Sitting at the top of the bleachers in my elementary school gymnasium, I had a small sheaf of papers laid out on the seat behind me and a pack of crayons. I was illustrating a very vivid story that was running through my mind: a horse with wings, a girl with a sword, and a hidden cave accessible only by swimming through a crystal clear lake. My reverie was brought short by a voice from below.
“Hey Angie, can I color with you?”
I stopped and looked down to the boy who had spoken. Peter, his name was. Asshole. Fifth graders didn’t “color” with each other. He was trying to impress the two girls seated next to him. I turned my back to their giggling to finish my project.
Peter was the kind of boy who made every team, got called on by teachers and was given awards. He was a student that everyone knew. He was fawned over, exemplified, and …significant.
I was invisible. I had friends. I was not disliked by teachers. I just didn’t matter in the grand scheme of the school culture. I was tired. My life was chaos. I didn’t have nice clothes or extracurriculars or parents with money, or parents who were present, for that matter. I was hauled in and out of special education, and if there was a rhyme or reason to that process it was unknown to me. I was a quiet child, not a behavior problem, unnoticeable.
I would imagine that the contrast between Peter’s education and my own was stark. The clubs, accolades, and opportunities must have been a buffet to feast his mind on, and probably, his ego. On the other hand, for me school was a place to survive until I could go home to do what I really wanted. Be outside. Draw. Let my mind carry me on adventures uninterrupted by ringing bells or annoying classmates.
But the point is not to vilify Pete or others like him, but rather to point out that some things in my life could have been different, and possibly made a difference in the way I experienced school.
Being pulled out for “services” was and still is in many places, common. It can also be stigmatizing. To qualify for such services, your deficits must be documented, quantified and labeled . I can remember the notes on my report cards that said I did not pay attention or participate in class. Did my “record” influence the lack of interaction I received from teachers? Did it influence where I was seated and what opportunities were given to me?
While those questions may not be answerable, research has shown that teachers are influenced by the labels students carry, and that it affects students education. What influence does this labelling have on parent expectations?
I can see the effect that expectations have had on my own children in vivid detail. One of my sons looks terrible on paper. A plethora of diagnoses followed by stacks of tests with alarmingly low numbers presents an image of ineptitude, incapacity and incompetence. The real person, however, is a different story. Possessing a strong moral center with a somewhat irreverent sense of humor, impeccable manners, strong work ethic and boundless curiosity, he is both pleasant company and an asset to any setting.
I am often put in the position of having to focus on my children’s deficits in order to obtain services that are supposed to help them reach their potential, but If image effects expectations, and expectations influence performance, then the time has come for parents and educators to turn their focus on helping children showcase their strengths to obtain the desired outcome of thriving students and meaningful education.