Directors' Corner: Elijah McClain: With Gratitude and Bowing to Hope

By Mark Hess.

In the summer of 2020 as I was co-authoring an article about Elijah McClain with my colleague, SENG president Kristina Collins (Neither Could he Breathe: Exceptionality, Victimization, and the Death of Elijah McClain), my dear friends Stephanie and Rodney were travelling to Aurora, Colorado where Stephanie would play her violin in a vigil held for Elijah in City Center Park in Aurora, Colorado, while Rodney joined in support. The Vigil for Elijah McClain was eventually interrupted when Aurora police wearing riot gear pepper sprayed (1) the musicians and their supporters. This sadly paradoxical relationship between grief and violent response, apology and victimization, and justice and pain both dampens our hope while at the same time making the announcement that a grand jury has indicted police officers and paramedics in Elijah’s death hopeful at the same time. Wrapped inside of this paradoxical hope, too, is that perhaps peaceful protest and understanding can be a vehicle toward societal growth.


When news that a grand jury indicted officers and paramedics in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, one may have felt the path of justice widening—if just a little. There can certainly be no outright celebration in these circumstances. Elijah McClain was compassionate and kind, thoughtful, and quiet—a gentle spirit in this world. He used his lunch break at work to play his violin for cats at a local shelter so that the animals would be soothed and comforted by the music. His friends described him as tolerant and accepting. He often parted company with what he called a “gratitude bow”—a sign of peace and appreciation expressed not only to friends but to strangers as well. No, there is no celebration after a son and young man and beautiful human being has been killed.

I will always think of the last things Elijah McClain said before Aurora police wrestled him to the ground, placed him into a carotid hold, and paramedics injected him with ketamine: "I’m an introvert. I’m just different; that’s all. All I was trying to do was become better. I’ll do it...You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful. And I love you. Try to forgive me. I’m sorry." What was he asking forgiveness for? For being a young black man walking and dancing at night and thereby a suspicious individual who would be accosted by law enforcement? For perhaps being gifted and twice-exceptional? For wearing a mask because his sensitivities and anemia always seemed to make him feel cold? For not fitting in? For being exactly who he was?

Stephanie Gangemi plays violin at the Elijah McClain vigil while Aurora police stand nearby in riot gear. Photo by Kevin J Beaty

Elijah was different. All gifted individuals are different. The brain of a gifted individual is biologically different because, by definition, gifted learners are neurologically diverse. Neuroscience tells us that gifted learners have a larger brain volume, greater connectivity across brain regions, increased brain activation, greater sensory sensitivity, and increased brain areas associated with emotional processing (Sharon Duncan, et al.) Within this diversity, the gifted brain is itself quite diverse. This neurologically diverse individual will face many challenges and will likely encounter misunderstandings from friends and teachers and colleagues throughout their lifetimes. Being gifted is not elitist. On the contrary, the biology of giftedness may very well provide potential for real struggle in this world as well as amazing creative and productive capacity.

I believe Elijah was not only gifted, but he may have been twice exceptional. I know, however, that Elijah McClain was a young Black male. These traits cruelly converged and were propelled by misunderstanding and systemic racism on a night in August of 2017. “Uncommon underrepresented, and/or perceived deficit-based social and cultural differences” can be a source of systemic and institutional victimization, states Kristina Collins in The Reflection of a Gifted Black Educational Professional and Mother of Gifted Black Young Adult. Such individuals, she goes on to say, are “marginalized, othered, and approached, oftentimes, as a cultural conflict.

“I’m just different. That’s all,” Elijah McClain pleaded. Whether an individual is trice-exceptional, twice-exceptional or not,“otherness” belongs to giftedness. As those who love and care for gifted children . . . as those who are gifted ourselves, we must seek to educate and understand and then to help gifted individuals build an identity which embraces the intensities surrounding their gifted experience.

Exactly Who They Are

Andrew Mahoney, a specialist in counselling gifted individuals, has written a