Off Talent

It’s among one of the many lies they taught us in elementary school, tucked in between “Christopher Columbus was a nice guy” and “We totally know how the Egyptians built those pyramids.” The lie goes like this: talented is something you have or you don’t, and gifted is something you are or you’re not.

Our elementary school had a T.A.G. Program: a program, you guessed it, for the Talented and Gifted. It felt less like the acronym and more like the game, where somebody taps you on the shoulder and says, “You’re it!” I had no idea who decided these things, and even though I got straight E’s (where E stood for Excellent), I didn’t feel validated until my fourth grade teacher placed her hand on my shoulder and sent me out of her classroom to one of those mysterious meetings.

The T.A.G. Program is still a mystery to me. The point seemed to be to gather all the “smart” kids in one room, and then what? Once after school we split into groups to shoot what would become a 30-second commercial with the help of video editing software. That’s the one activity I remember. We met so irregularly it might’ve been the only activity.

I wouldn’t feel the same sense of validation until 6th grade parent/teacher conferences, where my teacher told me that I had “more potential” than most of her other students. Again, I felt smart.

After that, validation came in the form of getting called into an attendance meeting my sophomore year of high school. A number of teachers had formed a committee because so many students, myself included, failed to show up to classes regularly.

During my meeting, these teachers pulled up my grades on PowerSchool. I wasn’t the first of my friends to get called to one of these things, so I’d been prepared for as much. I wasn’t intimidated.

“Oh,” they remarked, looking over my scores. I had A’s in all my classes and no missing or incomplete assignments. They told me as much. “Why have you missed so much class?” they asked.

“Why does it matter?” I answered. “I can’t get better grades than I am already.” And it wasn’t like they were paying me to be there.

Making good grades was obviously the whole point.

The thing is that in high school, we students generally understood “smart” to mean “gets excellent grades with minimal to no effort.” Studying in study hall or god forbid the library meant that you weren’t actually smart, naturally smart. You were a lesser kind of smart, the kind that tried too hard and cared too much.

Being smart meant when someone asked you how you did on the test, you answered, “Terrible, but it’s whatever,” flashed your B+ at them, and shoved it face down into the pocket of your folder.

Being smart meant finishing the project/test/assignment and reading the rest of the hour, or propping up your book in a way that hid your face and sleeping through the rest of class.

The epitome of smart was more than not studying; it was calmly but swiftly filling out each answer for last night’s chemistry homework in the five minutes before that class. It was turning in the assignment sheet with a shrug, not giving a shit how you did, and getting an A or a check-plus anyway.

But soon after the attendance committee’s inception, the school implemented an “effort grade” to supplement students’ academic grades, which counted for 10%. The logic behind this was that students who had trouble grasping concepts and articulating their knowledge and ideas could redeem their class scores by showing up, asking questions, and working hard.

Just before the end of a term, I got a tentative grade report from my art teacher. My academic grade was unsurprisingly an A; however, my effort grade was in the C-range and brought my overall grade down to a B.

This would not do!

I confronted Art Bohlen (who was sometimes referred to by other female students as Hot Bohlen) after class.

“What’s the deal?” I asked him. “Why is my effort grade so low? How can my effort grade be lower than my academic grade?”

And he told me: “You’re talented, and because you’re talented you don’t have to try as hard.” I stared at him blankly. “You almost always complete your projects early and then you work on homework for other classes or you read or you talk to your neighbors.”

I didn’t see why I should be punished for being talented.

Besides, I told him, “I thought the effort grade was only meant to help your overall grade, not hurt it.”

He told me he’d reconsider—likely because he realized that in the context of high school I was right. I completed every assignment within the timeframe allotted and met (if not exceeded) expectations. A number of my projects, most of them still-life sketches, were on display in the hallways. Senior year, my class voted me “most artistic.”


I deserved my A, effort grade be damned.

But in the context of real life? Art Bohlen wasn’t full of shit.

The thing is, the real world doesn’t want your “good enough.” The world won’t accept your first attempts and rough drafts, and the world doesn’t hand out A’s and scratch n’ sniff stickers.

If there’s any truth to the lie, if there’s anything good that comes of the myth of “talent,” it’s this: it gets you started; it gets you interested enough to do the real work.

Because without your honest-to-God effort, without putting in the work, your “good enough”—the product of your supposed talent—won’t ever become your best.

The other thing is, sometimes your best won’t be good enough either. Sometimes your best will herald nothing but rejection letters that read like half-assed apologies.

Where’s your talent then? I don’t have the answer.

But your work? Your work will still be there.

Suggested reading: “The Toxicity of Talent” by Chuck Wendig



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