Special and Gifted (#145)

In classical Greek the same word is used to mean both “seeing” (eido) and “knowing” (oida). Knowledge, in ancient Greek culture, has something to do with seeing and this connection still exists in our 21st-century diction: Think of our word “foresight” or the expression “I see what you mean.” Blindness in ancient Greek literature is a powerful symbol of ignorance (think of Oedipus blinding himself at the end of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, as if to make his “blindness” about the terrible truth of his parentage all too concrete).
Longshadowcholly
While our medical knowledge and technological know-how have greatly (but certainly not entirely) improved the quality of life for the disabled, our 21st culture classifies blindness and deafness as disabilities and tends to view them negatively. But the ancient Greeks did not necessarily consider blindness a disability. Homer, poet of the great epics the Iliad and the Odyssey was said to be blind. The mythical Teirisias was a blind seer whose inability to “see” the everyday masked an ability to “see” what humans cannot, and what the gods could. Blindness brings with it special gifts–of poetry, of prophecy, of knowledge.

I have been thinking about the ancient Greeks’ twofold view of a “disability” like blindness as both gift and curse (and “das Gift” is German for “poison”) in regard to our American education system, in which both “gifted” and “special” education exist. The former is for students who are–if I may use a few common terms–smart, intelligent, brainy, genius. The latter is for–again, with an appeal to stereotypes–those who are slow, MR, dumb, learning disabled, behind, delayed. And on the autism spectrum.

In the past few years there seems to be a rising push-and-pull between the parents of those who are Gifted and the parents of those who are Special (Ed/Needs). (Of course, there are plenty of families with children who are “both.”) We have heard arguments about the “special ed kids taking funding from the gifted and talented”–as if special ed kids were in such a position!–on the basis of (for example) who is going to do more for society.

If you have been reading my weblog, I hope you have gathered that we think Charlie contributes a lot to society; that all kids on the autism spectrum contribute an infinite amount to society. But Charlie is disabled, neurologically different/disabled/impaired/etc., autistic, classified, special ed, special needs–talk about synonyms. His gifts and talents–bike riding, finding cassette tapes by smell, loving learning–are not exactly what is meant when the notion of “gifted and talented” is invoked. Is his “specialness” then different from the “special” in special ed?
Sweetfacethinking
I quibble over words and semantics. The ancient Greeks reverenced the power of language, of words, of logos, of reason–to be deaf and/or mute meant that one was, indeed, dumb–for words can be pretty powerful, and in ways that we cannot always control. It is so lovely to hear Charlie’ voice–“Mommy, I want orig’nal waffo”–and pretty exhausting when he calls for something (“ocean,” “sushi”) or someone (“PoPo” (Cantonese for maternal grandmother) that he likes a lot over and over again. Charlie has been very glad to have my mom staying with us this past week but he has many anxieties about the end of her visit. Throughout the day, he said combinations of her name with “home,” “no,” and “all done” again and again. Charlie talks–obsesses–about what he feels strongly about.

With Charlie, every word counts, is special, reveals more of his gifts to us, and reminds us why we need to keep working and learning and thinking and seeking to to give him the best education possible, to cultivate his special gifts and yet-unrevealed talents.

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