Last week I was a volunteer at the Special Olympics. Fascinating how for some children the word “special” can mean something alienating and degrading, while for other children it can mean something empowering and positively distinguishing. On that particular day, the highlight of my service was observing how all the youth who participated in the Games all walked away with an award. Most youth received medals made of an imitation gold & silver, but nonetheless, the youth were ecstatic to have competed at the top of their class. I wonder how many of them knew the races were fixed, assuring all of them would win something; if the youth knew they couldn’t loose, I wonder if they still would have been so happy winning?
During that same day, I got to also interact with a handful of youth who run away and hide during the Special Olympics. Although they had been scheduled to participate, these youth didn’t want to be identified and labeled as part of the “gifted and talented.”
For these children, the phenomenon pushes beyond just hiding during the “Special Olympic” games, it also involves running in the morning from the little yellow bus that comes to bring the “mentally and physically challenged” students to the public school; their fleeing has become a way of life; the youth I refer to are the ones who, although supposed to be on that bus, never would set foot on it. They run the other way when they see it approaching so that their peers don’t see that they are in the “special” program.
When I was in elementary school, I remember the soccer coach making the “Magic Seven.” There were almost 20 players on the soccer team, but our 2 coaches had selected 7 of the fastest and hardest hitting. I wasn’t one of them. And I remember feeling sad when during practice the “magic 7” would get to break away from the whole team and practice separately on the other soccer field. I had always wanted to be part of the “Magic 7,” but never made it. In order to increase my self-esteem, I’d frequently day dream myself practicing with them.
Then I remember around the same time there was a program called, “G.T.” That stood for… drum roll… gifted and talented. Of course, the students who wrote the more introspective essays and could solve the harder math problems were selected into the “gifted and talented” program; and of course… can you believe it… I didn’t make the cut. I felt on the verge of stupid at that point, and this was still 3rd grade.
So we’ve got this idea of the “special” students. It seems to me that somehow it creates a dynamic for everyone, some to feel empowered and some to feel dis-empowered. To be labeled (depending of the connotation of the label) could mean a great boost to your self-esteem or a great hindrance.
Now to what extent are we all special? To me the word special means unique, one of a kind, or very seldom to occur.
That means if something which happened seldom, all of the sudden began happening all the time, then it wouldn’t be special anymore, right? Well, we could say that about miracles too. If birth happened all the time then it would no longer be a miracle right? But it does, and still many people consider birth to be a miracle. So I can be special and you can be special and if we were all special that doesn’t mean being special is worthless.
But I still probe the question, why does society separate some gifted students from other gifted students? Is it really that some of us are gifted and talented while others are not? Is that really what’s going on? Or is it much deeper than that? Is it a means for those in power to retain their power? By not integrating and socializing with those who don’t have their “required” skill set and talents, a system of oppression breathes.
Perhaps while building community, we would be much more successful if we understood as Mos Def in the beginning of his album, Black on Both Sides says, “People get better when they realize they are valuable.” If those who are in the “honor” classes could see that they have much to learn from those in the “mentally and physically challenged” classes, then perhaps we could really begin building sustainable community based on an equal exchange of ideas and inspiration.
Because, we are all gifted and talented, we are all special… we are all capable of doing something that no one else in the world is able to do. That is the basis of community. Whatever it is we contribute is what community is… and all community is special based upon the fact it is happening, just as a birth, a miracle.
So I confess to all of you, I am mentally and physically challenged. I am also mentally and physically gifted. I surrender myself to the “Special Olympics,” and now, simply wonder if everyone can win?
written by HAWAH