Mcfadden intermediate school 1991 knowledge masters team

Weekly Journal – Gifted: Part 1 – The Adolescent Years

As a kid, I never considered myself particularly bright, despite consistently being placed in advanced classes. Reflecting on my childhood, I can’t help but wonder how this unlikely journey led me to where I am today.

The GATE program (Gifted and Talented Education) in elementary school was my first introduction to academia and my first taste of what it meant to be gifted. The intricate details of that time are lost to me now. I vaguely remember that I loved doing the creative stuff like writing, art. Even science was creative for me since it often lead to more question that required my creativity to answer when the teachers didn’t offer a complete explanation. I often spent excessive time perfecting things regardless of time constraints.

Yet despite all that, I was also the only kid who was regularly sent home with notes stapled to my back, reminding my parents that I was a “C” student at best, I had attention issues, often slept throughout the day and seldom missed a day without disrupting the class. That kid who collected bees into their milk carton and “accidentally” released it in the class, that was me. The kid who constantly asked “but why” until the teacher was exhausted, that was me. The kid who wore a suit and tie to school so he could hawk the latest stickers he had collected from the Guttenberg show from out of a briefcase, robbing them of their precious lunch money, that was me.

Despite my constant mischief and being the “dumb one” among my peers with consistently low grades, I somehow managed to barely pass the exams year after year. I was far from what people expected of a model minority. Among my Asian brethren, I was a disappointment since I was always late, continually disruptive, and, most importantly, I blasphemously struggled to handle multiplication beyond single digits.

When I entered middle school, I was once again thrown into another honors program. It became a badge of honor for my parents, but unbeknown to them, I remained an average student. Still, being part of these advanced programs meant sharing the same group of classmates from elementary to high school. With the same faces surrounding me, I found myself in a bubble. I struggled with math and was easily distracted by my own personal interest, like taking apart computers, playing video games, and watching TV. Homework was often a last-minute affair. Despite the “smart” label that followed me, imposter syndrome plagued me. Even as people praised my ideas, I often wondered if it was out of pity.

But, as I look back, I realize that my success came from special opportunities and circumstances rather than innate natural talent and I wouldn’t realize that for many years to come.

My father was a strict militaristic authoritarian figure in the household, and education was critical to him. How often do kids get smacked in the back of the head for leaning forward and bending over to eat. As he would often say “Are you the master or your food, make the food come to you, not the other way around.” He had many quips like that oddly have defined me in a positive way. I recall one day while sweeping up dog poop in the back yard and as I was carefully and slowly navigating around it my dad stopped me and exclaimed “Are you afraid of the poop” I meekly responded “No? I just don’t want to…” Cutting me off he said “Looks you are afraid” then he proceeded to force me lay face down on top of a section that had not yet been cleared. 30 minutes later I was released, shamefully walking in sobbing, smelling of dog shit. Even before I could wash up he stopped me. My instincts to find composure kicked in (never cry in front of him unless you want to be beat into submission) and standing there soiled he said “Do you know why I made you do that?” I replied “nanana no.” “No what?” he said sternly. “No Sir!” I responded with conviction. Then calmly he responded “Because you shouldn’t be afraid of shit or anything in life. Shit is just shit, you can always wash it off.” Harsh as that was, today still appreciate the lesson.

I remember being in sixth grade and having to memorize the periodic table while we were at dinner, with the threat of a chopstick flick to the hand if we got an answer wrong. Imagine an 11-year-old kid not just memorizing the periodic table but memorizing the chemical structures of ethanol, methanol, carbon and so on. By 12, he was making us learn Einstein’s theory of relativity and concepts like time’s arrow and Schrodinger’s cat. At 13 years old, it was genetics, adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. Cello during school, piano after school, clarinet in the evenings. And through out this it was constantly wack! chopsicks, wack wack! chopsticks again. By 14, the ends of our fingers were rough as sandpaper, tops of our hands were stiff as wooden boards. We probably only survived because of the calm and thoughtful temperament of my mom. Brilliant in her own right but subtle with a soft touch in her instructions.

My dad’s strict parenting style and obsession with education laid the groundwork for my love of learning. I was introduced to science and computers early, which sparked my passion for technology. This hands-on approach to learning gave me an advantage that still needed to be evident. It was practically useless in high school since we would only begin to learn these things in college. Also, correcting your teacher’s explanation of gravity with Einstein’s concept of space-time curvature didn’t help my relationship with them or the other students. I loathed the process but gained something valuable that I had yet to realize the value of.

In middle school, I discovered a new passion: pizza. The school’s reading program, “Book It” rewarded students with pizza coupons for passing tests on books they had read. Motivated by my love for pizza, I quickly learned to skim books and absorb information efficiently, often taking the book exam within hours of scanning the text. I had a free personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut nearly every day of the week. I hope that I wasn’t the reason they stopped the program. Gaming the system became something I was very good at. Continually being placed in honors or advanced placement, and receiving unbefitting scholarships and awards was a testament to that skill.

At the end of middle school, I was accepted to the “A Better Chance” program, which provided full scholarships to students attending prestigious private high schools nationwide. My classmates Jesse Mai went on to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and Alex Amezcua went on to Milton Academy in Massachusetts. These were the schools from which US presidents, senators, and even Mark Zuckerberg graduated. It was a scholarship that could have been life-changing, but my father declined, believing it would take me too far from home and expose me to bad influences. He was obviously not yet done with his human experiment. However, I still wondered, “Why did they pick me?” After all, at best, I was a “C” student.

Although I struggled with basic math, I excelled in algebra and geometry, which led me to take advanced math classes with older students. In high school, I was once again thrown into another advanced placement program, surrounded by familiar faces that had followed me since elementary and junior high school. I wondered if they thought the same thing: “Why is this failure still in my classes?” I know it was true based on the fact that I was often the last person they would pick for group projects. My disinterest in school subjects was renowned.

In these advanced math classes, I was drawn toward older students who had failed the subjects. They weren’t dumb, in fact most of them were also advanced placement students but they had other unique talents that went far beyond the rest of the students. Terrance “Terry” Zdunich was an amazing natural artist and phenomenal at science, even if he constantly drew satanic things and science was an opportunity to break things or make it explode. Gustavo “Gus” Saldivar looked like Stephen King and had that kind of “I’m to brilliant to talk to normal people” air to him, most people thought he was a loner, I thought he was brilliant.

Yet here they were taking geometry for a 2nd or 3rd time. These so-called “troublemakers” became my mentors, willing to teach me when others wouldn’t. I kind of think that maybe it made them feel helpful, and I saw in them what I saw in myself—people with the same interest in things that weren’t being taught inside our school walls. Though them I met the rest of the upper class AP students and soon I became a part of their social group.

They exposed me to different experiences, music, and movies that my peers weren’t into. When my classmates enjoyed leisurely lunch breaks, I played bridge with the upperclassmen. If my classmates listened to Boyz II Men or U2, I listened to Danzig, Depeche Mode and the Smiths. If my classmates were watching Terminator 2 and The Adams Family, I was watching Just one of the Guys and Some Kind of Wonderful (man they just don’t make wholesome romcoms like they used to do they?) This broadened my horizons and shaped my unique perspective on life.

It’s still crazy how distinct the cultural line between those born on or after 77 and those before is. Most of my generation at least among the Asians missed out on Joy Division, Pet Shop Boys, Yazoo and so many other synth-pop artist and bands. I think this particular occurrence was due to the fact that most 1st generation FOB (Fresh off the Boat) Asians were still into new wave and the 2nd generation Asians tried to distance themselves from the 1st generation because they didn’t want to be labeled as a FOB. Synth-Pop was too much of a hop and skip way from New Wave. It was the severe cost of fitting in.

These upperclassmen were also far more interested in computers and technology than my classmates. They gave me hand-me-downs of their hardware, like network interface cards, a copy of Windows 3.11 for workgroups, and various programming and networking books, which I studied and consumed voraciously.
During my sophomore year, they introduced me to phreaking and hacking with access to some of the most elite BBSs of the time. My access to games became unlimited. I began a little retail store out of my locker filled with stacks of rubber band-bound floppy disks and electronics, selling cracked versions of the latest games and illegal tone dialers or cable descramblers thanks to a copy of the “Anarchist Cookbook.” They even got me jobs when I was 16 at Computer City and CompUSA, furthering my experience with computers.

By the time I was a junior, half of my close friends had graduated and moved on to college. As I reached my senior year, most of my close friends were gone, and I found myself adrift and alone. Often, I would ditch school and spend my days at local universities, discussing various subjects with my friends there. My sister and I were ditching school so much that there was an entire drawer at the attendance office just for us alone, but I was learning more than ever. I’m still surprised that after missing 90% of my senior year, my parents never found out until they realized I wouldn’t graduate high school. My belief that I was an idiot and a failure finally became a reality.

That completes the first part of this story, mainly what I considered the part of life where I struggled fitting into the gifted crowd, missed opportunities and had plenty of self-doubts. In the next part, I’ll start going over how these challenges and obstacles were blessings in disguise. You’ll find out why I think my unconventional journey through life has taught me that innate intelligence doesn’t always determine success, but rather the opportunities and circumstances that come our way. We don’t always know what will become of them when were are living them in the moment, but by embracing these unique experiences, we can forge our paths and find success on our terms.

Continue the story here: Weekly Journal – Gifted: Part 2 – The Young Adult Years

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