I was that proverbial and justly despised snot-nose, a gifted child. I remember being separated out from my kindergarten class with a few others into a special group for those of us already reading. I remember taking what I’m now sure was an I.Q. test at the end of first grade, sitting on a large chair in a strange office as a strange woman read me strings of numbers from a book and told me to recite them to her backwards. (So much of childhood consists of navigating adults’ inscrutable directives.) I remember the advanced reading and math classes that provided “enriched” activities. (Who was being subjected to the “impoverished” activities, I wonder now?) I remember the gifted class I attended every morning for an hour in third grade. The work was engaging enough, but there was a tense watchfulness about the teachers. I rarely felt that I pleased them, nor did I ever feel quite at ease in that room.
Like athletic prowess or musical ability, giftedness can quickly swallow an identity whole. Paradoxically, it interferes with learning because it inhibits the confession of ignorance. Once you are gifted, can you have a bad day, put your foot in your mouth, admit that you don’t know something, be dumb, be bad, goof off, daydream, waste time? Even at five, I felt uneasy about the extravagant praise I sometimes garnered. My teachers were praising someone else, and dimly I knew I was not the polite, self-restrained, eager-to-please child I seemed. At school I was pathetically overcontrolled, petrified of failure. But at home I was wild, oversensitive, melodramatic. I fought with my brother and sisters, talked back, burst into tears, threw my toys on the floor, refused to eat my vegetables. The praise of school was based on a myth of myself that, having set in motion, I could not stop because I was terrified of authority and terrified to behave in any other way than with absolute and rigid self-control. Sometimes I wanted to quit being so good just to escape the burden of having to be. Yet I craved the praise of my teachers even as I knew it was not me they were praising.
No life can long sustain such constraints or such contradictions. I didn’t last. By eighth grade I was so depressed that for weeks I couldn’t so much as write my own name at the top of my papers, and my glory days were over. It was both a loss and a relief.
The end of my giftedness is the inevitable end of every such story. At some point–high school, college, graduate school–you hit your level, where everyone is just as gifted as you are, and many are more. It is the end of a life that finds its meaning in excelling others, but equally the beginning of other ways of living. Now that I’m old enough to be a garrulous nontraditional student, I find myself asking every question I once swallowed in fear, without pausing to consider how dumb I might sound. The freedom not to know, to be wrong, to be at peace with one’s own utter ordinariness: we so misprize such wild and precious liberties.
Our faith promises the gifts of the spirit. Before God we are neither loved nor reviled for them, but given them that we might learn love in their holy uses. A spiritual gift is a language, an invitation to know and love God and one another. And we are judged by our desires for good or evil that find expression in them, not by our gifts themselves. I Corinthians 13 teaches the severe and tender lesson that the only gift that will endure is love. All our gifts fail, or perhaps alternately, in terms of our doctrine of eternal progression, the day will come when like our cast-off mortal social ranks, our gifts will cease to distinguish us from one another because we will stand in absolute equality before God.
Early in my mission, I memorized a passage of scripture in Italian with my companion, Doctrine and Covenants Section 4, that section missionaries the world over probably still recite together every week at district meeting. I’ve always liked memorization and recitation. I like holding the architecture of a poem in my mind’s eye, entering a room of words in a willed rhythm, like striking the strings of an instrument exactly on the downbeat, and savoring the precise musicality of each phrase. To learn by heart is to surrender a piece of yourself to a pattern of language which then has claim upon you. My companion’s favorite verse was, “And if ye have desires to serve, ye are called to the work,” or in Italian, as we said it together, and as it still passes through my mind on sleepless nights, “Se voi avete il desiderio di servire Iddio, voi siete chiamati al lavoro.” My companion was kind, warm-hearted, and outgoing as I’ve never been, and she was merciful to me in my restless weirdness without being condescending. I remember her telling me that no one believed she’d go on a mission. Everyone thought she’d get married instead, which in a swift and bizarre cultural reversal, had the become in some eyes the path of lesser women. She told me how she had quoted that verse to her detractors, confident that her desire alone was enough.
Life strips us beyond nakedness. So much of what we love falsely, and truly, is tenuous. Material things wax old or are lost, we fall into poverty, relationships fail, people we love die. Our minds as well as our bodies can lose their powers to age. Perhaps all that we can hope for in this life is to cultivate our desires for the good. As long as I can desire the good, I can train my heart to hear the sometimes distant but constant call to the work of God, and to respond with whatever means now lie by grace between my hands, knowing that the power of my desire alone is mine.