(This is a rejected scrap I wrote on an airplane a few weeks ago. Maybe it’ll be useful here.)
As a toddler I couldn’t stay in the back seat of our Monte Carlo on trips to visit relatives. I’d inevitably snake my way into the floorboard of the front seat and tinker with the wires dangling underneath the dashboard. Add to this my constant talking or noisemaking and you can understand why my sister rolled her eyes at me incessantly and we rarely hit the road as a family.
In kindergarten I refused to rotate from station to station, preferring to master one before moving on. This perfectionism got me hauled from the “block station” to the hallway by my teacher, blocks still in hand, sobbing, not because I was in trouble but because I hadn’t finished my tower yet.
In the first grade it became clear I was no mathematician. I couldn’t solve one group addition problems: 7+5 =? 7+4 =? 8+5=? 8+4=? (I still can’t without stopping to count.)
In the second grade I lost my handwriting. What I mean is that I didn’t know how I wrote anymore. I forgot. So I copied the writing of my teacher or the kid next to me. I couldn’t write anything unless it was in someone else’s style.
In the third grade I began drawing on everything. I added ornate borders to short stories. I colored each state on my map after filling in their capitals. I added elaborate swirlies, John Hancock style, to my signature until it filled the entire upper right hand corner of every page I turned in. Sometimes I drew on the teacher’s handouts in lieu of actually doing the work assigned on them.
Then, near the middle of the school year a test was given to every third grader. A few weeks later a note was sent home with me – my test results. The week after that I was pulled out of Mrs. Hayes’ class and sent to the library for fanother test. There, seated around large round tables, sat the other weird kids in school. The asian kid who ate tofu at lunch and could play Flight Of The Bumblebee on the piano. The kid who counted tiles. The girl who never spoke. The boy who sucked on the neckline of his t-shirt when he was nervous, which must have been always.
We took a test. This test had lots of pictures in it, mysteries to solve, stories to finish, predictions to make. I liked this test.
Not long after that I was labeled “gifted.” The test in the library measured my I.Q. and I’d done well on it. Turned out I was creative, not stupid like Denise thought. Denise laughed when I was pulled from class for the first time to go to a “special classroom” for “smart kids.” No one believed it, not even me. There must have been a mistake. They must have accidentally mixed the weirdo pile with the genius pile wherever the test results were sorted.
I’ve never told this story, mostly because no one likes a smarty pants, especially one that knows he’s smart. In my defense I don’t think I’m smart. I think I have a highly specialized brain. I excel at a select few mental tasks. Language, art and analysis are my strong points. But these strengths are accompanied by debilitating weaknesses. Organization, focus, time management, non-visual math, memorization, tact, discipline and moderation are just a few of my more embarrassing areas of weaknesses on a very long list.
I tell this story now because I have kids of my own who are a bit different so I need to be reminded that Einstein and Mozart and Pascal were all weird kids in their classrooms. I need to be reminded that that asian kid is a professor now, the tile phobic works in politics, and the kid who sucked his shirt was my best man and my college roommate and now works as a doctor researching dementia at Vanderbilt’s hospital. None of them grew up to be serial killers or unemployed – I’m not sure which is worse in our culture.
I tell this story as well because I just finished reading an article about the increasing frequency with which “disorders” are being diagnosed among America’s children, many of which even the experts agree are nothing more than labels placed on the eccentricities of highly functional kids with strengths and weaknesses like the rest of us.
If I had been born in 2000 and not 1973, today my mother would be doping me into being “normal.” My creativity and language skills might not have developed. My thick skin might have remained thin as well, not made tough by the taunts of classmates who, let’s be honest, will always find something to persecute others for no matter how “normal” we get our kids to be.
If I were a kid today I would have been labeled with a defiance disorder or ADHD (real problems for some) or sent to a special school for artists (beneficial to some) once my test results came back. Instead, I was given a tremendous gift by my parents and doctor – a youth full of not-fitting-in moments and reclusive fruitful journeys into my imagination. Being different wasn’t a disorder in the eighties. It was a gift. And I treasure it today, pain and all. It lead me to pour out my heart on canvas and piano keys and put words to my analysis of the world around me. It freed me to be something better than normal. I got to be gifted.
Gabriella can hear a song once and remember it word for word, note for note. She can figure it out on the piano in minutes. She’s obsessively clean, hates to read, and can’t stand being wet or dirty, ever, which means she changes clothes at least twice every day. Gresham reacts oddly to loud noises, putting his thumbs in his ears, looking straight down wide-eyed and wrapping his other fingers around his forehead. Oddly, he’s the loudest talker on the block, seemingly born without an inside voice. His obsession is machines, figuring out how to take them apart, demanding explanations for how things work, and preferring to watch a bulldozer scoop dirt than do anything else. And at four he started reading, something his older sister taught him. Oh, and he likes to draw people on fire. Penelope mimics the way other people talk. She currently has a stutter she picked up from a neighbor and has decided to keep. She’s a natural comedian, already, at two, aware of every humorous thing she does and able to replicate it at the exact right moment. Her comedic timing is incredible and her thirst for an audience drives everything she does, including her dancing. She can see a dance move and spend the rest of the day trying to copy it. Her gymnastics teacher says we can move her up to a more advanced class if we want. “She’s gifted,” the teacher told me.
Yes she is. All my kids are. We all are. That’s normal.