Thursday, August 02, 2012

Back when I was gifted. I'm currently filling out a Q&A for the Wheeler Centre website, and my answers are, predictably, making my thoughts drift to my childhood. You know, I can't remember learning to read.

I feel as if I couldn't write before I went to school, because I remember spending large chunks of prep drawing the alphabet with thick blue pencils. But maybe I was a quick learner, because I'm also pretty sure I started volume one of my first masterwork, The Adventures of the Three Robot Princesses, in maybe grade 1 or 2. Certainly I wrote my first 'published' story, Two Warriors, in grade one. Did I dictate it to my teacher, Mrs Leith? I don't think so, because I seem to recall a manuscript with red corrections all over it.

That story embarrasses me now from a feminist perspective. It began with the image of a unit of both male and female soldiers marching down a country road. "Handsome soldiers," I wrote, "Beautiful soldierettes." Look, what can I say? Gender norms get instilled early.

The warriors of the title were named Joringel (a name I cribbed from a Grimm fairytale) and, hilariously, Cindy. I don't recall much more of the plot except that Joringel was the cocky, impulsive one and Cindy the smart, careful one, and she had to save Joringel from either being eaten by a giant bird or turning into one.

I mention this not only to wallow pleasantly in nostalgia, but because this was the first time in my life that I was given to understand I was gifted. The reason Mrs Leith got me to write Two Warriors was that I would finish my schoolwork ahead of the rest of the class and sit there being bored, so she decided to give me an extra project.

She made a cubicle in the corner of the classroom with a cheesecloth curtain, and I would sit in there and work on Two Warriors. When the manuscript was ready, Mrs Leith got the ladies in the school office to type it up, a sentence to a page, and then she stapled the pages together like a real book. I illustrated it lavishly, and also illustrated a cover, which Mrs Leith laminated.

The book sat in our classroom's library corner along with actual picture books, and at the end of the year I got to take it home. I kept it for years, but I'm not sure what became of it. Perhaps my parents still have it, but more likely it moulders in a box somewhere in the roof loft.

What I was pondering today was that, at this time, I didn't feel gifted. I just understood that I could read longer and more difficult books than many of my classmates, and my spelling and drawing were better, and I enjoyed writing stories and poems and songs, and inventing games and other imaginative pursuits.

Yet when I look back on my intellectual past, it seems to me that some other person lived my life. I did well enough on the ACER scholarship exam to get a full scholarship to a school that basically hothoused smart kids. I remember finding the exam relatively easy; when a friend who'd also done it asked how I'd solved a geometry question, I told her that I'd visualised the different shapes and rotated them in my mind's eye until they fitted together. She looked at me as if I were insane.

In year 7, I was streamed into a Program for Exceptionally Gifted Students. I think back on this now with utter amazement. Really, my decline began when the entire year level was streamed for maths. I was in Band 1, which sounds good until you learn that above that was Extension, and above that was Acceleration. Everyone in my class except me was in either Extension or Acceleration.

Perhaps I could blame the school, which instilled the value of competition and the celebration of winning in almost every activity. I participated in the Tournament of Minds, the Maths Talent Quest, the Westpac Maths Competition, the Science Talent Search, Schools debating, the Alliance Française poetry competition, the Shakespeare Festival, various inter-house competitions, and internal competitions for public speaking, lip syncing, songwriting and more.

It's also hard to ignore a pattern of regular slumps in my ability to think clearly, and angry, antagonistic work, that could perhaps indicate a long-term history of depression. I remember how my schoolwork really fell off in year 9; I just couldn't make myself finish an RE project that ended up terms and terms late. It was to write a 'Diary of a Muslim Girl' – they wanted pap like, "Dear diary, it really sucks to have to wear this headscarf. I feel really repressed."

That same year, we had to do a Geography project in the form of a tourist brochure for a country of our choice. I chose "Come to Friendly Yugoslavia", a sarcastic brochure full of black jokes about the civil war. One gag was that a traditional lace-making method was to hold up white fabric on a stick and have it shot full of bullet holes. I think there was a land mine gag, too.

Third year uni, during which I spent a large amount of time crying on the fire escape, also represented a slump from second year, which I aced, and at the end of the year was among a select group of students chosen to submit work to the D&AD Student Awards. Third year was the year I presented, as my final Client-Based Project, an anti-smoking concept with the tagline: "Quit being a dickhead".

It was also the year of Morty the Muscle, a deliberately cheesy and awful brand ambassador I invented in a Copywriting assignment for Aussie Bodies protein powder. Morty was a ragged hunk of disembodied muscle fibre with a face and spindly arms and legs. He spouted corny platitudes. For some reason, this really pleased our tough lecturer, who rarely awarded marks higher than 6/10. Morty earned me 8/10.

For my page in the graduation yearbook, I mocked up a page of B&T reporting that my Morty campaign had won gold at Cannes. An adjacent story, cut off at the top of the page, was a comic reference to an incident earlier in the year in which some anonymous graffiti in the third-year common room had alleged that a lecturer in our course "suck[ed] dog's dicks".

The lecturer had unsuccessfully spent the year trying to find the culprit, and thought I was obliquely claiming responsibility. He threatened to sue me for defamation. My page was ripped out of all the yearbooks and my letter of apology, drafted during an official university mediation session, was circulated to all staff, second- and third-year students.

I really don't think of myself as very exceptional now. Basically, I'm crippled with self-doubt, and obsessively compare my achievements to those of my peers and find myself wanting. I rarely win prizes, competitions, grants or awards. The easy flow of ideas and imaginative visions that my younger self didn't even consider difficult now feels like a dripping tap. I have to work much harder to process ideas and make mental connections. I've come to think of myself as mediocre.

When I raise my worries to my mother, she says my binge drinking has left me with brain damage.

Early in my secondary schooling, we read Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. This acclaimed SF short story is the journal of Charlie Gordon, a man with an IQ of 68 who's selected for an experimental surgery that rapidly increases his intelligence threefold. But the treatment turns out not to be permanent, and Charlie suffers the agony of knowingly regressing to his former dull wits, knowing that his mouse friend Algernon, the first subject of the treatment, has already died prematurely.

I think that's when my terror of dementia began.

Yesterday I asked my mother when I learned to read. She said I taught myself to read when I was about three; she realised this because when we were in the car, I would read out street signs.

When I expressed amazement at this, she reiterated her theory of alcohol-related brain damage.
You do not seem to be suffering any brain damage to me.

If it makes you feel better, every time I forget a word I feel that I must have early onset dementia.
I had a similar experience on a lesser scale, in that I galloped ahead with reading and writing, wrote plays that were put on in assembly, and was pulled from class a lot during primary school to go on lots of one-day workshops for gifted students - at which we were studied keenly. It actually made me feel invincible and inflated my ego immensely, so that when I got to grammar school – which had a big leaning towards maths and science – I floundered and had to completely reassess who I was. That was a depressing time. Ever since my teens ended I’ve struggled to harness that sense of creativity and sense of joy in something I’ve just written. I feel like my brain is idling in neutral.
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