Exceptionality: What is not average?
FTLComm - Tisdale - Tuesday, November 12, 2002
It is a curious problem that is a burden to every parent. When you ask some couple what they expect in their coming newborn they will almost always tell you that they want their child to be "normal," the right number of fingers and toes, the closest similarities in abilities to other children as possible. Now this need to fit in is one of the traits of being a human being and though it serves a useful part in the socialisation process, it is surprising that this is the goal of most people.
As you look at that row of trees and note that each one is acted upon by nature in a precise concert of individual circumstances due to the tree's genetic similarity to its neighbours but also its unique location, the variations in a spring breeze, the soil beneath it and a huge range of other factors determine that each tree will grow and develop in its own very unique manner. Each one will be a tree, each one just as valued as another each one contributing to the environment and no matter what it becomes it will be still a tree.
No matter what it is that you measure, human beings are far more similar to each other than one would at first expect and yet if we can quantify an ability, we discover that the numbers of individuals with a given type of ability, in comparison with everyone else, they will tend to fall into a numerical pattern that on a graph looks like this, the famous bell curve. If we set the concept of "fairness" aside we discover that the world is designed for folks in that blue area. Schools, the work environment, the consumer market place, all are designed to meet the needs of the average. Those individual who are right handed, five foot two females and five foot ten males, who are below the line of being considered smart, and well above the category people will refer to as slow, yet the average person is the one who fits in, can buy a suit at Tip Top Tailors, buy a dress off the rack that fits, run around the bases about the same speed as everyone else and learns to drive, drinks moderately and likes country music.
When you really begin to look closely you will be shocked to discover that almost no one is average. Statistics and the use of numbers to quantify either abilities or whatever aspect of life one is trying to describe, is extra ordinarily deceptive. Reality is really much more like trees.
People are neither the direct result of biological and genetic predisposition, nor are they developed or shaped by their environment, parents or circumstances of life. What appears to take place is that humans are a complex compilation of these formative factors and like the complete individuality of each twig and bow on a tree, each person, though fitted with similar genetic material, similar upbringing and all the nurturing that their parents and their community can give them, but in the end, each one is pretty much what they are and any one of those factor is relatively unimportant. I realise how hard this concept is to take because we as parents so much want to take credit for the wonders our children perform, but a lot of study has gone into this issue and it is pretty clear that a parent's work at being a good parent is only a minor factor.
As a principal and as a counsellor I have had far to many of those interviews with a father and mother who have to face the issue of the child they love having done something that they just should not have done and so often I have seen them filled with guilt or silently resent some error that the other has committed that has produced this awful result.
Parents quite rightly are not licensed, trained or certified as qualified to be somebody's parent and there are so many good reasons for that not being the case. As far as we know, most parents do their best and even in the worst case scenario, a parent can not be considered to be culpable for the problems their child might encounter in their lifetime. Parents must love their children and children must love their parents, that is the only requirement, for it seems nothing else really matters.
Our educational system was developed to assist children fit into the society in which they will one day live. As elevated and refined the espoused goals of schooling, those words are primarily window dressing, for schooling in our society and those forms of education in the past, were primarily social - economic and political organisations to produce people who will fit in, people who are socialised. When you realise this, you immediately discover that the exceptions, those who on various quantifiable measurements are above or below the "average" are a serious problem to the basic purpose of the education process. Parents, government and the school system itself, all pitch in to modify the individual who is not average.
The results of this pressure on children is staggering. Though every parent wants to see their child score well in academic achievement, be the star of the sports team, or achieve recognition by the school system, in every case the achievement must fall within what is achievable by the ordinary. The saying "no one likes a smartass" is completely true and for the child who falls short of average there is shame for the child and also for the parent.
I for one consider this whole process to be tragic. Few achievements in a society will ever be obtained from being like everyone else. Creativity, intuitive awareness, bold decision making know no limits. Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Wolfgang Amedius Mozart, Stephen Hawking, Alexander Graham Bell, Marshal MacLuhan, Linus Pauling, Elton John, Thomas Edison, William Shakespeare, or Mutt Lang would never be classes as average and yet their achievements are part of the advancement of society and culture.
Where the ugliness of quantification really comes out is in those people who for whatever reason are rated in the below average category. Since the mid eighties we have known that everyone can be altered. If we are talking about abilities that might be described as intelligence, we discovered that with the right resources, we can improve any person's abilities, a bit. This is good, because we now know that being born with lower intellectual ability is not a life sentence, but the stigma that is attached to people who may be described as slow, or those who might suffer from chemical imbalance that result in mental illness their classification is often inhuman.
The value of each life is not intrinsic, or somehow related to that individuals physical, intellectual, or emotional capabilities. We are social beings drastically in need of each other. A child who is disadvantaged is not and should not be considered a curse on the household into which he, or she is born, but is instead a blessing, just like any other child might be in that same family. I have seen schools who have come together to normalise the life of a so-called handicapped child and every single individual in that school, student, teacher, parents have shared in the benefit of that mission. Together, they are better for it and the child who might be considered impaired, is the catalyst that produced outcomes for all that no one could possible anticipate.
It is for this reason that we all have to smarten up and begin to see what each individual can contribute to a society. The kid who feels the need to wear odd clothes, or funny hair, the oddball is to our society what cultural diversity is to our country, it is what can give us that extra step forward.
Creativity, is one of the elements that we most need to succeed as an economically viable society and as a progressive one and we already know a lot about what makes the sparks. People who see things differently for whatever reason can make a major difference, a difference as simple as being left handed, being homosexual, having some special capability, or lack of ability can provide a person with the jolt of awareness that could produce a revelation to the rest of a society. The sooner we realise this, the better we will be able to make use of every single individual in our community.
Let me tell you a story. Some years ago I was working as an educational psychologist in a school division and in one of the schools we had a child who was truly assessed as "attention deficient" Now you have all heard someone talk about so-and-so's kid as being hyperactive, but the mild cases that most of us as teachers have seen, are mostly behavioural conditions that hardly rate when it comes to the real thing.
This case was a boy of about nine or ten. I first met him on the playground in his school one recess with his teacher-aid keeping a close eye on him from a distance. Children crowd around adults on a playground and as I came to him with many children around me, he shielded his ears then his eyes as well, as he was overcome by the input from his senses. Each visit to the school my aim was to spend a few minutes in his classroom (he was in a room specially designed for his needs, devoid of excitable elements with a few hiding spots that would let him settle the rush that came to him at all times) I wanted to be able to get to five minutes in his presence and through a year of visits passed, I never got much more than four minutes when I was just overwhelmed by this guy's activity.
You see though this boy was considered far off the average scale, unable to cope in a classroom of other children in an instructional setting, he was far from what would be considered intellectually disabled. What he had was just the opposite, his senses, that of hearing and vision were so highly turned up that he was essentially bombarded with sensory input. For him the world was to loud, to bright and all that loudness, all that information was just to much for his brain to process.
I discovered that he could take just the tiniest flake of evidence, things all of us normal sensory folks take for granted and from just a fraction of normal input, he could discern information that far exceeded anything anyone I had ever met could deduct. In a fraction of a second he could see what no one else could see and hear what no one else could hear and our job as educators was to find a way to help him develop the processing power to limit his input, yet still use his remarkable ability.
We must judge our capability as a functioning community by our ability to utilise and optimise the contributions of every element available. It is shocking when you discover that the sad labeling of those who are assessed as below average is just as abusive to those who are above the average level. The school system is not able to cope with those with different learning and data handling ability, they frequently become confused or disillusioned dropping out or seeking some solace in alcohol drugs or some other diversion. Those who are above average do not need more they need different educational challenges.
I did see one remarkable school once that dealt with remarkably high ability in its student body well. Because of the community's ethnic and religious background they had experienced more "inbreeding" than is appropriate so that their community had an extremely unusual bell curve. The average section (blue on the chart) was low and narrow with the exceptions dominating their community. Those who were below average were well below average most did not attend school and in the high school the average kid would have been off the scale in most other schools. With this circumstance the teachers who were from that community coped and the whole learning environment was designed to fit the average, which was drastically skewed to what everywhere else would be above average. In that school an IQ of 100 (considered average in all of society) was a serious problem, as almost all of the school's population was well above that level.
Trees are just trees and people are just people, each different in their own way all ready to play their part in their environment. Do nothing to hold back a person but step forward to help each and every one be the best that they can be making the contribution that they are able to make.
Timothy W. Shire
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