Tortured Geniuses: GEP Kids on the Burden of Being Gifted

Grace Yeoh

Photos from interviewees. Some names have been changed due to the sensitive nature of their jobs.

When you first see a meteor shoot across the night sky, you notice that the streak of light it leaves in its wake only glows for a brief, bright second.  

The formative years of being a gifted kid can often feel the same.

Just ask Visakan Veerasamy, 27, who effortlessly made it into the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) when he was nine. After sitting for the national exam that would determine his placement within the top 1% of his cohort, he was relocated to St Hilda’s Primary School which taught the GEP curriculum.

Most GEPers (pronounced ‘jee-per’, the term for those within the programme) flourish under the subsequent academic rigour and go on to perform much better than average academically. However, Visakan ended up receiving a “criminally low” PSLE score of 245.

He was given a year’s probation to improve his results. In secondary one at Victoria School, unable to do so, he was eventually kicked out of GEP. Then in Tampines Junior College, he was retained for a year.

In the end, he didn’t make it to university.

Today, he works as a content strategist at marketing startup Referral Candy, owns tongue-in-cheek clothing company Statement Tees, and is even writing a book (about teenagers trying to be rockstars). He is unlikely to ever become a doctor, lawyer or civil servant.

For many people, these points might not be noteworthy. But because Visakan is an ex-GEPer, whose potential the Singapore government heavily invested in, he was expected to do a lot better.

After all, the Ministry of Education (MOE) states that GEP is committed to nurturing intellectually gifted individuals to their full potential to provide “responsible leadership and service to country and society”.

Visakan is probably an outlier and a classic GEP failure case in the government’s eyes.

So much for being the top 1%.

"This picture is an adequate representation of my JC life."

"This is a picture of me at my least GEP."

Some would argue that Visakan could have turned his life around at any point in time, since we almost always have a say in these matters.

No doubt, he also has the right amount of raw intelligence that is deemed necessary to succeed in Singaporean society. And throughout our conversation, he demonstrates an astute sense of awareness, consistently revealing sharp yet empathetic insights into GEP’s impact on his life.

In other words, even if you didn’t know Visakan was an ex-GEPer, you would still have guessed he’s kind of smarter than most of us.

Despite his own traits that stand him in good stead, there were innate characteristics about the way GEP worked that contributed to his atypical education journey.

For starters, it was a breeding ground for complacency. Success in Singapore tends to be measured in terms of academic excellence. So when you easily get “really good grades for reading, comprehension and math”, you believe you have succeeded.

Visakan also shares that GEPers were taught to “swallow a casual ‘you are the cream of the crop and future leaders of Singapore’ message from teachers”. Therefore he always just assumed he was going to make it big one day.

“I developed an unnatural, clueless, and naive sort of self-confidence or arrogance that would take me many years to unlearn. Even now I don’t think I’ve completely unlearned it,” he adds.

Looking back, Visakan still somewhat resents the ways people treated him for simply being in GEP. This included becoming a “trophy child” for his father, as well as being singled out in front of several classes by teachers.

He laments, “My brother always called me his ‘gifted brother’. Fuck, why does it have to be a thing? I just happen to want to read a lot of books. Then there’s all this social baggage and prestige nonsense.”

As a child who just wanted to fit in, he could also tell when his peers resented GEPers simply for being different.

It didn’t help that being a minority race in an even smaller minority social segregation made him feel more left out.

“Each way in which you are a misfit or minority forces you to make sense of the madness of reality from scratch. So you develop a political consciousness and question systems very early on, both as a result of the GEP curriculum itself and being a misfit. I don’t know if all this robs you of a certain innocence,” he muses.

Essentially, GEP may treat kids like adults, but they’re still at the whims of grownups and the government who want to dictate their life.

For instance, when Visakan was 12, he was hauled down to MOE’s headquarters to answer for his ‘lousy’ PSLE grades. It was a situation that he can only describe as “fucking dystopian” and “like he had committed treason”. He was then asked to sign a Personal Statement of Commitment to perform better as a GEPer.

All this even before puberty.

Between the high expectations placed on GEPers and the reality of not living up to these expectations, it’s no surprise that this jarring disconnect fundamentally messes with anyone’s emotional and mental psyche.

This was the Personal Statement of Commitment that Visakan signed at MOE after doing 'badly' for PSLE. On hindsight, he is pretty sure he was being "sassy" with his answers.

"Definitely sarcasm in the 'I will ^ no longer' part," shares Visakan.

To be fair, Visakan is probably an exception.

Four other GEPers I spoke to completed the entire GEP, and now hold relatively conventional careers for GEPers. One is a civil servant, two are lawyers, and another is a graduate student.

They also seem socially adept, a far cry from the ‘weird’ or ‘eccentric’ GEPer stereotype. In fact, a friend shares that her GEPer classmates used to be the popular kids because they didn’t always go by the book. They even led rebellions, in the spirit of not listening to rules that don’t make sense.

I imagine these “rebellions” all resembled the most memorable GEP moments of 26-year-old Joe, who’s currently pursuing his Master’s in Japan.

“In secondary school, my classmates would hack into the teacher’s computer account to install flash games where source codes could be edited, memorise the Wingdings font from Microsoft Word so they could encrypt codes in English, play Scrabble online instead of meeting in real life, buy whetstones to sharpen scissor blades in class for throwing, and even smuggle chemicals from the school lab to conduct their own Redox reaction experiments,” he shares.

Other sorts of mischief his GEP class would get into included competing to see who could use the least sheets of paper in examinations and spelling out the word ‘SEUSS’ on their report cards with their grades.

I find myself highly amused by Joe’s descriptions of GEPer mischief. Although it does nothing to debunk the stereotype of GEPers as “weirdos”, his earnestness is infectious.

For GEPers like him, the programme ends up doing exactly what it sets out to do: act as an environment where ‘weird, nerdy and dorky kids’ find others like themselves and finally feel a sense of belonging.

Some of the "cool" things that the GEP curriculum taught.

Visakan and the other GEPers could not be more different. The one thing they share, however, is the painful awareness of the hand they’ve been dealt.

As a result of how society expects them to act, their own inner conflict is apparent in conversations. Much of their speech is nuanced to a fault. They are quick to clarify broader statements, and regularly present alternative perspectives that may seem to contradict their personal stance.

For example, all of them are reluctant to call GEP an achievement. GEPers usually begrudge being called elitist and out of touch.

At the same time, they are proud to be a GEPer because of how it has shaped their youth. And they know rejecting this privilege time and again can prove more insulting than simply accepting it.

Understandably, privilege is a complicated thing to embrace, especially when it’s been cast upon you at a tender age.

26-year-old See Tow sees the merits in wearing his GEPer status like a badge, despite considering himself “about average or below average” among his GEP friends. And he’s not just being modest—the lawyer shows me his rather mediocre report card from Raffles Junior College.

However, he also understands that getting into and surviving law school is an achievement way beyond “average” to the layman.

So he states simply: “I’m learning to show my pride in more subtle ways. You’re privileged but you don’t want to be rubbing it in people’s faces. Likewise, I’m proud to be a Rafflesian, but I can’t explicitly let people know that.”

On the flip side, Karen believes her GEPer status no longer matters in her workplace, where she’s a civil servant working on policy. Back in secondary school, however, the now 28-year-old would actively downplay it.

Karen’s behaviour resembles what a private teacher I speak to shares about her primary one and primary two kids whom she can tell are gifted. These kids are hyper conscious and even sometimes so embarrassed of their intelligence that they never speak up in class, for fear of appearing arrogant.

Yet I am told they eventually grow out of it once they’re streamed into GEP after primary three with their ‘own kind’. Then their curriculum teaches them to voice opinions, question everything, and deviate from the norm.

And as I speak to the GEPers today, I sense that much of their questioning stems from a place of self-confidence and assurance, instead of uncertainty.

I'm reassured to know that straight A's are never a guarantee even for a GEPer.

Joe sends me this meme. "Pretty much sums up being in GEP I would say!"

The heightened understanding of their privilege is also evident when they acknowledge that their intelligence meant they could achieve better than average grades with little effort.

All the same, their ingrained critical thinking probably makes them question the legitimacy of the very system that determined they were gifted in the first place.

And since none of them came close to being in Visakan’s position, no one unabashedly declares GEP was tough to get through.

But I am not frustrated. Instead, I like that they do their best to empathise with non-GEPers. Many are intensely mindful that there are far worse burdens in the world than having a high IQ, and are thankful for the extra resources they were allocated.

Should they choose to take it, the myriad scholarships and accompanying career options that cater to the intellectually gifted make a GEPer’s career path more clear-cut.

Inevitably, having these readily available benefits doesn’t gain GEPers any favours with the public.

Visakan shares, “How we treat our best or supposed best is a reflection of our societal values. When society makes the decision to take some arbitrarily selected group and place them into a special context, part of what people then despise about GEPers is a direct consequence of that distinction.”

This hyper awareness about one’s place in the world, along with its accompanying feelings of guilt, is thus a sort of cruelty we inflict on our gifted kids.

“We’ll never be able to totally spare them that forced sense of awareness. What’s wrong is that we wait too long to tell them about how ugly the world can be,” he adds.

As academic excellence is the main measure of success in Singapore, once you’re able to achieve that type of success, many people wrongly assume you can handle anything. Thus, GEPers usually end up grappling with inane expectations, both self-imposed and from external factors.

Joe shares, “The rhetoric that GEP utilises to spur GEPers to pursue excellence creates an almost frenzied and enjoyable desperation. This is what gets us ahead; this worldview keeps us from settling. We internalise our endeavour, because to succeed is to survive.”

Likewise, See Tow concurs with the severe pressure on GEPers to meet society’s standards.

“Many times, we are expected to perform at a higher level and to understand things faster, which I’m lucky enough to be able to do. But that expectation creates a bit of pressure. When your friends are all so brilliant, GEP can feel like a hothouse,” he says.

14 years ago, this was the letter that Visakan's parents received before he got kicked out of GEP in secondary one.

Not much has changed since then. This is Visakan rocking up to a conference in shorts and slippers today.

Still, what exactly do we expect of our radical geniuses and young Einsteins, whose childhoods so often resemble the trajectory of a meteor?

Not everyone can cure cancer or be an internationally acclaimed author, but picking a ‘normal’ career doesn’t automatically mean a life of mediocrity either.

Besides, no matter how bright the burn-out, a meteor is ultimately just a rock. For all their raw intelligence and potential at nine, GEPers are still susceptible to the conventions of Singaporean society.

Talking to Visakan, it’s clear the ex-GEPer naturally possesses values associated with GEP. For example, there is the flagrant “disregard and disrespect for authority” that he considers a defining trait of GEPers. This shows up in his persistent curiosity towards every little thing.

He also doesn’t just question the norm; he builds his life around straying from it, carving his own path every chance he gets. Never for the sake of being contrarian, but simply because he knows what every GEPer does: rules are meant to be tested, challenged, and broken.

Ironically then, Visakan may just be the model GEPer.

It’s been 14 years since he was dropped from GEP. But being called a gifted kid once upon a time is an experience that has decidedly influenced the way he perceives himself, for better or worse.

And so I can’t help thinking that people chase meteors precisely because their greatness is short-lived.

All it takes is one intense second to experience a brilliance that you remember for a lifetime.

The post Tortured Geniuses: GEP Kids on the Burden of Being Gifted appeared first on RICE.