I only ever knew I was smart because other people told me so. I started school a year early, but my parents didn’t really tell me it was anything special, or that I was anything special. I just loved learning, and school was a place to do as much of that as I wanted. Unfortunately, school also taught me that children, adults, people in general, can be mean.
I learned to hate the word “smart”, because I felt like that label only ever brought me grief. I quickly began to associate “smart” with “different”, and as a result, I tried to be as innocuous as possible, which only served to make me a bigger target. I didn’t even know the word “gifted” could be used to describe a person until my parents stumbled across GERRIC — part of the University of New South Wales’ School of Education that is devoted to the education of gifted and talented students.
GERRIC administered a test every year for these gifted students. There was a primary school version and a high school version – the Australian Primary Talent Search (APTS) and the Australian Secondary School Education Talent Search (ASSETS). It consisted of four tests – English, maths, reading, and science, that were to be taken over a period of about five or six hours. I was seven when I sat my first APTS test, and I don’t really know why my parents thought it would be a good idea at the time – but it would be one of the best decisions they’d ever made.
Based on my results in one of the APTS tests I took when I was nine, I was invited to a one-week residential camp at the University of New South Wales to attend a weeklong workshop on the subject I’d scored highly on. It took place in January, over the school holidays, so my parents decided to take us all on a family holiday for a week before the workshop started.
It was my first time in a city other than Brisbane. We went to Paddy’s markets, and mum bought me a green and white handbag that I really liked, with the proviso that I didn’t bring it to camp. (I did). I was unbelievably shy at the time – so shy that my grade six and seven teachers told my parents they thought I was socially inept. Looking back, I think I saw that bag as some kind of safety blanket — or at least a good luck charm.
I was one of the youngest children there, thanks to a combination of starting school a year earlier than usual and the structure of the Queensland school system at the time compared to those in New South Wales and Victoria, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone. No one treated me any differently, and there were kids there who loved maths and reading and science just as much as I did.
I was still shy and apprehensive, but I felt like I had finally found my people.
There are certain events and people I can pinpoint in my childhood and young adulthood that I can very earnestly say, “They saved my life”. That very first APTS camp, and the people in it — Kim, Wes, and Yael — saved my life.
Kim was in charge of the whole camp – kids and all – but still found time to come to my room and teach me a technique to calm me down when I was homesick and couldn’t stop crying.
Wes was a tall guy with bleach-blonde hair, and my RA (resident advisor). He pulled me out of my shell, and even managed to convince me to play soccer, a sport I would usually not choose to participate in, by virtue of my very poor eye-foot-co-ordination skills, at 7am every morning. Yael, another RA, sat and chatted to me, even when I didn’t feel like responding. She put up with my horrible sense of humour, and she gave the best hugs.
I went to three other camps, one in Melbourne, and two others at a ranch-type place somewhere in New South Wales, and each one built my confidence up just that little bit more. I continued to see Wes at these camps, and on my very last camp, I wrote him a note saying how much I appreciated everything he had done for me. He wrote me one back, in sparkly purple gel pen, saying how much he’d loved seeing me grow and develop in the years that he’d known me. It seems a little silly, but I still have his note.
On my third camp, we were asked to write a letter to ourselves. This letter would be sealed, and we could nominate a date that we wanted it sent to us, at a particular address. I filled four pages, double sided, with words. I cried as I wrote it. I chose my twenty-first birthday, and I waited for it to arrive, but it never did. That’s okay, I think.
I don’t remember the exact details of what I wrote, but I do remember writing that I was proud of myself and how far I had come, how I should keep looking forward and not to lose faith in myself. If only I could go back and tell 12-year-old me what I’d be doing in another twelve years.
Yen-Rong Wong is a freelance writer and the founding editor of Pencilled In, a magazine dedicated to showcasing work by young Asian-Australian artists. Follow Yen-Rong on Twitter @inexorablist.
A new six-part SBS series Child Genius hosted by Dr Susan Carland follows the lives of Australia’s brightest children and their families and will see them testing their abilities in maths, general knowledge, memory and language.
The quiz show will be broadcast over two weeks starting November 12. Episodes will be aired Monday to Wednesday at 7.30pm.