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?
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 about the importance of developing one’s gifted identity (In search of the gifted identity: From abstract concept to workable counseling constructs) and in finding others who share a common experience. After a gifted individual establishes an identity and finds affiliation with like-minded individuals, the hope is that affinity follows. Mahony describes affinity as a transcendent and soulful quality of identity and connectedness where one’s self becomes connected to the larger world. Affinity, through its synergy, relieves “the existential angst associated with being gifted” (p.7). Affinity is the reason that I opened my elementary classroom on Friday afternoons to gifted kids across all grade levels for additional project work—project work that often became simply “being together.” Affinity is the reason I hosted lunch sessions for middle schoolers so they could practice their public speaking events. Some days not all that much practicing was accomplished, but being oneself amongst one’s friends always made the practice room a safe place. Affinity is the reason the best gift I’ve ever received during teacher appreciation week is a thankyou note from a 4th grader which says, “You cut the lines between weird and unique. Unique wins. Thank you for helping me realize [giftedness] is not weird, but unique.” Affinity transcends the state of otherness. Affinity is what I call home.
Not all of the gifted kids I’ve taught over three decades didn’t quite fit—not on the surface anyway. Most of them probably did not often feel an unwelcome sense of being othered by their peers—not in a moment to moment sort of manner, anyway. Many of them, however, were like Elijah McClain. Like Elijah, they could not help being exactly who they were—of looking and feeling and behaving as other. Neurological diversity is just that—diverse—but it is also always other. The check mark in the box on student records beside “identified gifted” indicates a need to understand this student’s diversity and to provide services which help this student thrive. There should be an asterisk beside the check box as well, and noted at the bottom of the page should be, “Make sure to help this student find others like themselves where their identities are confirmed and where their common intensities are embraced--a place that feels like home.” Somewhere out there is the right place at the right time with the right people who know and understand.
Before he left the convenience store outside of which he would be confronted by police, Elijah McClain was seen on video performing his gratitude bow to other customers in line at the checkout—perhaps his way of extending hope to all. Gifted individuals--with their ability to understand nuances, their ability to take multiple perspectives, their capacity to understand the viewpoints of others and imagine the world through another person’s lens, with their strong sense of justice and ability to imagine an ideal world—carry a vast capacity for empathy. It was this capacity for empathy that brought Elijah McClain to the animal shelter during his lunch hours. It was this capacity for empathy which had him offering bows of gratitude. It is this capacity for empathy that, for me, means hope.
I hope someday you find your affinity--your home--if you have not already. I hope that those you love in your family and in your classrooms and in your community find this home each day they are with you. I hope that you often find yourself opening your arms in acceptance. I hope that you, yourself, always have a home to return to—especially if you have felt othered and in need of people who understand you. I hope that you find the place and the people who fully accept your true and imperfect self—exactly who you are.
(1)Rodney is a retired Sheriff Department Commander and Lieutenant, and he reflects on the possibility that tear gas, not pepper spray, was used by Aurora police: “Since I did not experience the effects of the gas personally, I cannot be 100% sure. The way the gas created a white, smokey fog is a very good indication that it was CS (teargas). CS is a more persistent agent, and it hangs in the air longer than pepper spray. Teargas is usually deployed from grenade-like canisters, and pepper spray is usually deployed from handheld spray canisters similar to small fire extinguishers. The grenade-like canisters were used on the musicians and their supporters.”
Mark Hess is a SENG board member and the editor of the SENG Library. He is President-Elect of the Colorado Association for Gifted Students and serves as the Gifted Programs Specialist in a large, urban school district in Colorado Springs. Mark also serves as an advisory committee member for NAGC’s Teaching for High Potential. His 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade Gifted Social-Emotional Curriculum books are available from Prufrock Press and Routledge Education. As Portable Gifted and Talented, Mark has shared over 24,000 free resources for teachers and parents of gifted children. You can visit his website at www.giftedlearners.org