Just So Special

I had a half-hour long drive home. There’s a word stuck in my head, which I end up exorcising in the best way I know how, by repeating it. (Sometimes they call doing that “palilalia”. I call it simply getting stuck on a word.) Special. Special. Special. Special. Special. Special. Special. Special. Special. Special. Special. Special. Ssssspessshullll.

Maybe you know why it’s gotten stuck in my head, because you’ve heard it used in that horribly obnoxious way: “He’s special.”

What a stupid word. Well, a perfectly ordinary word used in stupid ways.

Special: something distinct, individual, unique, peculiar, distinguished, unusual, exceptional, extraordinary, or especially valued.

In its honest, original meaning, the word lends positive weight. And then it got horribly warped and weighted down with social baggage. (Albeit, not quite as badly as words such as “faggot”, which used to refer to a bundle of sticks for kindling.) But just use it in (ahem) special wordings, and you get a variety of negative visceral responses.

A special school for special children. Comes off variably snooty, smarmy, or condescending – what, the rest of the children aren’t special in their own ways? ::bleh::

My child has special needs.
Generates pity: “I’m so sorry to hear that.” May generate distrust or denial: “What’s so ‘special’ about your child? How come they get something extra?” May generate resentment: “Why does Mommy think she’s special and not me?”

Special education. A phrase so heavily loaded with a myriad of issues that it generates sighs in parents, educators, school administrators and educational psychologists everywhere. People fight to get special education, fix special education, or even to get out of special education. “Special” education was created because regular (or “normal”) education isn’t flexible enough to deal with the fact that students are not interchangeable units. At its worst special education meant segregation from one’s school peers, with reduced expectations and educational opportunities.

Oh, how the word special can be seriously weighted down with derision: “Isn’t that just so special?”

During my drive home, I remembered a classic joke, one that ranks highly on sarcasm points: “Remember, you’re special, just like everyone else.” The sarcasm comes from the acknowledgement that the phrase “you’re special” is derived from the total deformation of the meaning of the word. There’s really nothing “special” about having different abilities and different needs than everyone else, because everyone does in some manner or another. The perfectly average person is actually profoundly rare, because everyone is un-average in at least one way. So why is a child “special”, or why are their needs “special”, or why does education have to be “special”?

“Oh how special!”
I hate hearing this. If everything you do is fabulous, then it doesn’t matter what you do, because you’ll get the same hollow praise and the same insincere responses. Hey, I’m not looking to be better than other people per se, but I am looking to be recognized for my particular efforts and my accomplishments.

I’ve heard it used in a variety of situations, and in a number of rôles in my life. After hearing it used by random adults throughout primary school, I began to cringe. I had no idea who most of those adults were – they weren’t my teachers, but were usually other associated staff members and parent volunteers (“room mothers” back when it was assumed that mothers stayed at home and were idle). After-school events (dare I say it? special events) such as ice cream socials or once-a-month films or anything so random as a meeting for the student library volunteers, seemed to attract such adults who then generated these kinds of comments.

The well-intended adults wanted to praise and encourage the children around them, and also wanted to keep them docile and occupied, possibly even entertained. So we as hapless victims ended up with stupid crafts using paper plates, felt or tongue depressors, crafts that no one wanted to do past the age of eight. Little kids would do the crafts because they just liked to mess around with the materials. But generally older kids would only do them to be compliant.

The problem with such special “arts and crafts” was that they were not very functional – we couldn’t learn any new real-world skills, and nothing useful to be made. What is anyone going to do with a “book mark” made from beads glued on a strip of felt? You can’t really use it because the glue won’t hold the beads, and even if you did, the beads were so lumpy they would damage the book. What is the point of a “place mat” made from construction paper and poster paint that will dissolve and then stain anything slightly damp? It really wasn’t a “special treat” to be told to cut out this shape from this color and glue to it this spot, and yet also be “creative” while doing so.

Even after I became an adult, I still hear people issuing bizarre commands and praises to the children and young adults (!) in their care, utterances like “Give me blue” or “Nice hands”. (Please folks, if you want children to learn to speak correctly, then you need to model good grammar.)

I can hardly explain just how much that squeaky, patronising, coo gets me riled up. It’s not just the tone of voice, or the phrasing, or the activities. It’s the adults’ insistence of the children’s slavish obedience to time-filling but personally-unfulfilling special activities. A few times it’s been all I can do not to upturn the tables of worksheets and ugly crayon stubs, and stomp out of there in frustration. I’ve seen this kind of behaviour in gradeschool classes, Sunday School classes, scout troops, after-school enrichment programs, summer camps and other places.

It doesn’t help to explain that no-one wanted to do the arts & crafts last time, and that probably no one will want to do the similar arts & crafts next time. Telling the children that it is a “special” project and that their finished products are also so “special” is not going to generate enthusiasm. If they committee members think the result is cute, they assume the children will think it’s cute and their parents will also think it’s cute. The worst part is that scores of people (usually women) seem to find doing this to the “precious children” to be just so wonderful and happy and helpful! They sit around having little hen-parties about how to come up with more saccharine phrases and more inane, time-wasting cutesy projects.

I do my best to avoid such situations. I’m not “aloof”, I’m horrified.

“Isn’t that special!”

If only.

6 Comments

  1. 3 March 2007 at 7:02

    “It might make you feel better to know that I took a roundabout route to becoming a physician, pretty much because I didn’t much like the people around me in college that were applying to medical school”

    Even better :P

    I too a very roundabout route into educational psychology :)

    “And since I am an academic physician, it puts me out of step with much of my profession.”

    You surely mean that it puts them out of step with you, right? ;)

    “Also, I minored in psych in undergrad. My favorite courses were developmental psych and industrial psych.”

    Excellent choices, Doctor ;)

  2. Club 166 said,

    3 March 2007 at 4:01

    David,

    I’m sitting here LMAO!

    It might make you feel better to know that I took a roundabout route to becoming a physician, pretty much because I didn’t much like the people around me in college that were applying to medical school. And since I am an academic physician, it puts me out of step with much of my profession.

    Also, I minored in psych in undergrad. My favorite courses were developmental psych and industrial psych.

    But mostly, around here, I’m just a dad. Which is a good thing to be.

  3. 2 March 2007 at 21:10

    Club166….

    I mean this in the best possible way…

    Apart from my aunt (a Yoruba Nigerian gynaecologist whom I love and admire dearly), there are few medics I admire… reason is probably obvious.

    So when I see medically trained person coming out with things that make sense to me *as a psychologist*, I get kinda…’ohh, this is a new thing!’

    Nice to know you, Doctor.

    (I don’t use that term lightly!)

  4. mcewen said,

    2 March 2007 at 15:49

    Thats a tricky one. I always spoke to ALL children as if they were mini adults, but with speech delays, the ‘keep it simple’ it apt. Children as so familiar with these standard ‘ditties’ [well American ones anyway] that they hear it all around them, not necessarily directed at themselves, so that they absorb the meaning – irritating to the point of nausea, but there are some merits.
    Best wishes

  5. Club 166 said,

    2 March 2007 at 15:47

    Indeed. “Special Ed”, in my experience, usually either conjurs up the “Why is your kid getting something extra” response or the “It’s too bad your kid doesn’t measure up and is destined to pack boxes, if they’re lucky” response.

    Never, as David says, the “It’s great that we’re able to figure out what specific learning needs each kid requires” response.

  6. 2 March 2007 at 7:28

    Actually, I have an issue with the word too. I prefer the term ‘specific learning needs’.


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