The perfect high

By Meredith Maran


Salon Staff
January 26, 2001 4:12AM (UTC)

Read the story

As an IMSA student, I feel entitled to express my opinion that while it's very nice, Maran's article misses the point.

IMSA has taught me that people driven by a thirst for knowledge will find a way to quench their parched minds in civilization's darkest hour. It has also taught me that all people who dare to excel to great things can themselves become great, heedless of gender, race, creed or sexual orientation. The power of IMSA is that of all the fanciful delusions of those who see giants where others see windmills -- it is the power of imagination. Imagination, unlike computers or chemicals, costs nothing, and there is nothing which we cannnot imagine. I know this because every poor child can play.

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Once upon a time IMSA was still an imaginary place. Administrators put their political careers and credibility at stake. Exemplary teachers left their jobs of decades for risky positions that paid less. The charter class abandoned their homes and families to sleep in the cramped quarters of gyms and shower in locker rooms. Why did all of these brilliant people devote their lives and energies to a mere idea? They did it because they imagined something great.

I resent the outmoded educational ideology that permitted my old school district to spend two years and millions of dollars refitting ancient computer labs and then, imagining outraged parents shaking fists at the administrators who let their little Bobby download hardcore porn over the T1, so restricted student use that students couldn't actually do anything with the computers. I resent the small-minded teachers who reprimanded me for hacking out QBasic games on the PS/2s in my elementary school, imagining that I was trying to crack the payroll and find out how much they didn't make every year. I resent teachers telling me for years that I should stay with the class, I wasn't special, I needed to remain on-task and that what I wanted to learn about wasn't important, imagining that I was just being difficult. Most of all I resent all the burnouts who taught me that imagination is for starving artists, and real people who want to eat real food must worship the one green god in this one nation under money.

But before we shoot around the tax dollars and dump more fertilizer on the rocks, how about planting the seeds of greatness in our own imaginations?

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Welcome to the real world, you shout, where windmills are windmills and handguns are handguns and Toynbee convectors are "science fiction." What the hell do you know, anyway? You're 17 years old. You've never been shot at. Go try all this crap on the South Side. Go make the ghetto kids who have to drop out to feed their families imagine how great they are.

With all due respect, that's not my job. "The credit," says the Teddy Roosevelt quote on the plaque that sits prominently on the back of my toilet, "belongs to those people who are actually in the arena ... who know the great enthusiasms, the great devotions to a worthy cause; who, at best, know the triumph of high achievement; and who, at worst, fail while daring greatly, so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

I, for one, applaud the visionaries who have imagined so much already.

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-- Jered Wierzbicki

Your feature concerning Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, Ill., struck a chord in me for many reasons, especially since I grew up in a town a half-hour from there and knew several kids who attended there.

It is lovely how the state will fund medications for students who are having a hard time dealing with the "burdens" of academic overachievement, but they won't fund the treatment of the star of the choir who is wasting away from anorexia or the treatment of a gifted artist who is suffering from drug addiction. (Not that any of this should be the state's concern anyway. Ever heard of parents?) Oh, but that phenomenal music student and that budding Michelangelo don't contribute anything to our society anyway. The point is, these other public high school students do not receive the same resources as the IMSA students. That is why this school that is selective in the first place collectively performs well on standardized tests and boasts so many noted scholars.

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IMSA also feeds their students the well-known myths that going there will get them the Ivy League education they dream of and that an Ivy League education will afford them all they ever could want. In the end, they all will enter the workforce and work with employees and customers with different needs like I will have to do. However, since I never purposely sheltered myself, maybe I will adjust better in the real world than they will. Then again, who values teamwork and service in a society that promotes independent thinking and personal achievement?

If you want to go to a special segregated school like IMSA, so be it. Others have different feelings than I do. But why should the Illinois Legislature allocate my taxes for an experiment nobody asked for my approval on and likewise does not benefit most of its students and the state as a whole? I won't pay for your Harvard or Yale tuition either.

-- Claire Huber

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I appreciate the article and am grateful that this school exists in the world. I wish it had been around when I was in school. To point out the obvious, I believe this school succeeds because of the "gifted" students, not in spite of them. As for the definition of "gifted," any reasonable person not operating from an agenda can spot a superior child easily, even if they cannot define what exactly it is that makes them so. I was one of these "gifted" children but due to any number of circumstances, I was forced to study in "integrated" classes -- i.e., tutor the dumb kids without pay, doing the job the teacher was there for. I resent the heaps of funding dumped onto the mediocre at the expense of the intelligent. It leads not to overall achievement, but to overall mediocrity -- but of course that is what those who resent the gifted want. There exist in the world many levels of human intelligence and potential, and they are not all the same. It is time we accept this and get behind our true leaders of tomorrow, instead of sentencing them to a slow, intellectual death at the hands of the average school.

-- Name withheld

I am an alum of the Illinois Math and Science Academy, class of '99. I think the author did an excellent job at describing the scholastic and financial aspect of the school, but barely touched on the most important part. There is much more to IMSA than academics and politics.

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Before IMSA, I was a nerdy, frightened kid from an underfunded, rural high school that couldn't afford heat, and spent what little money they had on the football team. I would have exhausted most of that school's classes by the end of sophomore year. All I wanted was a chance to prove myself. IMSA was the perfect place for that.

Living with people who had experienced the same social rejection I had, and who could carry on intelligent, philosophical conversation was far more rewarding than any of my classes. I'll admit, it was the most difficult time in my life, and I struggled to survive it, but I wouldn't change it for the world.

-- Kate Murray

I should start by saying that I am an IMSA student.

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First of all, IMSA doesn't offer Prozac. IMSA does offer resources to be evaluated for depression and anxiety disorders, but it does not have a Prozac dispenser in the nurse's office. The Tupperware container might be filled with Prozac, but that's only because, like every school, students go to the nurse's office to receive medication during the day.

I think that the main reason students here develop depression is our background. We used to be at the top of our class. We had something to be proud of. In less than a year, we become small fish in a big pond. Everyone else here is intelligent, just like you are. You lose the feeling of being the best, and it takes a while to get used to that. Some do, some don't.

Secondly, I'm not locked up. Last Wednesday I went to the Fox Valley Mall with three of my friends. There is such a thing as public transportation.

I came from a school of 4,500 people, Morton East High School. Believe me when I tell you that I didn't feel safe there. You can't learn in a classroom where paper balls are flying, there are gang fights in the hall and the teachers have almost had it by the third period of the day and they're cranky and they can't give teaching their all. Students in my class were pregnant. Security walked through the halls at every minute. There were quarterly drug searches.

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That's why I needed to come to IMSA. Here, everyone wants to learn. Learning happens at 10 p.m. on Saturday nights here along with in class. I've read St. Augustine and I know integration by parts. My best friend and I sing in the hallways of my school, and no one looks at us strangely, and people wear pajamas to their first classes.

Surprisingly, there are students here that don't care much for math and science anymore. I stress the word "anymore." Take me, for example. I came to IMSA wanting to be an architect. I'm a senior, and I plan on attending a small liberal arts school where I'm majoring in vocal performance.

We aren't all just math geeks and science nerds. Honest. We are, however, teenagers that have been graced with the gift of the need to learn. Until all students want to learn for themselves, IMSA will be necessary to give students like us a chance to learn without the hindrances of violence, interruption and impersonal faculty. Thank you for your time.

-- Heather Holmquest

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I attended IMSA, graduating from its fourth class in 1992. I would say that IMSA -- in spite of its vast intellectual resources and stimulating community -- could never act as a substitute for the family ties that are so critical during the years of delicate adolescence.

I recall many talented students losing faith in their abilities and becoming cynical about their futures. Of course, had they remained home, it's unlikely that they would have received the high-level analytical education a place like IMSA provides, but they more likely would have gotten the love and care that only a family can give.

Now that I'm in my late 20s, my IMSA experience still has repercussions in my life, both positive and negative: While intellectually "gifted," I sometimes feel emotionally underdeveloped. It seems to me that in pushing for greater school reform, IMSA is NOT the model one should look to. Indeed, Meredith Maran was too generous in her assessment of my alma mater.

-- Name withheld

Let me begin this by saying I am not a member of IMSA's administration, nor do I claim in any way, shape or form to speak for them.

What I am is the product of three years of a quality high school education. I don't see myself as having been "stolen" in some sort of "brain drain" from my local school. Instead I merely ended up at a school that could challenge me and help me develop in the best way possible.

You highlight the Prozac and the medications, but here are a few things you left out:

  • The large portion of IMSA funding that goes toward outreach and educational development programs at other schools.

  • The nearly 400 hours each student is required to contribute in terms of community and on-campus work service in order to graduate.

  • The simple fact that many of these students cannot be properly educated at their home schools. I personally was ready to take BC Calculus by the time I entered my sophomore year. Either my high school would have had to bend over backward to find material to teach me, or I would have had to find someplace else to continue my education in that field.

    It is altogether too common a perception that intelligent students are merely a resource to be exploited. Instead of asking, "Where can this child find the education that is best for them?" administrators ask, "Where can this child be placed to best serve the educational needs of others?" IMSA bucked this trend, and I came out the better for it.

    -- Kevin Costello

    Only someone who does not have an incredibly gifted child could object to a school like this. It is not for everyone, nor is everyone expected to go there. And it can be difficult for the families.

    But these are students with amazing gifts. They usually no more fit in with the average high school student than Godzilla would. This school may well be the first time in their lives that these kids have friends like themselves.

    I do wish that we could spend $20,000 per student on all students. But even if we did, there would still be the need for schools like IMSA.

    -- Deborah Gillson

    Maran's article on IMSA is biased and unfair. She cites a University of Illinois researcher who states that the question of giftedness is questionable. Few mainstream researchers in the field would agree. Intelligence in the general population can be mapped on a bell curve. Most high school students fall in the middle -- the fat part of the bell curve. Some fall on the low end and some fall on the high end -- at the tails of the bell curve.

    Our society provides a huge amount of resources to "disabled" students and "developmentally delayed" students -- including the students in the lowest 2 percent of intelligence. We have laws to ensure that they receive a free, appropriate education. Yet when small efforts like IMSA are made to give a small number of students on the high end of the curve -- those in the highest 2 percent, say, -- an appropriate education, critics like . Maran scream "unfair."

    Why?

    Those students on the high end of the bell curve, like students on the low end of the bell curve, have educational, emotional and social needs that are different from those in the middle of the curve. A normally paced educational program does not meet their learning needs. They tend toward depression and suicide in higher numbers. They are more likely to experience violence from their peers. Ironically, they are more likely to drop out of school from boredom and frustration than kids in the middle.

    Efforts like IMSA to give gifted children an appropriate education are simply small efforts toward fairness. Every child -- even the gifted -- deserves a free appropriate education. Maran and critics like her should look to IMSA as a model for all schools, rather than a target to tear down.

    -- Dawn O'Leary

    As someone who was kept out of a gifted program for many years, due to low math test scores (I have a math learning disability but was reading at a freshman college level in grade school), I find the focus of quality education on only the "crème de la crème" of students to be myopic and dangerous -- for the "gifted" students, the remainder of the student population, and of society as a whole. Besides, some of humanity's great thinkers were complete f**k-ups in school and thought outside the school's brick walls to change history (think Albert Einstein).

    As for the "gifted" students themselves: I am the fiancée of one such former overachiever, and, believe me, the notion that success is a reason for one's existence is extremely dangerous for one's psyche. I must admit hearing about how many students at this school are on Prozac makes me wonder if these students are being raised as hothouse flowers or in a puppy mill.

    -- Janice S. Bees


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