The first time I experienced mental health therapy was in middle school, after I was injured by a bully severely enough that the school nurse said I needed to be taken to the hospital. Later, in the infinite wisdom of a typical school administrator, I, the perennial victim of bullying, was threatened with expulsion if I didn’t go to counseling and if the counselor did not report I was making progress. They never said progress toward what, but it became clear as the twice-monthly went on through the rest of that school year and the next, that what she was trying to do was teach me to act like a normal boy. I don’t think she ever used the phrase “normal” to my face, but she certainly did when explaining things to my parents.
There were many reasons why I didn’t behave like a “normal” boy. And usually when I have written about this topic before I have focused on how as a queer kid I was gender non-conforming. But that wasn’t the only problem. There are queer kids who did a better job than I ever did of blending in. And there are lots of not-queer kids who were bullied for being different in other ways. I had other strikes against me.
One of my relatives, for instance, described me as “a lost adult trapped in a child’s body” when referring to my childhood. One reason several people perceived me in that way as a child is because my intelligence was several standard deviations above average. That had two very distinct effects on my behavior. One was that I often understood and knew things people didn’t expect a child to know, but the other was that there were very few of the kids my age that I got along with, so I kept forming close relationships with adults. And that increased the gap between myself and most of the kids my age.
Now, the word “normal” derives from the Latin normalis, which means made according to a right-angle or square. But ask most people what normal means and you’ll probably get something close to what Oxford calls sense 3: “Constituting or conforming to a type or standard; regular, usual, typical; ordinary, conventional. Also, physically or mentally sound, healthy.” Interestingly, that usage of the word in English only came about in the early 1800s. When in first came into the language, in the late 1400s, it referred exclusively to a regular verb. Then in the mid 1600s its meaning expanded to refer “Right-angled, standing at right angles; perpendicular.” Which is how it entered the lexicography of mathematics.
I was interested in science for as long as I can remember. We can blame my mom the science fiction fan for that. When I was a baby, she literally read aloud whichever Robert Heinlein or Ray Bradbury or similar book she had checked out from the library. And mathematics is something I fell in love with early in school. We moved around a lot because of my dad’s job in the petroleum industry, but as luck would have it, the school district where I attended first grade and a portion of second was one that won awards for excellence year after year. They gave me a great start.
For instance, the explanation my second grade teacher in Fort Collins had given me of the Distributive Property, was how I got labeled a freak on the first day (three schools later) that I attended school in Cheyenne Wells. It was late spring in Third Grade when we moved to Cheyenne Wells, and they were just getting to things like the Distributive Property of Multiplication. The teacher tried to explain it to class, but her explanation wasn’t very good. And during the period when we were supposed to be going through a worksheet and helping each other with the problems, the teacher overheard me explaining the the kid next to me how it works, so she brought me to the front of the room and made me explain it to the whole class. And then they all knew I was a Math Freak, a Brain, and the Teachers new Pet.
It wasn’t just the first school, of course, it was also the fact that I loved to read so much, that whenever I was given a new set of books at school, I would read them all the way to the end on my own as soon as I could. And half the time that I spent in the library I was tracking down non-fiction books about topics that came up in the science fiction, mystery, and adventure books that I loved. And most of the time throughout grade school and middle school, I would rather sit in a corner and read than run around the playground or do other things the rest of the kids were doing any time we were turned loose.
That always failed to endear me to the other kids.
Despite the fact that at heart I was an introvert, I also loved explaining things to people. Which often came across as me being a show off or know it all.
As an adult, I work in a technology field writing and designing documentation and help systems explaining how systems work. So all of those characteristics eventually became useful, eventually.
But there was no amount of counseling from that therapist—or mentoring from my middle school wrestling coach (and pre-algebra teacher!), or the other attempts by specific teachers who tried to take me under their wing to steer me through the shoals of bullying—that would make a smart, queer, introverted, book- and science-loving, know-it-all pass for normal in a typical primary or secondary school.
Which isn’t a slam on the other kids, but rather the way we herd children together by age and leave them to their own devices to work out social dynamics. The theory is that we learn to get along with diverse people that way, but the system creates an artificial social environment that encourages some of our worst behaviors.
I survived. I not only came out of the system free of bitterness and resentment, I often find myself in the position of defending public schools from the distorted statistics some people wave around trying to prove other options are better (spoiler alert: the statistics are on traditional public school’s favor). And when it comes to bullying, private schools and charter schools don’t handle those situations one iota better. In fact, for marginalized kids, they are much, much worse, statistically.
But I digress.
Learning to get along is a worthwhile goal. Conformity and trying to pretend you’re something you’re not, are toxic and destructive. I wish we were better at teaching the former, rather than enforcing the latter.