This summer I’m featuring some female writers on topics near-and-dear to my heart. Welcome Jade Rivera as she talks about growing up poor and gifted.
My parents had known each other for six months when my mother became pregnant with me. She was eighteen years old, and wild, even by today’s standards. My father was nineteen, and the most handsome guitar player on Purdue Campus.
They both dropped out of college and quickly married before my father left for Marine Corps basic training. They ended up together, though near strangers, in Twentynine Palms, California – a tiny, dusty speck of a military town surrounded by the beautiful Joshua Tree National Park.
The demise of their marriage was easy to predict. Within two years they had my sister and my mother was feeling restless. Within a year she was engaged to another Marine and my biological father wasn’t to be heard from again for many years.
Growing up there were drugs, there was desperation, and there was poverty.
Most of our (little brother, little sister, and myself) life with my mother and stepfather(s) was spent moving from state to state. At first we moved for the military, next from poverty, and then from the law. At best I was neglected and at worst I endured bouts of the kind of attention that should’ve sent my parents to jail. Somewhere along the line I was diagnosed as gifted. I’d hop from gifted program to gifted program in the public schools. I received fragments of an education by teachers who openly labeled me as “too sensitive” and “intense.” I was (and probably still am on a few levels) a creative, divergent, gifted mess.
One of my earliest education-related nightmares occurred the day I came to school and realized that everyone had learned long division the day before. I had been absent, recovering from a long few days and nights of refereeing for my parents. I walked up to my teacher’s desk to ask for an explanation and was immediately barked at to sit down. I quickly grabbed the pass and ran to the bathroom to sit in a stall and shame spiral, alone. The tears rolled down my face as I stared into the fluorescent bathroom lights and envisioned the path of loserdom that surely awaited me. I returned to class, unnoticed, red faced, and snotty; I sat in my chair and stared at my neighbor’s paper as he solved problem after problem. He told me, “Hey! Stop cheating!” I said, “I’m not cheating, I’m figuring it out.” I’ll never understand the refusal of my teacher to teach me. Was it because I was gifted? Poor? Brown?
Now I’m an independent gifted educator, and I look back on those experiences and shake my head. I’m certain that none of those teachers understood the reality of being gifted and really, how could they? A popular level of understanding about gifted theory as a holistic, inborn cognitive difference was in its infancy in the 1980s. I would look around at those classrooms full of upper-middle class white kids and think to myself, “I don’t belong here because I don’t go to fancy camps, or have college educated parents… or Nikes.”
My mother was a lot of things, but her sense of style is what I choose to remember and cherish about her. At a very early age she would say things to me like, “Style is not something you can buy” and “Style is not about fashion.” She was right about style – and that was about all she was right about.
In the sixth grade she gave me a simple yet powerful birthday gift that would change my life forever… a Sassy magazine.
For those of you who never experienced the glory that was Sassy, it was essentially a magazine for young girls who identified with what we now know as “indie” culture. It was for girls who, despite the available evidence, just knew in their hearts and heads that there had to be more to life than what was being sold to us in Seventeen magazine. It had a glorious do-it-yourself (DIY) vibe wrapped in the spirit of third-wave feminism. I would pore endlessly over articles about the burgeoning Riot Grrrl scene, how to DIY your style, and the truth about sexually transmitted diseases.
I was lucky, for some reason the school libraries in those days had monthly magazine subscriptions and usually Sassy was in there. If it wasn’t, I stole it, because there was no way in hell anyone was going to spend three dollars a month for me to get my monthly dose of optimism. That magazine became my compass in ways that I’m only now starting to fully appreciate.
The message was simple…
Do you need it, want it, or gotta have it?
Do It Yourself
As I flipped through the worn pages of my Sassy magazines I was indoctrinated with an almost spiritual DIY sensibility. It became obvious to me that no one was going to save me. I was going to have to save myself.
It is important to note that although this story has some sadness to it, I’m one of the lucky ones! Not all gifted children, disadvantaged or otherwise, find the same outlet or understanding. This is why gifted advocacy is so very important.
With my first Sassy magazine I firmly and consciously set foot on a course to leave my abusive home as soon as possible. I worked under-the-table jobs cleaning house from the age of twelve to have a taste of independence and gain experience. My mother hijacked most of my money, but I knew employment begets employment. It was obvious no one was going to make sure I fulfilled college requirements, took the SAT, or made admission deadlines. So I did it myself. I forged all of my parents’ signatures on my FAFSA as well as every other piece of paper that stood between my independence and me, and I’m proud of that.
My life had not prepared me for college and I graduated anyway. I ended up with a lovely, little life that I made myself. On my journey, I stumbled upon a community of beautiful, struggling gifted people who desperately needed help with their gifted children. I looked at all of them and said, “You know what guys, we can do this ourselves.” At that time I didn’t even really know what it meant to be gifted. I only knew that traditional school had failed me on multiple levels and now I had a chance to make it better for children like me.
Jade Rivera is an independent educator of gifted and twice exceptional children living in Oakland, CA with her wonderful
boyfriend fiance Sam and his older-than-dirt cat, Earl. She’s passionate about alternative education and anything creative. You can learn more about Jade at JadeAnnReivera.com.