The Hard Fall from Gifted and Talented

My Life on the D List.

“Iowa man sits at a messy table while holding paint covered pencil and brush” by Alice Achterhof on Unsplash

I am surrounded by savants.

A sixteen year-old sells their first novel in a 12-way auction for six figures. A twenty-three year old wins the Pulitzer Prize and finds out about it while they’re sitting in class. A fourteen year-old uploads a grainy video, and they wind up on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

And on and on and on and on. You can barely swing a Kneazle in the world or on the internet without finding some kid that’s done some insanely amazing thing and has made a name for themselves.

I always thought I was going to be one of those people. Or, more accurately, I knew I had the potential to be one of those people — teachers and mentors had been telling me that forever.

Also, I knew that I had to be one of those people, that it was going to be my way out: my only way of getting to college, getting out of poverty, getting out of my helpless, depressing, and mediocre life.

Spoiler: I didn’t become one of those people. Not even close.

Sometimes, I think of myself as a rocket. In order for a rocket to get into space, it has to reach what’s called escape velocity. That’s the speed it has to be going to counteract the force of gravity pulling it back down. On Earth, escape velocity is approximately 11.186 km/s.

What, pray tell, is the escape velocity for getting out of poverty? What is the escape velocity for getting out of the Working Poor, and setting a smooth, comfortable course for the Middle Class — or even higher airs?All I know is that I didn’t reach it. I barely cleared the launch pad before everything blew up.


I’m turning 28 this year.

I haven’t really accomplished anything with my life. I look at my classmates. Many of them graduated from college a long time ago. A close friend who’s a year younger than me is at USC Med School. Many of them are getting married and having kids left, right, and center. They’re moving on to higher airs.

And I’m right here on the ground. The same as I was ten years ago, except sadder and fatter, with fewer opportunities and less hope.

Being normal was never an option: I was either going to be extraordinary or a abject failure. Where I once had dreams of being wealthy, magnanimous, and benevolent, I now have anxiety each time I get in a grocery check out line or a drive through.

I have enough, right? I know I have enough. But it doesn’t stop me from worrying.

I can barely take care of myself. I can’t even get a normal job like the ones my parents worked their whole lives; and I learned the hard way that minimum wage doesn’t even allow for any kind of life on your own. For $8.25 an hour, you’ll work yourself into a grave before you work yourself into a comfortable life.

I have good and giving friends. I am reliant on the grace and generosity of others. As a child of very proud, very poor white people, I have been conditioned to feel shame for this, and, boy, do I.

But it’s even more than that: I got through high school accepting gifts, accepting kindness from teachers and other adults. When I felt guilty, they told me “one day, you’ll be able to pay that back.” I’m an adult now. I should be in the part of life where I’m paying it back. I hate that I am still reliant on the good grace of others. And I hate that it’s because I failed at being extraordinary, or even normal.


It’s beginning to sink in that my dreams aren’t going to come true.

There will be no touring Europe. There will be no first love, riding down the Seine or kissing at the Eiffel Tower. I will never be skinny or attractive enough to fit in with the rest of the world. There will be no €15.5 million Hotel Particulier in the Paris 7th where I invite my oldest and closest friends to come escape for the while.

If I ever publish a book, it will be as an average 30-something plus, and not as a brilliant, noteworthy, newsworthy 16–20 year old. I will never be a professional actor, and my singing will never leave the karaoke bar. I may someday go back to college, but I’ll never be a Rhodes Scholar or an Ivy League student. I will never get back the years that I lost to my depression.

Where most of my friends have gone off in their own rockets and are among the stars, I am still down here, alone. I don’t want to be here.

The people I left behind think that my desire to become something else, to become something better, was an insult.

“He thinks he’s too rich for our family.”

“He thinks he’s too good for us.”

I don’t know about that, but I do want better — and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m still trying to build a ladder out of the debris, thinking that maybe I can climb my way to the stars. But I’m beginning to realize that I’ve got to let that go.

That’s not going to happen.

It was never going to happen.

It’s time to make peace with that.

I’m trying to figure out how.


Zach J. Payne writes poetry, plays, and young adult fiction. He’s an assistant at Ninja Writers, where he helps new writers find their voice and their tribe. He was the query intern for Pam Victorio at D4EO, and his novel Somehow You’re Sitting Here was selected for Nevada SCBWI’s 2015–16 Mentor Program. He lives in Reno, and has a plan to lose weight and travel the world. Follow along on his adventure and support the adventure if you can!