When he was a little boy, he was never called gifted. He never went to formal school. He was a Down’s baby. Not a baby or child with Down Syndrome, among other distinguishing characteristics. Not a child with exceptionalities. Not a person with special abilities. No. He wasn’t all that. He was mostly a label. To his extended family- a bit of an embarrassment. But to his Daddy, Mother and Sisters- a little boy to love. A brother. A child.
A human being.
Today we are very careful, for the most part, to avoid labeling human beings in our speech and dialogue. It has become a bit of a political issue, in part. A bit of a cultural taboo. But although we don’t outwardly label per say in our public conversations (particularly in our professional ones), we still internally characterize people based on distinguishing features. How large or small they are. The color of their hair. How tall or short. How light or dark their skin color. And in more careful ways, we distinguish people based on race, gender and class stereotypes, among other classifications, so as to compare and contrast. So as to distinguish and remember. And at times, so as to stereotype.
Within school settings, this classification system is certainly apparent. We level children based on reading and writing abilities, we stream them according to academic or more generalized capabilities. We offer modifications and adaptations according to learning abilities. And we individualize programming where warranted. We’ve gotten very good at classifying students. Boxing them into their little slots. But the one thing we aren’t so good at is blurring the lines that separate. We have a hard time taking people at heart value- never mind face value. We have a hard time seeing the human being inside the `casing`, if you will. And sometimes I wonder if we at the school level are really helping anyone at all. Throwing around medical/academic labels and soaking up diagnosis. Trying to fit everyone into boxes.
There are two ways of approaching this issue of classifying people (particularly students as people): personally and generally. When I think of the issue of classification in schools as a teacher (or by way of a teacher`s perspective), in allowing each student their distinctive category of existence, I see that it gives individuality to the child. It helps us see them for who they are as well as support them in their specific needs. Being able to support children in specific ways levels the playing field. It allows children of varying abilities to all get whatever they need (academically, physically, emotionally) to grow and develop into wonderful, unique human beings. This is why schools whole-heartedly endorse inclusion in education. Because school should ideally be a place for everyone. Regardless of ability. Because of ability. And teachers should be very good at meeting students where they are at. At seeing potential in kids. At helping them achieve their personal best. At assisting them to strive for higher and more.
Thus, teachers then often utilize labels to assist their students in gaining access to supports within the school setting so as to allow them opportunities that might not be afforded them otherwise.
The other way to approach the issue of labeling is personally. As a parent. A mother or father. A sister or brother. When labeling becomes personal, there are a whole host of things to think about. First of which is seeing the child as the person the adult or caregiver unconditionally loves. Because this child is someone they have dreams and hopes for. Someone they want the absolute best for. And when they see this child, they do not see the label first. They see the person. The possibility. The potential. And true, they know that diagnosis and classification are part of becoming human in the literal sense, in the spiritual sense- these little people in their care and wrapped around their hearts are already realized potential. They are already the whole package. There isn’t anything about them needed to make them more `worthy of love`- they already are loved. A diagnosis, a label or any other way of classifying these little and big people with exceptional abilities won’t change how much they are truly loved.
When you love someone, you react to labeling in different ways. Some embrace it as a means of hope. Others repel it as a means of differentiating. Labeling can met with both reactions at one and the same time. The thing is: you love this person. And you want the best for that loved one. Is that best achieved via a label? Is that best better off without a label? Hard questions to answer.
And for the teacher, we must be extremely sensitive to this dilemma. Because while it might be prudent for efficiency and streamlining- for services: to have a child labelled. For the parent, it is a fragile decision which they must weigh heavily. Against the individuality and unique person-hood of their child.
As a teacher, I am becoming more and more romanced with the notion that we are more alike than we are different. I must preface this with an acknowledgment of the fact that I certainly realize and am sensitive to the truth that we are indeed different by virtue of the fact we are unique, special people. By virtue of the fact that we are unique human beings. But within that thought is an even lovelier one that compels me to think thus. We are similar by the very same token. We are similar to one another by virtue of all the qualities that make us human- our emotions, our feelings, our biology, our chemistry, our spirituality. We are the same by virtue of the fact that we have so much in common.
We all bleed red blood. We all breathe in air. We all need nourishment and fluids. We all need love.
Sometimes as teachers we try to express this need for recognition of the similarity and it gets misunderstood to be an over-generalization. In other words, if I were to say that all children were exceptional- by virtue of the fact that they are all human beings and ALL HUMAN BEINGS ARE THUS EXCEPTIONAL! It might get misconstrued to read: “All children are the same and should be treated the same. Every time. Period.” Which is certainly not what I would want to express by saying all children are exceptional. Not at all.
What I would really be saying in that statement is this: all children are fundamentally human beings. That is our label. It is our essential label. It is what unites us together as people. We are the same in that we are all part of this thing called humanity. And as part of humankind, we are all alike in many, many ways. One way of which is that we are all exceptional. We are all gifted in different ways. We all have abilities. It is our exceptionalities- our own unique bent toward being ‘able’, if you will, that make us different. We are all able and dis/able in different areas. And that is also what makes us similar and different at one and the same time. The fact that we all have these similarities makes us same. The fact that we are all different in these similarities makes us us the same.
We are similar by the very things that make us different.
Which leads us back to the original theme: to label or to not label- that is the question. What does it achieve? Do the key stakeholders in that label have a voice? Does being labelled get them something they need that they otherwise would not have? Is that label a comfortable one? And if not, why must it be used? Does it create division or does it bring them closer to being the same? Is this important (to be similar)? And if not, why not? Is it important to be different? And if so, why is this so?
In the end, we can wear our labels only for so long. Because when it comes down to being essentially human, that label really doesn’t make much difference. We don’t need it to be loved. To be cherished. We don’t need it to be a brother or sister. A child that is loved. A human being. And perhaps that is what levels the playing field in the end.
For true love eliminates the need for labels by virtue of its existence. And it does so once and for all. Bringing us together under its all encompassing umbrella of humanity. Bringing us together in hope.