Thursday, June 19, 2008

Finally, a label for me

When I was in grade 1, they pulled me out of class a couple of times to have me fill out some multiple-choice quizzes, then they gave me the option of changing schools.

Having no reason to think this was unusual for a child of that age, I thought nothing of it. I was given the choice between my then-current school--a French-language public school a kilometre away--and an English-language one downtown. My next-door neighbour went to the one downtown and I didn't like French classes (hey, I was six!), so I chose to change schools.

They told me I was given this option because I was "gifted", and I ended up staying in the gifted programme until the end of public school. I never really understood what it meant to be "gifted", and didn't really care to figure it out. The meaning was never evident, because I had no reference point: save the first grade, I only ever experienced the gifted programme. So any description of the term would have to rely on what others told me.

I was occasionally told that being in the gifted programme was like being in special ed, but for people who learn faster instead of slower than normal. I never internalized this description because it sounded like a roundabout way of saying you're smarter than others. I only like to sound arrogant when it's fairly clear I'm being sarcastic.

Despite this vague description, we were told as children that being gifted doesn't mean we're smarter, just that we learn differently. (I'm sure the kids in special ed were told the same...) This paradigm of "everybody is equal, but different" is something I've internalized and continue to live by.

Today in my apartment (which by coincidence is just around the corner from the school where I entered the gifted programme), I wondered once again what everybody had meant when they said I was "gifted." With the power of the Internet, however, I could find an answer to that question readily. Naturally, the first place I turned to was Wikipedia.

I was struck by the section "Characteristics of giftedness". So struck, in fact, that I stopped reading the article to write this blog post.

I've had plenty of personality tests, horoscopes, and aptitude tests based on ambiguously-worded questions, but never before have I seen something describe me as well as those short paragraphs. And I don't think it's just selection bias. Sparing the details, the first paragraph is entirely accurate, and I am often distracted by my excellent hearing.

The reason this is important to me is that I've never encountered a label that managed to fit me. Even literal ones, like "cyclist", I challenge. I define a "cyclist" as a person who is riding a bicycle. Right now, I am lying in my bed writing an entry on my blog. I'm not cycling, so to say "I am a cyclist" would merely be an approximation. RealGrouchy is a handle I use on the Internet to project a certain side of myself, but again it's an approximation--there is much about me that has not been reflected by RG's ramblings.

The more ambiguous labels I dismiss outright--ones like "left-wing", "progressive", "conservative", etc. What is meant by these labels? They can mean different things to different people (unless you're Ottawa Police Chief Vern White, who insists every word and symbol means to everyone else exactly what it means to him). For example, the term "liberal" referred to free-market type thinking in its earlier application--the opposite of what it means now.

Applying these types of labels also comes with a tacit expectation that you'll live up to them. Am I an environmentalist because I don't own a car? Such logic can stretch the "environmentalist" label a bit too far. I ride a bicycle mainly because it is logistically, economically, socially and time efficient. If sustainability is a corollary to efficiency, then good for the environment. I am able to live my life fully without owning a car, and my life is that much less complex for doing so. I could say the same for alcohol, coffee, and religion. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I happily lived my life without an mp3 player, but the phone I got happens to play mp3s, so now I can listen to music more.

As another example, I would say that I do not consider top-down hierarchies to be worthwhile (and perhaps hierarchies of any sort), but to call myself an "anarchist" would cause others to associate me with other "anarchists" more than with what the term sets out to describe. Heck, get a load of the rap that communism gets, simply because Russia and China called themselves "communist". The difference between denotation and connotation is a fundamental one when you strive to communicate clearly.

The only labels I would apply to myself are those which are so self-evident as to be rhetorical. I'm human. I'm a North-American, middle-class, white male. Yawn. None of those are likely to change in the foreseeable future.

All this is to say that I was quite thrilled to find a label that fits me like a glove. Not that it changes who I am. It's a descriptive label, not a proscriptive one.

Now that I can go on in life knowing that "gifted" is a label that fits me accurately, I will nevertheless continue to think of myself as Arthur Dent does: "more differed from than differing." I'm not an extraordinary person, but an ordinary person who may do or experience extraordinary things. I think that most people I encounter are also extraordinary in their own ways, and if I see someone doing an ordinary thing, that doesn't mean they're capable of nothing more.

Plus, you'd would have to be a real jerk to go around telling people you're "gifted".

- RG>

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