I first met Anna just over 10 years ago when she was the dazzling ‘princess’ – just remarried, wearing a lovely tiara like her favourite princess, Diana.
Anna is not her real name, but for the sake of anonymity, I will not use anyone’s real names in this story.
Anna had been married before and had two lovely teenagers, aged 13 and 15, that she had raised on her own since just before the youngest child was born – nearly 14 years! Wow – that in itself was a credit to her resilience and commitment to give her children the best start she could.
While her youngest was still pre-school age, she studied extramurally and gained her Accountancy degree and worked part-time as an accountant. Soon after graduating she took a post-graduate teaching course and started primary teaching, which suited a single mum with two school aged children perfectly! Prior to babies, she had been in fashion design for 15 years and this in itself showed her range of talent – left and right brain dominant!
But this is not a story about Anna’s gifts or talents, because she rarely thinks of herself as gifted, just “bright”. This is a story about her new relationships with a family who are obviously creative-gifted, and dysfunctional, and a stern reminder why we should advocate for our gifted kids with all our heart.
Marrying into this family has broken Anna’s heart, but not her resolve to advocate for those she can.
Anna was swept off her feet by her ‘prince’, maybe somewhat foolishly, but he captured her heart as a pianist, could be as ‘gentle as a giant’, and loved the outdoors as much as she did, especially skiing and sailing. He ran his own business from home and had been single-parenting his own two children, and a foster son, for the previous six years. To take on someone else’s wayward son at age six and transform him into a caring, educated citizen was not something many men could be proud of. So, of course, these all looked promising traits for the marriage ahead.
Six months into the marriage – Wham! Anna was not prepared for all she got. She expected ‘rocky’; she even expected ‘resistance’ from the children. What she didn’t expect was the disparity with her husband that began to open and fester like an ugly wound.
What started out as her husbands’ awkward idiosyncrasies and different ways of doing things soon became frustrations and points of dissension. She thought, “Who have I married?” She was not used to such an opposite set of values or ways of rearing children. The stress was really telling on all the family, so her husband suggested she take some time out from full-time teaching and study for a while.
Meanwhile, he was also questioning the marriage and what he had gotten himself into. Who was this woman who was so different to him? He privately began to search for answers, and started to question her mental stability!
Anna chose to further her studies into education, and especially online education and gifted education. She had started to develop interests in meeting the needs of those marginalised in the regular classroom. Long story short, she started to see the traits of the gifted, especially the creative-gifted, so obvious in her husband. She started to share these with him and over time, he began to understand his ‘differentness’. He had experienced this since school, and had been badly bullied as a young person. At 44 years old, though, he was not about to change his ways of coping that he had developed over the past few decades.
Anna’s husband had an extremely strong mind and he would push through all obstacles that got in his way when he was ‘a man on a mission.’ That had yielded a mixed bag of results in his working life from top national sales person in one company, to pulling his own company back from near bankruptcy in later years.
The full story would take too long, so I will cut it short at this point. Anna went on to experience various marriage separations as her husband sought his own space to be ‘himself’, and threatened her with ‘ultimatums’ of how things would have to be for them to live together. There was no form of mediation or meeting each other halfway. It was ‘his way’ or the ‘highway’! Anna knew by now, he wouldn’t back down. She had seen this dogged determination in gifted students she had taught, and often feared for their future adulthood.
At one point of separation, Anna’s husband claimed she had Asperger Syndrome. She had taught some of these special children, and vehemently denied his claims. She insisted that if he thought that, then maybe both should be checked out for it, because she found him equally problematic to communicate with. Three hours and $650 later neither were found to have Asperger Syndrome, but the specialist did say there were other problems in the marriage that could be dealt with.
Nothing else was dealt with, because her husband laid the blame for the marriage problems on Anna not understanding him. She tried to accommodate all his idiosyncrasies, now knowing that was how he was wired, but it was a tense relationship and the cracks ever widened, with Anna living under the cloud of his self-diagnosis of her ‘problems’.
Ultimately, after living on a Pacific Island, where they had gone to help restore post-tsunami tourism, and hopefully patch up their marriage, he asked her not to return after a trip back to New Zealand. She had shown absolute commitment to her marriage, living through extended periods of poverty and hardship in ‘third world’ living conditions (living in the bush with no electricity, running water, and living off the food grown on their land) in her last two years.
For those of you who have read the sophisticated picture book, Westlandia, and remember the character, Wesley, this is a most apt depiction of Anna’s husband.
Anna says she has learned much about the other side of giftedness from her ordeal, but her return home was the continuation of more of the tragic story. She returned and stayed with her ‘mother-in-law’, initially just until she got work, but it ended up being for nearly one year for various reasons. She became the main caregiver of the mother of her now de facto husband after the elderly lady had a heart attack, and learned much about the family in the time she lived there.
All the family members had traits of creative-giftedness in the areas of music and the arts. The mother also had dyslexic traits. None of these had ever been officially identified and this family had been well-known for years in art, dance and music circles. They had lived a very difficult life together as a family and have all appeared to go their own separate ways, with the parents finally separating after 40 years of a rocky marriage, and the children hardly contacting each other.
What Anna has drawn from this experience …
Firstly, it is important for the gifted to have their academic and creative needs met in school, so they are not frustrated and lose hope for themselves.
But more importantly, they need to have social and emotional needs met, not only for themselves, but also for the sake of those nearest and dearest to them. This can be to nurture their own healthy family relationships, but also for those they will eventually relate to outside of their own family.
I would add…
Just as we give guidance to our top sportsmen to help them cope with the pressures of professional fame, we should be guiding our gifted youngsters into developing the means to advocate for themselves. To do this effectively, they need to know themselves, and how they think differently from others they might meet. There are some easy ways of letting others around you feel more comfortable in your presence.
Difference can be celebrated, once it is accepted. But, if we deny the chance of identifying these children, we may forever leave them struggling in their future relationships. I know many students say they don’t want to be seen as different, and don’t want the gifted label, and I empathise with that. But, they are different, and they need to be identified and assisted in any way they need to help them function as a healthy, emotionally adjusted citizen. In an ideal world we would personalise the education of everyone to help them to reach their aspirations and beyond. We would not have to label anyone as we would be accepting of all. But, we don’t have an ideal world. We don’t have ideal parents raising ideal kids and ideal teachers for every child they teach.
What we do have are passionate people who have all experienced any number of situations like Anna, but who may not be as keen to talk about them publically. I ask that in this “Gifted Awareness Week” we recognise the Anna’s out there, and ask our politicians and education ministries in whatever country we reside, to know that behind our calls for funding are real people who have been really heart-broken because of giftedness not being given the priority it deserves.
Finally, if you know “Anna” or recognise her from some of this story, please be thankful for her openness, but please keep her anonymity.