Certain words are universally troublesome. Some trigger strong emotion, particularly when used outside of the very narrow context in which they might be deemed acceptable. Just ask Laura Schlessinger.
And so we work to strike certain words from our lexicon. Take for example the Special Olympics’ Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign, whose stated goal is to get people to stop and think about their hurtful and disparaging use of the word “retard” and to pledge to stop using it. (Which happens to be one of my stated goals as well.)
Some words simply have to go.
But then there are the others. The words that seem benign, that may even be used with the best of intentions, yet that cut to the quick when sensitivities are raised. Words like ‘normal’ and ‘regular’ – as in ‘is she able to do the class work like the regular kids?’ or ‘God, I hear ya, even raising normal kids is hard.’ Yup, straight to the heart.
So we offer up substitutes – words that essentially say the same damn thing, but that do so without the hurtful implications of their history. We replace ‘normal’ with ‘typically developing’ and ‘regular’ with ‘non-Sped or even ‘Regular Ed’. It may seem absurd to think that those two little letters can somehow soften the tone of the distinction, but for me they do.
Earlier in the summer, I was chatting with someone from another district about our school’s Inclusion Committee. She had a number of insightful questions and was very supportive of what we had done. I explained that although the bulk of our efforts last year revolved around understanding and celebrating learning differences, the Inclusion Committee was established with a much broader scope in mind. I told her that our goal was to ensure that no individual or group of people ever felt left out of the larger community.
We talked about our hopes to expand sensitivities around the dramatic socioeconomic disparities in our town. I told her that we ultimately want to create a community that doesn’t just tolerate, but celebrates its racial, religious, ethnic and cultural differences. We talked too about the need to address differences in family constellation.
As I listed off some of our target areas, she asked a question.
“What about the Gifted and Talented kids?”
I am not often at a loss for words, but I had nothing. The who? The Gifted and Talented kids? Seriously?
OK, listen, I know this may seem like a dramatic overreaction, but here’s what was in my head.
Yeah, Jerry Lewis. As in, Oh, OK, so we now need to hold a telethon for those poor Gifted and Talented kids? The ones with all those debilitating gifts and awful talents? I mean, for God’s sake people, where’s your compassion? Don’t you see how hard it is to be Gifted and Talented in today’s society? Sheesh. Send your donations TODAY. Operators are standing by.
But then I stopped.
Because my next thought overwhelmed the first. Isn’t EVERY kid gifted and talented? You gonna tell me that MY kid is not gifted? Or talented? I dare you.
Cause, well, she happens to be one of the most gifted human beings I’ve ever encountered. Her tenacity alone is a gift beyond my understanding, but add in her delicious humor and her boundless energy and her love – God the love that this child leaves in her wake changes everything it touches. And talent? Ha, you want to talk talent? How many kids do you know who can recite entire movies, shows and books from memory? Or who have a nearly perfect accent in just about any language because they can replicate anything they hear? Or how about – and this one is the kicker – how about being able to communicate and interact with the world around you with barely ANY spontaneous language AT ALL? Try it – using nothing but a limited number of lines from the scripts that you have at your disposal, create a conversation. THAT, my friend takes TALENT.
I shook my head as calmly and as slowly as I could and said, “Actually, that really hasn’t come up.”
Now, let me be clear. I’m all for ensuring that education is tailored to the individual student as much as possible. I whole-heartedly believe that a kid who’s development and skills are advanced beyond their grade level needs appropriate enrichment and stimulation just as much as a kid who is struggling to keep up needs help. Katie happens to be one of those kids. She tends to need more to chew on than the typical curriculum provides. Her teachers have been great in offering her suggestions for further study. She often reads the source books that are cited in her classwork. We try to find ways for her to delve a little more deeply into the subject matter. And that’s great. But does it make her any more gifted or talented than her sister? (Please tell me you’re shaking your head.)
What was it that Temple Grandin’s mother so famously said to the school administrator? “Different, not less.”
Conversely I’d add, “Different, not more.”
Hopefully I’ve gotten the point across that I absolutely do not have a problem with the concept of special programming for kids who need it. If there’s a kid out there who may very well find the cure for cancer or unlock the mysteries of the autism epidemic, by all means, we must foster his or her talents and do everything in our power to support his or her intellectual curiosity. My problem is not ideological. My problem is in what we choose to call it. I can’t abide by the obvious implication in the label. If only one group of academically elite kids is Gifted and Talented, then the rest by exclusion are NOT.
I recently met a woman whose child has autism. We were chatting about schools and different types of educational programs when she stage-whispered like the mom in St Elmo’s Fire, “Well, my son is also GIFTED, so you can imagine how hard that is.” She was serious. As in, “My poor kid is SMART too. Whoa is me.” I was trying really hard not to be judgmental, but I think I threw up a little in my mouth.
Perhaps I’m oversensitive. Hell, I know full well that I’m a walking nerve ending some days. I know too that some of the wounds simply haven’t healed yet. Acknowledging the distinct possibility that my hackles might have raised far too easily, I did my best to nod and smile and look sympathetic to her plight. But all I could think of was this.
Yeah, an onion.
Because when we manage to pull back some of the layers of our kids – ALL of our kids – we find talents. Sometimes mind-blowing, incredible talents. We find children who can name a car by its ignition sound and children who put Houdini’s escape artistry to shame. We find natural performers, and music aficionados and gamers with boundless creativity. We find window dancers as graceful as any aerial acrobat; we find innovative artists and even inventors of entirely new species.
And by God, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. (Or, the outer layer of the onion for those of you who are squeamish about mixing your metaphors.) When we peel further, we find children who intuitively know how to comfort, children whose compassion for others runs so deep that we simply know they will change our world. We even find some who already have, simply by gracing it with their presence, no matter how long they were here.
And so many of our children are just beginning to peel the onion, revealing the wonder and boundless potential that lies beneath the layers.
I can’t possibly fathom that THOSE kinds of gifts are any less impactful than the kind that we’d find in the ‘Gifted and Talented‘ classroom. One might even argue to the contrary.
So, by all means, crow all you want about your child’s gifts and talents. I plan on doing the same. But please, do me the favor of not applying the blanket term Gifted and Talented. And for heaven’s sake, whatever you do, don’t ask me to come to the telethon.
ed note ~ Please forgive me for the woefully short list of children above. I could have gone on for days, but well, I don’t have days, so the best I could offer was a small sampling of our wondrous kids. So please, please, please – if you are a parent (or grandparent or aunt or uncle or caregiver or professional) add YOUR child’s gifts in the comments! By no means do I intend to leave them out!!
Amended at 10pm EST to add: ** All – We JUST walked in the door after a LONG day of traveling and I am bleary eyed. It’s so important to me to give your comments the time, energy and focus that they deserve. Since I’m barely capable of brushing my teeth before bed right now, I’m thinking it best to come back to this after a night’s sleep. I’m grateful to those of you who have taken the time to respectfully educate me today. More in the morning. – Jess **