTION HAS ITS CHALLENGES
That being said, that particular summer was also tremendously difficult for me intellectually. I had chosen to take a course in computer science, and it was the first time that an academic subject did not come easily or naturally to me. I was behind, from the first moment all the way through the end of the course. And while that was deeply uncomfortable, I now think of it as a critical part of my development — I learned that I wasn’t always going to be the smartest kid in the room, and I learned how to ask better questions of my instructor, and how to ask for support from the TA. I also learned that I could make terrible, stupid mistakes — lots of them, in fact — that made me feel dumb, but that these mistakes didn’t make me dumb; they just made me aware that there was an area of academics that wasn’t a natural fit for me, and that was okay. It wasn’t that I was dumb, it was that this stuff was hard, and it was okay for it to feel that way.
Outside of class, though, TIP truly was a paradise for kids like me: we talked about ridiculously complex subjects; we commiserated at being misunderstood by our parents and schools (which is of course par for the course for any student this age, anyway); and we were comfortable in our own skin, at least for those three weeks. There were activities that one would never find at another camp: we had spelling and vocabulary competitions (for fun!); there were plenty of deep philosophical discussions; and I watched a ridiculous number of Monty Python movies, all of which were recited line-for-line by many of the members of the audience like a shared private language. There were typical camp things, as well, though, like Quadfest, a field day at which dorms dressed in specific colors and battled it out at things like Dizzy Bat and all manner of silly relay races. But there were a lot of moments particular to TIP: for example, “100 Pieces of Pi,” a huge hit at the talent show, featured a math instructor juggling while reciting digits of pi, which were shown to the audience so we could check his work. (He didn’t make any mistakes.)
I vividly remember one particular conversation in my last year at TIP with two girls a year older than me; as I recall, we were talking about how different TIP was than “real life,” and we agreed that there should be a way for us to experience TIP year-round. There should be a school, we decided, where the teachers were as smart as ours (all of our instructors were college professors) and took us seriously as thinkers, and where we could learn all kinds of things that people at home thought we weren’t ready for. We would have the company of other students like ourselves, of course, and we’d be allowed to explore all kinds of intellectual playgrounds that find no place in the standard curricula of our regular schools. Kids who were spectacular at math would be able to learn math as fast as they wanted to and were able (I remember we called that an “All You Can Eat Math Buffet”), and students who loved literature would be allowed to read sophisticated, difficult, complex texts rather than what we considered to be the decidedly childish books that our districts called “grade-level appropriate.”
Overall, we were hungering for the kind of academic care and feeding we were being given a tantalizing taste of at TIP, and imagining what it would be like to live that way all the time — imagine the things we could do! That was the ultimate experience, we agreed: a school where everyone was gifted, and where everyone could do what they were capable of doing with the support of enthusiastic, passionate teachers.
As wonderful as TIP was, that would be the real Gifted Utopia.
At the end of that term, when packing up to leave, I was genuinely distressed to have to go back to the “real world,” where I was definitely an outlier. My mother thought I was being melodramatic, but then she looked around and saw that almost every other kid around her was also tearful and upset. I have a very clear memory of one girl in particular standing off to the side, alone, with tears just streaming down her face, watching us all leave. She had made arrangements to be on a very late flight out so she could stay at TIP as long as possible, because her school at home was rural and under-resourced and there was nothing around for miles with which she could engage her mind. She had told me the night before that she just “survived” for 49 weeks a year so she could get to TIP, where she could really live and be herself for those magical three weeks. Standing apart from families bustling around with suitcases, she was coming to terms with the fact that she had to go back home, to a place she thought of as an intellectual desert, a kind of solitary confinement for her mind for the next 11 months.
In a way, she was right, even though my own home life was not nearly so vacant of challenge: we all had to go back to “real life,” and try in whatever ways we could to “pass” for “normal” kids, so we could have some friends and not be social hermits. The contrast of her home life and TIP could not have been starker; in her case, it was returning to what she considered a lonely, stultifying — perhaps even dystopian — life causing her dread.
THE DREAM SURVIVES
So today, thirty years later, is there such a thing as a gifted utopia? Thomas More wrote his novel Utopia in 1516, describing a fictional island society. The title’s roots are Greek: eu means “good” and “topos” means “place,” fittingly. However, it’s important to know that the word has an alternate meaning that More was playing with and which has bearing here: in Greek, the prefix ou means “not,” which is a homophone for that prefix in English pronunciation; so when one describes the ideal “good place,” one is at the same time saying “no place,” which is a clever connotation not lost on the erudite Mr. More. In More’s case, he was implying that the perfect society he was describing was not only good, but unfortunately, nonexistent. That it could not exist, as he described it, was the whole point of his socio-political satire.
I bring the Greeks and Mr. More into this piece simply to emphasize the difference between today and my childhood, back when my nomadic family and I were bouncing from one school to another. Today, we know much more about what kinds of teaching and learning are most effective with gifted learners, and some school districts do have programs that gather gifted students together for much of the school day, so they may spend time in the company of intellectual peers. The TIP program and its kin (here’s a comprehensive list of talent search programs from across the U.S.) flourish — instead of serving 300 kids in a summer, there are about 8,000 TIP participants each summer, and that one program has served a total of 2.8 million children across the years. I feel confident in saying that the “no-place” definition does not apply, anymore.
I’m fairly sure that this one conversation I remember from over thirty years ago has fueled my work in gifted education. It’s one of the reasons I advocate passionately for places where gifted children can be authentically themselves, where they can explore freely and learn seriously. Gifted children everywhere shouldn’t be limited to dreaming up such places; they should all have access to a gifted utopia of their own, no matter where they are.
Jill Williford Wurman is Director of Research at Grayson and the proud mother of two gifted children. She was inspired to write this post while reminiscing on the drive to North Carolina to take her son to Duke TIP this summer.
Meet Jill and the rest of our team at our Upper School Open House on October 10 which was founded on the vision that students shouldn’t have to wait until they graduate to explore their passions and dig into authentic work.
This post was created for the Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop. This month’s topic is Utopian Fantasies — Wonderful Worlds.
We hope that you find inspiration and new gifted resources from all the wonderful bloggers who contributed a post this month.