Reflections of a “retarded” child

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26 Sep • by sharon

There were masses of kids in this place called high school. I was wandering through the buildings terrified and overwhelmed by all the activity. I felt stunned and numb. I clutched a crumpled-up piece of paper with a room number in my hand and I was squinting out of blurry eyes attempting to see the room numbers on each door way of the classrooms. I felt so alone.

I finally found the class room that matched the number on the piece of paper. I timidly entered the classroom and saw kids who looked different to me. I ran out of the room crying and found my way to the principal’s office. I mumbled that I was put into the wrong class and he checked my records and confirmed that was the correct class and I was escorted back to that classroom.

When the class started, I wondered why the teacher spoke very slowly and deliberately. She paused a lot. I must have blanked out because I can’t remember any content, but in the first year in this remedial class I was the top student. I felt very angry about being trapped in this retarded class, so half way through the second year of high school, I ran away. I couldn’t go home to be beaten any more, I couldn’t go back to school to be judged as retarded, so I took to the streets and became a street kid and teenage alcoholic at 14 years of age.

From that point on, I believed I was retarded until I was 35 years of age. This ‘truth’ became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I couldn’t spell; I couldn’t add up; I had zero general knowledge, but I was street smart. I developed advanced sensory perception so I knew if I was being attacked from behind. On the street, I developed a keen eye for detail, no one could pull one over me.

All that time I had no awareness of education. It wasn’t even a twinkle in my eye. It wasn’t a secret dream or ‘one day someday’, it just wasn’t there. Until one day (during one of my major melt downs), I found my way to my first psychologist who exclaimed that I was highly intelligent. I felt very angry with her and told her not to play cruel jokes. It just wasn’t a possibility in my mind.

An important question here is how does a retarded 12 year-old end up with four degrees including two Masters degrees, one with Distinction?

As I look back on this time almost 50 years later, I am mindful of the power of the judgement that educators can have on children. Back then it was policy that every Year 7 student take an intelligence test to determine the child’s pathway into high school. The confounding variable in setting a policy like that is that an intelligence test or any other assessment taken in isolation from the child’s home and school experience, their unique learning style etc., will be confounded and mistakes will be made. We see this today as children are commonly diagnosed with Autism, ADHD, Selective Mutism, and a variety of speech and learning disabilities when the children’s symptoms and behaviour can be explained by many other factors relating to the home and school environments.

This is how mistakes are made. Unfortunately, if the child does not have a responsible adult to challenge these labels, these mistakes can limit the child for the rest of their life.

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