Life

Growing Up as a ‘Gifted Child’ and the Rude Awakening of Adulthood

I was a child genius. Now I’m an average adult.
Angel Martinez
Quezon City, PH
March 29, 2021, 5:55am
what it's like to be a child genius
Collage: VICE / Images: Courtesy of Angel Martinez

When I was 5 years old, my parents took me to meet with a mysterious woman, whose office was tucked in a building a few minutes away from our house. I had no idea who she was or what she wanted, just that I should perform the random tasks she asked me to do. I spelled out words and recited short passages out loud as needed. I remember drawing the line at stepping left and right repeatedly because I “didn’t want to look foolish.” The session went on for hours and as a reward for powering through, the woman granted me access to the library next door, which housed what then seemed like every encyclopedia known to man. I met the woman again two more times for more activities, then we never saw each other again. 

I didn’t understand what those secret meetings were until I turned 13, when my parents finally showed me reports detailing all the psychological assessments I had been subjected to on those days. My mom and dad saw signs of my “advanced cognitive ability” very early on in my life and decided to seek expert assistance to determine ways to respond to my specific needs. It turned out that that mysterious woman was a clinical psychologist and, true enough, she diagnosed me with “very superior intellect.” At just 5 years old, I had the vocabulary and reading skills of a ninth-grader and the abstract reasoning skills of a 13-year-old. According to her, my “strong potential for giftedness” could be nurtured with enrichment activities and opportunities for “divergent thinking,” among many other recommendations. 

what it's like to be a child genius

Me at age 3, hijacking my mom’s office to write. Photo: Courtesy of Angel Martinez​

I wasn’t exactly surprised when my parents revealed this to me; I always felt like they’ve put me on a pedestal. I loved it too, as an only child and attention hog. I learned to speak in phrases when I was barely a year old and taught myself to recite the alphabet backwards out of boredom a few months later. At age 3, I spent my days in our house full of books, poring over the pages of whatever I could get my hands on — almanacs, fairy tales, and even instruction manuals and product brochures. This made me a hit in family gatherings, where I would recite the capitals of the world or explain how food traveled through the digestive system, before getting drowned out by my audience’s roaring applause.

what it's like to be a child genius

One of the “books” I wrote. Photo: Courtesy of Angel Martinez​

what it's like to be a child genius

Me at age 5, featured on the front page of a national newspaper. Photo: Courtesy of Angel Martinez​

But of all the things I showed interest in, the idea of writing books of my own reigned supreme. My mom would bring home stapled sheets of paper from work every night so I could write my stories. At first, I was simply putting my own spin on the fairy tales I loved reading, until I began drawing inspiration from the minutiae of my daily experiences. I made over a hundred of these books by the time I was 5, a feat that landed me a feature on a local newspaper and  TV show that touted me as the future of Philippine literature

I made over a hundred of these books by the time I was 5, a feat that landed me a feature on a local newspaper and  TV show that touted me as the future of Philippine literature.

what it's like to be a child genius

My awards from kindergarten, grade school, and high school. Collage: VICE / Images: Courtesy of Angel Martinez​

This streak of excellence bled into my academics and extracurriculars, as I bagged the gold prize for everything from spelling bees to essay writing contests, up until I graduated high school. I didn’t even have to try hard. I passed the entrance exams of the Philippines’ four top universities despite not having gone to summer review school. I thought I would continue to shine upon entering Ateneo de Manila University, my dream college, but then freshman year came along with a very rude awakening.

The first essay I submitted for English class was deemed “underdeveloped” and “lacking in focus” and had a big fat C on the top right corner. Made to believe that I was a genius for most of my life, I do not take failures like this well. I was used to nailing everything on the first try that to me, mistakes were unnatural and indicative of incompetence. In fact, as a kid, I would crumple the page I was writing on if I did so much as misspell a word or botch my own penmanship. I grew up surrounded by people telling me that I was the best, so I believed it too. 

“I grew up surrounded by people telling me that I was the best, so I believed it too.”

That was until I slowly realized that it was impossible for me to come up with a single original thought in a class full of brilliant minds. Everything I wanted to say, or write, or do had already been executed better. I remember finishing a midterm exam for my Filipino literature class and expecting to get the highest score after penning a thoughtful essay likening the fable we just read to President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, only to find out that every single classmate I spoke with wrote the same thing.  

Over time, I struggled to contribute to class discussions and produced subpar papers, which reflected in my mediocre first semester grade point average. The crippling pressure to prove my worthiness was difficult to navigate because I never had to compete against anybody. So when I failed, I sank into a period of stagnation and disillusionment, refusing to write anything outside of academic requirements. This self-sabotage associated with gifted child burnout is actually a popular phenomenon that has inspired numerous sociological studies and even TikTok videos. Seeing fellow former overachievers ditching hobbies they don’t immediately excel in or biting off more than they can chew was supposed to comfort me; instead, it made me realize that I was living my worst nightmare — I was average.

“It made me realize that I was living my worst nightmare — I was average.”

It took me a while to accept that my bare minimum was no longer the best the world had ever seen. Then, the pandemic stripped me of the opportunity to get my life back on track and strapped me to my bedroom swivel chair, where I remain to this day. Surprisingly, I found myself writing more than ever before. It was instinctive, really; the only way I could possibly make sense of the cruel time loop I was stuck in. No deadlines, no benchmarks — just me with my laptop, typing away about an online course that held my attention or the vision board I haphazardly assembled and tacked to my wall.

what it's like to be a child genius

With my first piece that was published on a newspaper. Photo: Courtesy of Angel Martinez​

After months of churning out content non-stop, I had built a portfolio of posts that reflected my interests and even resonated with people I know. My friends and family gave me enough words of encouragement to rebuild my confidence and convinced me to take my work elsewhere. For a week straight, I was pitching my ideas to magazines I’ve loved since I was in my early teens and new, up-and-coming platforms for creatives seeking solace in quarantine. 

what it's like to be a child genius

Surrounded by the titles of some of the articles I’ve published. Photo: Courtesy of Angel Martinez​

Sending my lifeblood out to editors far superior in terms of experience and eloquence meant I agreed to have my pieces scrutinized and corrected as necessary. There was always so much to revise and remove at the start, which was admittedly disheartening for someone who just wanted to get published. But looking back, this process is what taught me to become receptive to feedback. I’m not the best — I probably never was and never will be — and that’s OK. 

“I’m not the best — I probably never was and never will be — and that’s OK.”

In the process of putting this essay together, I inevitably came across a copy of the results and diagnosis from when I was 5 years old. As I leafed through its pages, I couldn’t help but laugh at how I had allowed this test to hold so much weight in my life, like my worth as a human being could be appraised in a 20-page report. I don’t necessarily resent my past because it allowed me to discover my passion for writing, but now I know that experiencing true growth as a creative in the craft of my choice couldn’t have happened if I didn’t break free from this restrictive and one-dimensional label. After all, being gifted isn’t an accurate depiction of who I truly am. It simply serves as a reminder of what I’m capable of when I work hard and happen to love what I do.