Helping younger siblings find their way

By JASON MAYFIELD / Guest Columnist

I was given the opportunity recently to address students at Wilsonville and Elvin Hill Elementary School, my incoming classes of sixth grade for fall 2011. I found myself surrounded by familiar strangers.

I say familiar strangers because even though the students were new to me at least a third of them reminded me of someone. After a few students began with “Mr. Mayfield, you had my brother” or “Mr. Mayfield, you taught my sister,” I realized that one of my first lessons next year would have to be from the great literary writer I graduated with at the University of Alabama: Shaun Alexander.

Shaun is much better known for his football prowess at the University of Alabama from 1996-2000 and with the Seattle Seahawks from 2000-08, but he won acclaim in my book for sharing a story about an older sibling in his autobiography, Touchdown Alexander. In the book, Alexander mentioned his struggle to live up to the reputation of his older brother, Durran. Shaun resented that he was always measured by the high grades and good behavior of his older brother until one teacher challenged him to forget Durran and be “the best Shaun he could be.”

I’ve read the piece to several classes where students mentioned their fears of being compared to their older siblings. As a teacher of identified gifted learners, I’ve seen many younger siblings struggle to find an identity when their high-achieving older counterparts seem to be modern-day Mary Poppins characters (described in the classic Disney movie as “practically perfect in every way.”)

Children who are asked at school, or at home, why they can’t be more like their older brother (or sister) are going to develop resentment.

I try to communicate to my students through the story of Shaun that while I will always see them in a family, I will also see them as uniquely gifted people The students that get most comfortable in their own skin are those that learn not just to be whatever their older sibling wasn’t (“Well, she was good in sports so I’ll be good in math”) but who learn their own interests.

Jason Mayfield is a gifted instructor at Columbiana Middle School.