by Lola E. Peters
1988. His name was Tim. He graduated from Harvard at 16 and was working on his Masters. The law firm hired him to create a team and manage the transition from a mainframe system to desktop computing. Six months into his tenure everyone hated him, even the staff he had hired. Sure of his technical prowess and bolstered by decades of being the smartest person in the room, he was condescending to everyone. In his eyes, his solutions were always right, regardless of the actual outcomes. The human frailties and foibles of his colleagues and coworkers were liabilities to be fought against and conquered.
We sat in his bare office, uncluttered by any sign of personalization. I was the messenger: the emperor’s clothes were, at best, ill fitting. I tried to explain how the elderly senior partners of the firm were from an era where typing was done by secretaries, not by anyone with power; how the secretaries weren’t hired for their technical skills and were unprepared to diagnose why their computer’s connection to the printer wasn’t working.
He repeatedly insisted on his rightness. He knew what was best because he had an engineering degree from Harvard and was one of the few people in the country who understood desktop computer systems. What he clearly didn’t understand, had never needed to understand: people.
What did Tim’s parents think they were doing as they shuttled him off to more and more exclusive programs where he only interacted with other geniuses? Did it occur to them he would need skills beyond the narrow band of his strengths? Did they ever think to put him in projects where he needed other people’s knowledge, experience, or skill in order to succeed? What did they think would happen when he stepped outside the sheltered boundaries of his academic experience? How were they, and the schools he attended, preparing him for life?
I think of Tim every time the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC) discussion arises with Seattle’s School District. An elite group of parents have convinced themselves their children are more special than others because they’ve shown the ability to test well. Historically, Seattle schools have played to that narrative and created sheltered learning coves for these children, providing them with high quality learning resources.
When I was a volunteer with Technology Access Foundation (TAF) in 2004, dozens of young people came into the program who were not deemed HCC qualified. Within weeks of their entrance into TAF, I watched 4th and 5th-grade children solve college-level physics problems and work in teams to identify and overcome complex technological challenges. They created electrical grids to understand the off/on nature of computing, or calculated the time traveled to grandma’s house for Thanksgiving using different routes, some with roadblocks. These participants were not cherry-picked through any testing program. They simply showed up with their parents, signed a form committing to being present and active, and enrolled. They were ordinary kids from the neighborhood.
Unlike HCC, TAF students entered with a wide variety of skill levels, knowledge, and experience. They learned to work together and use their instructors as resources rather than know-it-all authorities. They learned to ask questions and develop critical thinking skills; to do their own research, trust their own answers, and be able to present and defend them; to compensate for one another’s weaknesses and celebrate each other’s strengths; to be accountable to one another and use healthy methods to hold one another, and TAF, accountable. Competition was a learning opportunity rather than an end in itself.
The elephant in the room, of course, is that 2.4% of HCC students are of African descent while they comprise between 85-90% of TAF students. TAF’s results speak for themselves: a 98% high school graduation rate followed by 98% college graduation.
In the 30 years since my conversation with Tim, I’ve worked with dozens of other men and women anointed as intellectually superior in their youth. Many have faced a moment much like the one I had with Tim. Some, like Tim, get fired and become embittered and defiant about the experience, blaming others’ incompetence. Others learn from the moment or ask for help to learn or develop additional skills they were denied in their incomplete education.
If the worst criticism Dr. Denise Juneau faces as Superintendent of Seattle’s schools is her lack of enthusiasm for HCC, then Seattle has done well to hire her because she isn’t spending valuable resources imbuing a few students with the illusion they’re special, she’s preparing all students to flourish in the real world.
Lola E. Peters writes poetry to cleanse her soul and essays to clear her mind. Her commitment to creating a just and equitable world forms the underpinning to her writing. Her poems have been published in multiple anthologies as well as her own two collections: “Taboos” and “The Book of David: A Coming of Age Tale.” In addition, she published a collection of essays, “The Truth About White People,” and has written commentary and edited for several online journals and newspapers, including Crosscut, South Seattle Emerald, and The Seattle Star.