Exposure Therapy: Riley


Riley Wilson, 10 “I’ve done everything under the sun to my hair. To me, it means freedom of expression. I got my hair cut before I came out to my parents. It reflected how I felt inside. I really liked getting a more masculine haircut.”

Riley Wilson, Junior

     Our school district has always had a reputation of having to be the best, and I have been conditioned to think no differently. I am grateful for being smart and for the opportunities that I have been given from Eden Prairie schools, but what I was praised for my entire childhood has become a point of embarrassment.

     Elementary school was the best time for my self-esteem regarding my academic abilities because I was often lionized by my teachers for being “smart.” I was pulled out of class in first grade to learn harder reading and math skills and was entered into the Key program by the end of that year. For the following three years, I left class for an hour once a week to go to a class with the other “smart” kids. We were proud and happy that we got to leave class for an entire hour to be with our friends, but I still didn’t miss the looks that I occasionally got from my classmates when I got up to leave for Key. At the end of fourth grade, I was invited to join Mosaic at Forest Hills. I was excited, and it ended up being a great fit for my academic needs. Still, we were all very isolated from the rest of our peers.

     Middle school rolled around, and I took every advanced class. By that point, I already had the idea instilled in me that I had to do and be the best because that was what I had been told that I was when I was in elementary school. I had been placed on a pedestal because I was able to pick up math concepts quickly, memorize large amounts of information, and ace tests with ease. Seventh grade was when the anxiety of being ‘perfect’ set in. Instead of being able to get the right answer without thinking about it, I now had to always get perfect scores and would chastise myself for making a simple mistake that anyone could make.

     Homework was another story entirely. I have always been a natural test-taker. I do better when I have the stress of a time limit or a large grade percentage hanging over me, but homework has never been like that. I’ve fallen behind on assignments multiple times because I’ve been in the mindset that not being able to do something perfectly means that it should be set aside until I have the answer. When this happens, teachers tend to assume that I’m not trying if I am missing assignments or not able to focus in class. I’m the smart kid, so why am I not doing everything right? They don’t stop to think about asking if I am okay, if I need help, or if I just need a break. When are we ever given that kind of time? What does happen is they give me zeroes, which tells me that I am doing something wrong until I am breaking down over something small, which prompts them to assume I am overreacting or faking it for attention.

     I am writing this for all of the ‘gifted and talented’ students who have realized that, once you get to high school, your biggest achievement, your intelligence, means nothing. You just become one of the “smart kids,” lumped in with every other mature kid with a higher IQ that developed early. Those of our peers that didn’t go through Key, Mosaic, or any situation where you were held to a higher standard for saying the right answers don’t understand the internal pressure to do the best and take every hard class to prove to someone, to anyone, that you are still worth the intelligence that you were commended for in elementary school.

     I’ve learned much from all of the high-level classes that I have taken, but the thing that has stuck with me the most is that I am no longer as special as I was made to feel. I’m not the gifted kid anymore, but I still have that pressure from myself and our school’s environment to compete for the top, to be the best. I don’t get breaks. I’m told that grades don’t matter as long as I’m trying, but I have been nurtured by our school system to be the A++ student who doesn’t need to try.

     The Eden Prairie School District has trained gifted and talented students like me to hold ourselves to the ingrained expectation that we must complete every task handed to us perfectly and put 115% of our energy into everything academic, even if it destroys our mental health and any confidence we have in what we do. It is the fault of Eden Prairie Schools Administration that those of us raised in the Gifted and Talented program feel outcast, and it is the responsibility of our Admins to ensure that all students, not just the smart ones, feel a sense of belonging at school. Therefore, I hope these testimonies get our points across that we are tired of not feeling like we truly belong or matter because of any aspects of our identities. The time for this change is long overdue.