When I was in elementary school, I was identified as a “gifted” student. They tested certain children who demonstrated a love of learning at an early age and if their IQ levels were a certain level, they became a part of the Gifted Program. I have heard of similar programs at various high schools and appreciate whoever had the foresight to establish such a program.
The experience was very rewarding because for about an hour per week, I was able to embrace my inner nerd with other nerds. In a normal public school, being a nerd is not the title to strive for. I felt fortunate to be able to walk the tight rope between one of the “cool” kids and one of the nerds. I think I was just cool with everyone, for the most part.
Throughout elementary, middle and junior high school; I felt fairly confident that my balancing act was a success. High school was a whole new world. You would think that as you get older and have known people for years that your relationships would become stronger. This, for some reason, is not the case in high school. I felt like the people who were supposed to be my friends ending up becoming the ones to betray me and talk about me the most. I became less concerned about them than I was about myself. I have been fairly goal oriented most of my life but I realized that my high school was not giving me what I needed to feel challenged and prepared to achieve my goals. I found myself spending more time trying to fit in than trying to learn something.
In 1989, the Alabama Legislature created a public boarding school for students who excelled in math and science. The school, the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science, is located in Mobile AL. At the time, it housed students in the 11th and 12th grades and recruited teachers from around the state who had a passion for teaching. Many of them were former college professors and they treated us as such. The process of becoming admitted to the school was much like a college process, which included applications, essays, standardized test scores and recommendations.
My mother was not enthused about me going away from home at such as young age but I convinced her that I just wanted to apply and see if I could in. I still can’t believe she fell for that. Anyway, I got in and the next thing I knew, I was packing up and leaving home at the age of 16. Unlike most 16 year olds who were looking forward to dating and driving to school every day, I was now locked away (yes, we were locked up for our safety) at a nerd fest and I loved it. I had finally found a place where I could be as smart as I wanted to be and there were almost 200 other overachievers who shared my passion for learning, for challenging themselves and for thinking outside of the box. The teachers were amazing because they didn’t just do enough to get us to graduation, they challenged us on every level to do more than many of us probably ever imagined.
The experience was also very humbling. At my home high school, I was considered one of the smart kids, but ASMS had pulled almost all of the top students from throughout the state into one place and it was at that point that I realized how much I didn’t know. I was ok with that because I also realized that I didn’t like math or science as much as I thought I did. Fortunately, there were a multitude of electives to choose from. My favorite classes, as you can probably guess, were the English classes. We were writing on a college level in the 11th grade and having philosophical discussions that spanned beyond the normal classroom experience that I was used to.
Many parents are hesitant to send their children away to a boarding school, not because the child isn’t ready, but often because the parent doesn’t want to let go. I am so thankful that my parents gave me the wings to soar and become my own person. When I started my freshman year at Vanderbilt, I didn’t go through many of the anxieties that most first year students feel because I was already used to being away from home, I had great study habits (we had mandatory study hours for two hours every night) and I knew how to make friends with people other than those that I had spent my entire life around.
Attending the School of Math and Science was one of the best decisions that I ever made. It helped to shape the person that I am today, not only intellectually but socially and civicly. I learned so much about myself at an early age and was given the opportunity to explore all that my mind was able to conceive. If your child has the opportunity to participate in a program like this and they have the aptitude for success, don’t hold them back because of your fears. Give them the chance to try something new and different. You have no idea what they may be going through at their home high school and a change of environment could change their life.