School: The Ultimate Label Maker


Last week, two envelopes arrived in the mail from of our school district, one addressed "to the parents of" my third-grade son, Gobez, and one "to the parents of" my third-grade daughter, Didi. My chest tightened with dread. With experience I've learned that such envelopes often mean, We've made an important decision about your child's educational program. By law we are required to notify you, but we don't have the time or resources to answer any questions, so we are not enclosing the name or number of a contact person. Thank you.

I opened my son's letter first: he had tested into the district's Gifted and Talented Education Program (GATE.) Okay, so this was good news -- but the letter went on to explain that the GATE program consists primarily of differentiated instruction in the classroom whenever possible/as determined by the individual teacher, or enrollment in optional after school courses available through the rec department. In other words, the district has no money to lavish on educating the "gifted."

I sighed as I turned to Didi's letter, for I knew what it would say: she was not chosen for GATE. She is a special education student because of dyslexia, and though she participates (and excels) in a regular classroom, she is pulled out for 25 minutes per day for one-on-one reading instruction. She's also entitled to special classroom accommodations, including extra time on written tests and a separate room for test-taking to limit distractions. Did she receive those special accommodations on GATE testing day? Since there isn't really a gifted program, only the GATE label, it seemed pointless to inquire.

Even though Gobez and Didi attend the same grade, they aren't twins or even biological siblings. We adopted Gobez at the age of 4 from Ethiopia. Didi arrived at age 5 from India, in the middle of the school year, and so we opted to wait until the following fall to enroll her in kindergarten, when Gobez would also be starting. It was the right decision, though she would have preferred to be a year ahead of her brother in school, thereby cementing her alpha dog status. It's been extremely painful for her to struggle so profoundly with reading while her younger brother just breezes along with the same material. If Didi were to know the outcome of the GATE test, she would be devastated.

My husband and I have decided not to tell either of the kids their test results-- and I was happy to learn from my son's teacher that many parents choose not to reveal "GATE" status to their children. The information will simply become part of his academic file, a positive label that teachers attach to his name. Ever since Gobez started school, we've been worried about the teachers pegging him as a future pro athlete. His kindergarten teacher has even joked that she is saving his autograph to sell on eBay when he makes it big. The black male athlete is a powerful cultural stereotype; the black male scholar is not. Perhaps the "gifted" label will encourage his teachers to see him more clearly as the well-rounded child that he is, a boy with a keen math mind and a powerful drop kick. As his mom, I believe his greatest gifts are his relentlessly cheerful disposition, his energy, and his compassion. I marvel at these strengths of his every day.

The list of talented, accomplished people with dyslexia is long-- Leonardo Da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Davis, Bill Gates -- but my daughter wears the label heavily at school. Her peers and probably many of her teachers don't know that researchers at the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity believe this learning difference to be "a hidden source of great abilities." Like so many with dyslexia, Didi is an unusually talented artist, a creative problem solver, and a startlingly hard worker. Though she is only nine, I regularly turn to my daughter for advice on everything from decorating to fixing broken household items, for her mind works in nimble, inventive ways that mine does not.

As parents, we cannot help but want the best for our children. We want them to excel in school, to be labeled by the powers-that-be as "good" and "gifted," but maybe the gifts that will bring them the most success in life cannot be captured in a classroom or quantified on a standardized test. In the words of another famous dyslexic, Albert Einstein, "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking it is stupid."

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