More than a year ago I sat at a restaurant with my sisters-in-laws, all three of them. I was visiting Minnesota by myself, taking a respite from my daily life that involved much time spent carting around my special-needs child to tutoring sessions. Two of my dear relatives discussed their gifted kids.
"I never expected to have a gifted child!" said Beth.
"Me either!" said Darcy.
That word stung. I no longer wanted to listen to how they worked to keep the minds of their children engaged and content.
"Um, can we stop talking about this?" I said.
Darcy and Beth turned to look at me, and I fumbled for words to explain how diving into the special-needs world made the gifted planet look pretty pleasant to me. After telling me how they struggled to find a place for their kids to fit in just like I did, we thankfully changed the conversation topic.
But those two words — gifted and special — continue to poke at my mind. How can one set of children be labeled with the word "gifted" while the other set of children is stuck with the term "special"?
Gift conjures up presents given with love, happy celebrations, light in the darkest of seasons.
Special reminds me of the camp I worked at as a teenager, a camp for physically and mentally disabled people.
When I signed Annie up for services at the public schools, it was for services in the Special Education Department. My mind flashed to an image of a 6-year-old boy named Christopher who I worked with one summer. I loved him, and his parents sent me his school picture in a card the following fall. As an adult, I realize that week was a respite for his parents, that their lives were hard because they cared for a boy with special needs. I broke into tears as I signed my name on the line to receive Special Education Services.
It’s not east affixing a "special" label to your child.
I hear the "gifted" word comes with its own set of problems. My friend Margaret and I banter about this topic on a regular basis. She recently told me, "No matter how you feel, I’m telling you that to be on either end of the spectrum sucks. Whether you are at the top or the bottom, it’s hard to fit in socially, and it’s hard to find services."
I know. I know. I know. But I hate the word special. I refused to write it in a recent email conversation with a staff member in the Special Education Services department. I typed: My daughter has extra needs.
I'm OK with extra. To me, this sing-song word is one of the most over-used words in the English language and stands in stark contrast to the word gifted, even though we love to say that special kids carry special gifts for the rest of us. Not flowers, but patience. Not high test scores and college scholarships, but Special Olympics.
Oh, I sound bitter. But oh how I love my girl. I want her to know she has gifts galore. I want the word "gifted" tacked on to her forehead. I want her teachers and tutors to see her gifts of creativity and smartness and forthrightness and musical talent and humor when they look at her. I know her gifts will carry her and hold her and help her. I want the label of "gifted" for her even as she struggles to read and add, and forget about subtraction even though she is almost 8.
I know the word "special" is my own special hang-up. But I know, as a writer and as a parent, that words are loaded with meaning.
When we call a child gifted we think of Bill Gates and all of his successes. Margaret reminds me that Bill Gates most likely did not fit into his school environment as a child. Still. And yet. When we call a child special we place limits on her, limits the world has taught us throughout history. Annie's special needs, her learning disability, makes it harder for her to reach for the stars unless she has her extra needs met.
I hear you. It is the same for gifted kids. And I am railing at a word when my time is better spent meeting my daughter's extra needs.
But still, as this season of gifts surrounds us, I stand by my rant. Let’s change the vocabulary, or, at the very least, let's just share that word. We can share it with every single child we meet: special, average, or gifted.
Let's just go ahead and call them all gifted, and then we can unwrap each child’s treasures and talents with no limits for any of them.
Writer, editor, and writing coach Nancy Schatz Alton is finishing the last draft of her memoir about the beginning of Annie’s learning journey. She is co-author of two holistic health care guides: The Healthy Back Book and The Healthy Knees Book. When not navigating parenthood, she uses her brain power to write, edit, and fact-check articles for websites and magazines. She lives in Ballard with her husband and two elementary-age daughters. Find her blog at Within the Words.