Surfing a Wave of Wonderfulness

Mark Hess

Assuredly this conference with Maddie’s parents will be quick and pleasant.  Maddie is a wonderful kid--pleasant, creative and artistic, mature, and driven toward success.

We check the boxes on our way down the parent-teacher conference list, exchange pleasantries and accolades about Madeline, and as I had predicted, her parents will be quickly on their way.

“What a wonderful young lady!”  Check.

“Your daughter is so very mature!”  Check.

“A leader!”  Check.

 “I love your daughter!  I wish I had a full classroom of your daughters!”  Check.

“We think we may keep her!” they smile.  Check.

“OK, then . . .” I smile.  Check.

“So we guess we’ll be going then . . .”   Check.

“But . . . just one more thing.” Madeline’s parents are literally getting up to leave and then sit back down.


There are some things I hope you will help me keep an eye on.


Everything seems to come so very easily and quickly to the Madeline’s in our classrooms.  Most likely, school is a breeze—a place for the Maddies to shine brilliantly every day.  They’ve grown accustomed to, not only success, but to a very quick brand of academic success.  To these students, this ready-made academic success is a deep and true part of their normal.  They’ve never known any other way. 

But I’m worried that Maddie and students like her will believe this normal is what learning is all about—that learning means everything comes easily almost all of the time.  Part of my job as a gifted resource teacher is to ensure Maddie and other gifted learners are challenged, but many of these students do not have the opportunity to work with gifted specialists who understand how to challenge them.  In an educational system which oftentimes prioritizes giftedness at the end of a long list of needs (and trains classroom teachers accordingly), I’m worried that when life brings challenges into their paths, students like Maddie will be very hard on themselves if they don’t succeed right away.

We reassure students like Maddie how wonderful they are on a daily basis.  Of course we do!  We all are guilty of the praise—even those of us who know better.  Despite the best advice from researchers like Carol Dweck who urge us to be specific in our comments, to focus on behaviors and not outcomes, and to praise effort over results, it’s still so easy to find oneself lavishing praise on the Maddies of the school precisely because they are wonderful in so many ways.  You know you shouldn’t have that wedge of cheesecake.  But there it is . . . right in front of you and looking so very wonderful! 

Ease of achievement and success and praise become an addictive combination.  Why wouldn’t they?  Who wouldn’t want to feel that way all of the time? 

In this way, some gifted kids surf atop a wave of wonderfulness. 

Atop that wave, we forget what it feels like to have that little icky feeling in our stomachs we feel when a challenge presents itself.  That icky feeling can easily be confused with a feeling of failure.  A student like Madeline might think that if she doesn’t get it not only quickly but also easily, then she has failed.  Yuck.  That icky feeling needs to go away, and the easiest way to make it go away is to avoid it.

Our Madelines start to think they are only valuable—literally, only loveable--when life is flowing easily and they are riding high atop that wave.  This isn’t to say these students will not accept challenge.  They will!  But the challenges they choose tend to be safe challenges . . . challenges which are practically certain to be met with a little hard work and dedication applied to them.   Or the challenges might be challenges completed away from the eyes of others, on the student’s own terms, at their own pace, and without risk of judgement.  Challenge met, and no one was there to see me fail.  In the end, the teacher will still put the “A” in the gradebook.  (An “A minus” may actually be seen as a failure.)  Perhaps these challenges shouldn’t be regarded as challenges at all.

Maddie’s parents and I discuss the wave of wonderfulness.  We listen to one another, express our concerns, and then a brief silence follows. 

Maddie’s mother says finally, “That’s me.”

“What do you mean?’

“I have never wanted to let anybody down either.  And that’s our daughter, too.  The other night, Maddie lied to me about brushing her teeth.  I’m thinking, ‘seriously?  You’re going to lie about brushing your teeth?’  But it was a failure to her, and she didn’t want to admit it.”

This exchange and reaction is very real to me.  I’ve been in that perfectionist bubble many times myself.  I still find myself defaulting to perfectionist feelings even though I understand where they come from and even though I have been teaching social-emotional lessons about perfectionism for more than a decade.  I still find myself worrying about the most ridiculous things—like somehow my wife won’t love me if I don’t do precisely the most wonderful thing or she disagrees with me about something.  It’s laughable on the outside, and I manage to laugh the thoughts away most of the time, but deep down inside these feelings are very real.  No matter how much I understand my own perfectionism, it’s difficult to let it go.  I am like these kids I teach:  perfectionism is our factory pre-set.

A perfectionist is ruled by an invisible and imaginary panel of judges.  These judge are very stern.  They are very exacting.  They never ever miss a thing.  They are unforgiving.  The worst of it, though, is that these judges express the same warning over and over, “How could anyone love you if you let them down?”  And the worst thing is we believe them.  This is how a perfectionist falls off the wave.

The popular notion is to think of perfectionism as a Type A personality—uncompromising and exacting, holding others to an impossible standard, but perfectionism is not about that at all.  Perfectionism is all about holding ONESELF to impossible standards, not about holding others to those standards.  Perfectionism can be pervasive, and in the end it’s much less about doing well than it is about feeling well. Even with forgetting to brush our teeth or not doing the exact, precise most wonderful thing, somewhere deep inside there is a fear that we won’t be loveable any more.

I have a vivid memory from Kindergarten. It was some time in the spring of the school year.  I had held it together all afternoon at school and all the way home on the bus, but in the safety of my own home and in the presence of my mother, the wave broke, and I came crashing down—sprawled out on the kitchen linoleum and crying uncontrollably.  Why?  That day I had failed to get a “star” on my paper.  I was incorrect on two questions.  Yes, seriously . . . I had been surfing the wave of wonderfulness, a star atop every paper, since August!  In retrospect, this not only says a lot about perfectionism and gifted kids but also a lot about boys and moms. 

Maddie’s parents and I are winding down our discussion now.  It really is time to end the conference.  We have reached a consensus—a very important consensus we will take with us.

Gifted kids are a joy.  Check.

Gifted kids need to be challenged.  Check.

Gifted kids need to feel—not failure exactly—but the challenge of trying, not succeeding, re-grouping, and trying again.  Check.

Gifted kids need to understand that failure is natural and inevitable and that they are loveable even when they feel they have failed.  Check.

I’ve taught about a hundred Maddies over a long career now—a long list of wonderful gifted girls and boys.  Classrooms full of them are a true privilege, but gifted kids need support like all kids need support.  They don’t simply “do OK if we just leave them alone.”  Check.

Gifted kids are, after all, just kids too.  Check.

We have to realize that even when we are surfing a wave of wonderfulness, we are still riding on top of an ocean.  It is an ocean that is at once deep and perilous and sometimes murky with the unknown.  But it is also beautiful and powerful and deeply, deeply authentic.


Mark Hess is a gifted resource teacher in Colorado Springs. He is the president of the Pikes Peak Association for Gifted Students and board member for the Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented. 

The views expressed herein represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily the National Association for Gifted Children.