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Dad Talk is a fortnightly column where our guest contributor KC Wong muses on parenthood and being a father to his two children.
The first round of the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) screening was conducted in August, and neither my wife nor I was aware until our son came home and mentioned he had taken the test. Yes, that’s the kind of parents we are.
The GEP has often been criticised as elitist because every year, only about one per cent of the student cohort (which translates to around 500 students) gets selected. It’s a polarising programme that generates as many articles extolling its merits as there are calling for its abolishment. With this article, I hope to offer a more humanised and intimate account of what really takes place in a GEP classroom.
My daughter is currently enjoying her second year as a GEP student. I remember when she was in primary three, I was asked if I had enrolled her in any GEP preparation courses. The idea sounded oxymoronic at the time – if it’s a programme meant for the gifted, how can one be trained for it? When the new calendar year began, my daughter was very excited about the programme and was looking forward to meeting her new classmates. As all GEP students hail from various primary schools across the island, my daughter was exposed to peers from diverse backgrounds, each of them with their own unique “gifts”. As expected, putting a group of such kids together in the confines of a classroom comes with its own set of challenging issues.
For example, there was a very vocal boy, J, who shocked the class on the first day. He was angered by a trivial detail that a teacher mentioned, which involved his name. He suddenly stood up and shouted, “I am going to change my name!” and proceeded to leave the room and run along the school perimeter, to the mild amusement of the other students. As the staff is well-trained to handle such situations, the teacher was able to calmly continue with the lesson, allowing him time to cool down while ensuring that the lesson was not disrupted for the rest of the class.
It’s important to note that J is a hugely creative and artistic child. Once when he was left in the classroom on his own, the teacher and students returned to find that he had created an amazing drawing on the whiteboard. It was a meticulous rendering of a skyscraper with so many little details that the teacher took a photo of it and instructed everyone not to erase it until further notice.
Another transfer student, X, also did not begin life in his new school on a positive note. Prone to violent outbursts, he initially caused a number of problems due to his abrasive and disruptive behaviour. The most serious episode occurred when he was wrongly accused by a classmate of something he did not do, and it took three male physical education teachers to eventually subdue him. After numerous visits to the principal’s office and regular meetings with the school counsellor, he has since undergone a major transformation. With their support, he channelled his energy into developing his keen interest in computer coding, making numerous friends and excelling at the tasks. Coding exercises that take my daughter 30 minutes to complete, he can now finish in a third of the time.
Finally, there is B, a high-functioning, mildly autistic girl who finds it difficult to read emotional cues or understand social norms. A direct child who speaks her mind, she was once provoked into punching a girl twice her size, afterwards telling the administrative staff that she had “wanted to kill her”. By a stroke of luck, she has taken a liking to my daughter, often affectionately pinching her cheeks despite my daughter's protests.
After my wife and I explained B's condition to her, my daughter reached out and they’ve since become good friends, with B often listening to my daughter’s gentle advice. Her calming effect on B has dubbed her the ‘B Whisperer’, and after patient, repeated requests, B has finally ceased pinching my daughter’s cheeks.
Through these stories, I hope to offer readers a glimpse into the daily lives of this group of students. Sometimes maligned, sometimes misunderstood, they are no different from others their age. They have their own struggles and insecurities, and like every other child, they are also trying very hard to cope with the stress that comes with our education system.
The main culprits for GEP’s bad reputation, in my opinion, are parents who put their kids on a pedestal simply for getting into the programme. The GEP teachers have been doing a great job in teaching them important lessons beyond the curriculum, including humility and social responsibility. However, if these same values are not taught at home, these efforts may well go to waste.
KC Wong is a photographer and father of two. He has a daughter aged 11 and a son aged nine.