A special thank you to Paul C. Rapp for helping us discover the true source for this letter:
The following letter was written to Ms. Harriet Duprat, who had been a teacher at Alexander Central School (which John attended through 11th grade). She later became involved with the Talented and Gifted Program at BOCES and asked John to write a letter she could share with her students. According to her, Mr. Dayton denies the described incident ever occurred.
This letter is used with Mrs. Duprat's permission.
Dear Harriet Duprat,
Good luck in your attempts to bring about changes in the treatment of gifted children! I've missed your deadline, September 22, the day of the workshop on gifted education--I miss most of my deadlines, as a matter of fact, because life is too full, thank heavens. But I thought I'd write to you anyway, whether or not my letter could be of any specific use.
The question of what to do about the gifted is a tortuous one. Most of the people I know who are real successes in the arts, science, and business, etc., are people who fought their way up, were not recognized as gifted until they'd proved it outside school. I think---though I may be wrong--that most of my own grades in English were mediocre at best. I remember thinking, again and again, that the assignment was stupid, not worth doing, and that the teacher's corrections of my work were outrageous, that is wrong-headed and ignorant. That's one of the chief problems one has in dealing with gifted: they're impatient, sullen, arrogant; or if they're sweet of disposition, they're staring out the window when the teacher is making his/her most important points. Some people say, because of this, that the thing to do with the gifted is leave them alone, let them make it by themselves, as many of them can and do. But of course the fact is that people who have studied gifted children, examined the whole question of their psychology, etc., can tell the difference between ordinary hostility or boredom and that of the child too smart for what's happening in his/her class.
I don't know, in fact, whether I myself was indeed gifted. I knew three people in my class in Alexander who were people I looked up to as my superiors--I think I would still look up to them, if we hadn't lost touch. One took over his father's business, one became a salesman, one became a kind of drop-out who tinkers with motorcycles and airplanes and would be judged by most of society, I think, as a failure. In my opinion, none of these were failures; they found satisfying lives. But one wonders what might have happened if they had had a program for the gifted available. First, would they have gotten in at all (all four of us were great troublemakers, suspicious of authority, careless about school work)? And second, would there have been, in fact, any difference in the course of their lives? Only an attempt to give enrichment can find the answers. To ignore the question, or rationalize oneself out of it by claiming that things will be as they well be, is to run the risk of wasting human potential. This much I do know: I hated school, for the most part. I had a few brilliant teachers, among them Mr. Dayton, former principal and chemistry teacher at Alexander--one of the reasons I originally thought I would be a chemist. And those teachers gave me advantages that made school not a total horror. If school can be made something other than a bore and an infuriating annoyance for the gifted, it will be because (1) the gifted are not dragged down by the slow--both slow learners and slow teachers, and (2) people capable of dealing with the gifted will in fact get to them. To me, and I think to my children, who also seem to me gifted, nothing in this world is more cruel and infuriating than school as it is ordinarily run. Gifted children have interests and hobbies they would like to be pursuing during those tiresome hours when slow teachers and slow students are eating up their time. Gifted children, that is, would like to be at home working on their photography or music, math or art or chemistry, but they can't be at home, they have to be in this infuriatingly tiresome classroom, seeing their ideas misunderstood, their gifts mocked, or whatever. If school as it is ordinarily run does anything for these children, it teaches them to outwit authority, teaches them to hate those around them, teaches them anti-social independence instead of healthy independence. Perhaps I paint too black a picture--there are always a few fine teachers, a few fine classes--but I think the picture is not too black. Boredom is my chief memory of highschool [sic] and most of gradeschool [sic], and having just seen two children of my own through the same experience, I can swear the problem is still a real one. Though I love Mr. Dayton's chemistry class, some of my chief memories of that time of my life is how my three cohorts and I built a manganese bomb to blow up one of the chem-lab sinks, how we filled the air-conditioning system with some foul odor so that school had to close, and how once Mr. Dayton got so angry he punched me in the mouth. The usual way of dealing with that kind of gifted student--the one who makes trouble--is to try to spank or punch him into conformity; and who can blame even the best teacher when in desperation he's driven to that? But I think the bored child deserves some thought too. If he can have just a few classes in a program worthy of him, he may grow up to be a quite different kind of human being. Sooner or later, of course, most of us learn to conform, to some extent. Better sooner than later.
And so good luck,
updated December 3, 1997