Updated: May 1
By Sylvia Bagley.
I’ve been reflecting lately on how often we’re asked to hold multiple (competing) truths – that is, two or more realities that don’t seem like they should go together, yet do.
“My child taught herself the times tables in first grade – and she cries uncontrollably at a paper cut.”
“My teenager can ace all his classes without help – and he has no idea what he wants to do next with his life.”
“My partner is so smart – and he drives me crazy with how disorganized he is.”
“I love my giftedness – and I hate feeling so different.”
“I can’t fix all the problems in the world – and I need to keep doing my part to move toward social justice in whatever ways possible.”
It can be tough, and even heartbreaking, to hold multiple truths – to try to reconcile with the cognitive dissonance they can engender. When I was a kid, the following set of multiple truths was front and center for me:
“I don’t want to cause problems for teachers, and they inevitably have to take time figuring out something different for me to do, since I already understand the core curriculum.”
I tried to stay helpful and hide my “too-much” self as much as possible, but this was stressful and took a toll. I kept pushing up against the limits of my negotiations with school; I would tell myself: “If I just do all the work and turn it in, they’ll leave me alone. But wait… If I do all the work, they’ll wonder what I’m up to next, so I need to show them that I’ll quickly immerse myself in a book. They still might ask me to help others, which I can try to do – but they don’t realize what an awkward position this places me in. I don’t want to stand out above the crowd or be thought of as All Knowing. And what if there’s something I don’t know how to do or explain? What then?”
I remember the moment in first-grade when my teacher was so exasperated by my classmates struggling to understand the concept of “greater than/less than” that she interrupted me over at my station (where I was independently working on the next year’s math book) and asked me to explain to them how the alligator-mouth symbols worked. < > (“Which number is the alligator turning to eat?”)
In truth, while I definitely understood greater than/less than, those darn symbols confused me every time – just like the close and open buttons in an elevator still do to this day. I tend to get directionally mixed up: if there’s a 50-50 chance of going the wrong way on a trail, guess what often happens to me? Yep. I literally get lost in the wilderness and am not sure which paths to retread.
The following multiple truths emerged for me in that moment as a child during math class: “I am doing advanced curriculum, and I can’t even explain a basic concept to my classmates when I’m asked.” The cognitive dissonance was huge.
Over the years, as multiple truths continued to pile up, my goal eventually became just to get through the day. I finished my work at school, read as much as possible in my free time, tried to make friends who wouldn’t tease me or shame me, rarely (if ever) got in trouble, and headed home to escape into television.
Music was another source of solace. From a young age I was determined to learn to play the piano. I begged for lessons and NEEDED to learn how to play certain songs but never practiced more than was minimally necessary. I wanted to move on to the next song, to blast through each leveled book and learn how to sight-read any piece of music put in front of me. Multiple truths: “I adore playing the piano, and I hate practicing.” One time I was about to perform in a recital, and my excitement caused me to knock over a glass of water, which put everyone in the room even more on edge. Multiple (perceived) truths at play: “My hands are incredibly dexterous on the piano, and I’m clumsy.”
As the years went by, I kept trying to avoid making mistakes, but my enthusiasm for learning had me rolling at a fast pace. I started walking quickly over eggshells, engaging in the classic gifted dance of avoiding anything that I might possibly fail at, because that would spill water and annoy everyone. When adolescence hit with all its rocky force, my giftedness didn’t immunize me from the lure of dysfunctional coping methods. My body was changing, expectations were ramping up, and the desire to maintain control was incredibly strong. The idea of experimenting with drugs freaked me out, but my 12-year-old brain thought it knew what to do instead: just restrict calories and get myself slim enough to take on the world.
Within half a year, I was intensely Eating Disordered (why would a gifted kid do anything not intensely?) and nearly dead, dragging myself around on my skeletal frame and acting out in ways that I don’t remember now (I’m told I yelled a LOT). I needed help, and yet deep inside I thought I had to figure it out on my own, because that’s what I’d always done. (Multiple truths for me at this time included: “I need help to stay alive, and I can’t really trust anyone around me.”) I was featured on “20/20” in a piece about how kids were dieting earlier and earlier these days and was happy to try to explain to John Stossel and his team what I’d been through – but of course they got a lot of it wrong, even basic details. This was my first hands-on experience of mainstream media spreading misinformation. They had a story they wanted to tell, and they used us (participants) to shape that for them. Multiple truths: “I can tell my story directly, and it can be warped by others.”
Schooling during these early teenage years was rocky at best, and I ended up a semi-school-attending autodidact long before that became a mish-mash “thing to do” in gifted spheres. I knew (with that kind of knowing-in-your-bones) that full-time school couldn’t offer me anything remotely like what I wanted and needed during that internally chaotic time. I stayed away (not entirely, but plenty) because I had to. What I understood was that I wanted to read, a lot. I wanted to bake, a lot. I wanted to learn from and hang out with adults – not people my age, who were living an existence I couldn’t relate to in the slightest. I wanted to distract myself by diving deep into a given topic and not come out until I’d satiated the strongest waves of curiosity. I wanted to work and earn money. I wanted to figure out real-life problems. I wanted to find meaning.
I wanted all of this, and I tried my best to achieve it – though I couldn’t shake off the internal shame that I’d gone off the rails somehow. I was an outsider in life, and I knew it. While society dictates that teenagers are supposed to channel their skills and talents into grades and credits, some part of me simultaneously rejected that vehemently, and I left school in tenth grade. The irony (or maybe not) is that eventually I decided to enter back into the world of education with a vengeance -- as a teacher – and then a teacher-of-teachers. (Multiple truths: “I am a high-school drop-out, and I have a doctorate degree.”)
Because of the work sphere I’ve chosen, I interact with the strictures of formal schooling every day, battling internally with what it means for grown university students to “show me what they know” while acknowledging that this is always-and-forever an imperfect dance. A person can only ever – if they even want to – show part of “what they know.” And why should they show us? Who should we trust with our learning – and why?
I specifically direct a program on teacher leadership, and I talk with my students about what it means to lead effectively from the classroom, whether leading necessarily implies having followers, and many other related questions; I ask all this with true humility for our lack of decisive answers. It’s exciting and scary all at once, this world of multiple competing truths. The reckoning is ongoing. Working in academia as a teaching professor gives me a space to continue to grapple with all the Big Questions, day in and day out – and because I work with teachers, I’m able to engage them regularly around how we can have an even greater impact. I don’t just want to study topics – I want to study how to help others make sense of them so they can continue the impact. My husband likes to say that my work involves teaching teachers how to teach teachers how to teach; I think the ripple probably ends there, but who knows.
Meanwhile, after making it up and out of my rocky past, I’m raising a family of my own (my kids are now 10, 12, and 14), and I’m seeing the long game of Formal Schooling playing out for them. They are all multi-exceptional children finding their own ways and navigating their own intensities; that path, of course, has looked different for each one. Here is a little bit of what life looks like right now – just at this very moment – for my kids. (I ran this by them, and they approved.)
My younger daughter (10 years old) was working all last weekend on creating a miniature portfolio of art and writing supplies for herself, to have in her pocket. She wants access to the ability to draw and create on a moment’s notice, while waiting in life or out on the yard; she doesn’t have a cell phone so she’s going “old school.” Whenever she has a chance to interact with adults or other interested people, she’ll elicit their help in adding to and refining her collection of miniatures. Once she’s back at home with her computer, different creative fires light up, and she’s crafting animation videos that she posts on an ultra-anonymous YouTube channel with a name that she keeps changing but somehow means something to her in the digital “creativerse” she loves to float around in. (And yes, talks about internet safety and protecting identity have been plentiful and serious in our household.)
Friendship challenges continue at school for my 10-year-old (as for all my kids), and she is navigating deep resentment at hearing kids in her class using “swears” and other bad language that offends her. How can she advocate for her needs? Some things she can control, and others she can’t; that’s a life lesson I hope she’s internalizing and making some kind of youthful peace with. Her multiple truths might be: “I am highly creative, and I am incredibly sensitive to what I see and hear around me.”
My 12-year-old neurodiverse son is moving through seventh grade via the compromise we’ve landed on as his preferred Way of Doing School: we have a deal about how much schoolwork he needs to get done in order for me to leave him alone to his creative endeavors – and this is working, for now. (When we didn’t have a plan like this in place, things… got sticky. He needs scaffolds.) Meantime, my son follows his interests on YouTube; adores the challenges of gaming; learns to play theme songs from his games during piano lessons; discovers (and shares) new facts and insights every day; vents continuously about how ridiculous middle schoolers are; and has been stretching himself on the weekends with an improv class for 2E teens which he’s seriously flourishing in. (I also adore my online improv class for gifted adults – strongly recommended!) My son is very much looking forward to his second year at Satori Gifted Camp this summer, and his first year at Yunasa West gifted camp; and I hope to bring him (and my other kids) to SENG’s family-friendly conference in a future year, too.
One more story about my 12-year-old son: he came home the other day from a suicide-prevention session after school, expressing appreciation for the cookies and pizza served (he’s a growing pre-teen with a “hollow leg”) as well as gratitude for what he says was the first time an adult at school had openly said to them, “Take care of yourself first before attending to others.” When I asked him to tell me more about this, he said, “Teachers are always telling us to think about others before ourselves. But how can we help others if we’re not okay?” We continued discussing this at dinner time during our family’s nightly “highs and lows” ritual (we go around the table and share as many “highs” or “lows” or “things” from the day that we want to, while listening to others). I was exhausted enough from my own long day that I mimicked pulling down an oxygen mask while referring to “putting on your own safety belt first.” We all got a good laugh out of my tired mumbled word judo, and I reminded my son about the Brain Yoga game we’ve both played numerous times in our respective Improv classes, where we mimic doing an activity with our hands while saying that we’re doing something else, then hand that stated activity off to another person who is challenged to do the thing we said we were doing, not what we were doing. (Yes, it’s just as challenging as it sounds – a delightfully intense exercise.) Multiple truths definitely emerge and can be played around with in improv.
My oldest child (my 14-year-old daughter) is leaning heavily these days into her giftedness and neurodivergence; it feels affirming to her to acknowledge that she’s smart and different – which doesn’t mean life and learning come easily in all areas (of course not). She’s what I refer to as a “stealth ninja,” picking things up when she needs to and slaying just enough of the pesky demons of school requirements that she’s left alone to follow her passions. She loves to immerse herself in the beautifully dreamy world of Genshin Impact, as her characters fly around and slay dragons (among other things), and use their magical powers to defeat enemy entities; players in the game often work together against these foes. Then she’ll shift over to working on her own impressive drawings, fine-tuning characters she’s worked on for months (she taught herself how to use Clip Studio Paint), and articulating to me the how and why of her changes. “Mom, look – the shading is sooooo much better now!” She shows me what she has done, and even with my own quick brain, I can’t follow it.
“Just enough” with my older daughter’s school work – she takes some advanced courses with plenty of art (stained glass and studio animation) mixed in – is just fine with me. She has even started work on her first commissioned piece: my younger sister wrote a children’s book about a socially anxious Kindergartner named Sage, and my daughter will be the illustrator. My sister told her what she imagined going on in each page, starting with Sage in her classroom, and within an hour my daughter had sketched a rough outline.
(If you look closely, you’ll notice details like the paint palette by the sink and a cup with water for brushes. These things matter if you’re an artistically-minded kid imagining supplies in a hypothetical classroom.)
My daughter’s most salient multiple truths at the moment may be: “I am capable of a lot, and I mostly choose art for now.”
Given that I rejected so much of formal schooling myself for years, I am the last person to judge the “how and why” of my kids’ choices as described above – within reasonable parameters, of course (There are non-negotiables.). As a participant in – and now a co-facilitator of – SENG’s model parent support groups (SMPG), I’ve held many conversations with parents of gifted kids about how we can best scaffold our quirky kids through their most challenging years of multiple truths while staying sane and well (and even thriving!) ourselves. Each journey is different, but there are overlaps and certainly plenty of “things to try.” SMPG groups aren’t top-down; facilitators bring topics and readings and then open things up to people learning from one another. After each session, facilitators send a written overview (completely anonymized) of key ideas that came up and encourage parents to maybe try 1 or 2 small things and come back prepared to share (if they wish) about how it went. Some ideas fail miserably, but even the failing is an opportunity to better understand. Participants come to realize that parenting gifted kids is simply another part of our own ongoing learning; most of us were there once ourselves, too.
Yes, it’s complicated. Yes, it feels scary to mess up. Yes, it gets easier. Yes, we stay perfectly imperfect.
And no, the gifted journey never stops.
Sylvia S. Bagley, Ph.D., is a graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles, where she earned her doctorate in the history and philosophy of education. She was formerly an elementary school teacher and instructional math coach and is now a professor of equitable instructional leadership in the College of Education at the University of Washington, Seattle. As the parent of three twice-exceptional kids between the ages of 10 and 14, she is grateful for ongoing support from SENG, where she serves on the Board of Directors as Secretary of the Executive Committee and Chair of SMPG.