On Labels

An ME 109 G-10 you say? What’s 6×9? Yeah, not so smart now are you? (photo from Flickr)

A recent entry on a blog I follow has driven me to overcome my natural reluctance to overtly discuss the covert sub-text in some of my entries… the learning disorder (emphasis is added to help readers adopt the suitable narrative voice of a 1950s era monster movie, possibly featuring rampaging radioactive ants or Communists).

The writer I follow was explaining, with appropriate discomfort over such self-disclosure over the deceptively private medium of the internet, a recent development in the raising of his young son. Father and Mother were recently informed that their son appeared to possess one of those vaguely defined developmental disorders that are like and unlike facets of the autistic spectrum. Contrary to all expectations, the professionals who had to break this news were met with calm attention and a quick progression from comprehension to action. The parents decided to skip the denial, frustration, guilt and anger and moved straight on to acceptance and adaptation.

I will make consciously make the error of a sweeping generalization and say that most parents, when told that their child has been evaluated and labelled in a way that identifies them as ‘different’ and not in the ‘precious snowflake’ sort of different, must find this news profoundly damaging and believe that it will burden that child’s future prospects in the way that birth into slavery defined the legal and social status of medieval peasants. Label a child as ‘different’—so goes the argument I am familiar with—and you guarantee trouble.

Labels can be barriers, and I don’t need to hunt far to find examples in action. Labels given to children, based on some developmental quirk, are usually understood as a barrier for parents and teachers who may now mold their expectations, and their own behaviour towards such these children, in negative ways. There is also the fear that labels produce distorted self-identities, that they stunt growth, lead to dependence, and can work in many other subtle and usually detrimental ways. Certainly, this is the future for children saddled with pejorative labels and adults, no matter how hard they try, will be influenced by these identifications, even if they have no substance. The difference is that the writer’s son is getting a label, while unfortunate, is at least constructive. He will, with any luck, have the opportunity to make the best of what he has and minimize, and compensate for his weaknesses. That label identifies him for special care and he will be held to his own appropriate standards and expectations, which will make all the difference between his experience and mine.

My childhood was, by most international standards, a blissful and untroubled time. My parents were great, my teachers were not. I was labelled, quite early, in a way that could only be counterproductive. What I would have given for a different label, knowing full well that none of the usual ones appeared to apply to me.

I started to struggle in school during the second grade and I was evaluated for learning disorders using the tools that the public school system in 1983 Western Canada had to offer. These were a fairly blunt instruments and they would have caught major problems like dyslexia or serious cognitive problems, but I didn’t register on those scales. As far as they could tell I was a very bright child with an intelligence that was not reflected in my grades. They had no real idea why this was the case. I can’t honestly fault the assessors for failing to catch the underlying problems, those diagnostics were in their infancy. However I will, with fading bitterness, fault most of my teachers for ignoring the good and obsessing on the bad.

The label I was given by the assessors, based on their tests and a juvenile IQ scale of 132 (it may have been 136-7, the family memory is unclear, but it’s irrelevant really) was gifted. My teachers, if they ever knew about that detail, didn’t seem to care anyway and gave me a different label; slow. In practice that label was interpreted as “lazy, stupid, or both.” Teachers only helped me to reach the basic minimums to pass each year in the areas where I struggled the most; spelling, basic calculation, anything that required memorization. I came close to repeating the fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. Clearly, any additional help in other areas was going to be a waste of time and teacher resources.

Other students caught on that I had a new label and acted accordingly. After a while I believed it too. I was reminded of it’s accuracy year after year. Like the teachers I stopped trying to do anything more than just get by. Obviously it was a waste to do anything more.

Who cared that I knew all the planets and their moons in excruciating detail such that I could build a wrap-around planetarium for the grade 7 classroom. Who cared that I built, largely on the fly, a system to make it snow shredded Styrofoam for the grade 8 Christmas concert. The responsible student placed in charge of this two-man team, got all the credit even when he tried to tell them it was my idea. They thought he was just being nice to the poor dullard he got stuck with. Really, who cared that I retained detailed knowledge of Second World War military aircraft. What did it matter that I was a decent artist, had a rich imagination, read 5 grades above my level, and spoke with a vocabulary and clarity well beyond my age. They weren’t testing my knowledge of German fighter pilot scores, or aircraft markings, or how articulate I was. They wanted to know if I could multiply fractions, or spell ‘species’ properly. I still can’t do either of those. I have trouble remembering my own phone number. I still need to do some some silent counting to remember my current age. I still can’t spell very well. I let the auto-correct fix ‘speciese’. I could, on a good day, get perfect marks on a math quiz, but only for the first 10 questions out of the 30 before a ran out of time. I made this worse on myself because I refused to guess at answers or look for the easy ones amongst the rest of the questions and just play the odds. I still hate skipping difficult problems and moving on. It feels dishonest.

I know that if I had acted out more, if I hadn’t scraped by each year with the bare minimum, if I hadn’t been so good at keeping my head down and avoiding risk, I might have gotten some real help. The resources for learning disorders in the 1980s were aimed at the seriously disabled or the socially disruptive. The visual-spacial learners with high IQ didn’t register in the system.

It took years to get past that particular label. I’m not entirely sure how I did. I don’t really know how hard things were for most of my years in school because I don’t really remember them. I don’t remember the names of any of my teachers except for Forbes (bad) and Crawford (good). If there is a hidden benefit to having this sort of memory it’s that I can forget things when I want to. I think there is a sort of shredder in there for when I want to make new room in the old filing cabinets. It also makes me an unreliable narrator. I don’t always believe my own stories. I can’t have complete confidence in them.

It’s against that history that I got my new label in 2009. Most people, either as parents or as children, might react badly to the news that “yes, there is something wrong with you and it’s permanent, largely untreatable, and entirely outside your control.” Instead I was relieved. “Learning disorder, not otherwise specified” with a dash of “mathematics disorder” was a major improvement over lazy, stupid, or both.

Occasionally people ask me and Z, what’s the deal with me and all the school. People want to know why I left a stable job, why I’m going into a field that has few jobs and limited prospects, why I would want to be away from home, separated from my partner of 17 years to study even more. And why now? Am I not too old for this? There is supposed to be a blackout on higher education during middle-age. School is for the young or for the retired who just want to fill their time constructively.

We usually tell people that I never had the opportunity to go to school before now, that my success so far means that this is the right career choice and that we know this isn’t a sure thing as far as the jobs are concerned. We know we are not going into debt for this. I remind myself that I genuinely enjoy this work. I’m a decent teacher and a decent writer and this is far more rewarding than working in libraries. That sounds good and it’s entirely true.

But sometimes, when I’m asked why I’m going back to school now, why I will start a DPhil in History at Oxford just past my 38th birthday, I would rather answer a little more honestly.


People may still want to call me lazy or stupid, but will have to call me “Dr. Lazy or Stupid” after Oxford. I could handle that label.

2 thoughts on “On Labels

  1. I was waiting for the ’50s monster movie to make its return at the end, although “But I’ll show them! I’ll show them ALL!!” is more of a late 1930s mad science trope. Not that I would ever suggest mixing idioms is a bad thing. Well stated!

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