In a different world, these children would be valued and heard. Their peers would respect their courage; their teachers would encourage their precocious individuality. School officials would try to figure out how not to snuff out the light that burns so fiercely in their young hearts.
But, as these free-spirited children know only too well, this is not that different world.
“The school system is absolutely not designed for creativity,” says Tom Yamokoski, an Akron psychologist. “Quietness, going along with the flow, keeping order - this is what’s encouraged. It’s tough to find a school system that encourages not being the same.”
Indeed, a regimented world can chew up free thinkers like pieces of paper. In today’s world, a young Thoreau or a Virginia Woolf might easily be branded a weirdo, a troublemaker, a misfit, a problem child.
Sam Paterson, a 14-year-old student at Davey Junior High in Kent, Ohio, has sure been called all those names.
He listened to the beat of a different drummer very early in life. Even in first grade, his strong verbal skills, creativity and rebelliousness set him apart from the others. He resisted the rigidity of school life and once even got in trouble for using the wrong shade of red crayon to color a picture.
A sympathetic school counselor summed up the boy: “He’s very right-brained and he does have to live in this left-brained world.”
Sam’s mother, Alice Paterson, a poet who teaches part time at Kent State University, remembers the transformation her happy, joyful boy went through after starting school.
“It was painful for me to watch him in first grade,” she says. “Because he lost his joy. Used to be, he’d be happy all the time. And that went away.”
Logistics dictate that school systems cater to the majority of children rather than to a nonconformist minority. Many schools do offer some kind of program for gifted children, but even these programs may not meet the needs of kids like Sam.
“If you have 25 students in a room, the norm is going to be the majority in the room,” says Gary Sipps, a Tallmadge, Ohio psychologist. “Those at the opposite ends of the spectrum may not fit in.”
Sipps says parents can help these children by keeping lines of communication with them open so that they are not intervening only at times of crisis. And they need to make sure a child is not acting out because of a problem like alcoholism, abuse or illness.
If the child is a misfit at school, Sipps advises parents to involve the child in different activities and groups outside the school. But if the child is happier being a loner, there’s nothing wrong with that.
“There are individual differences in humans,” he says. “Kids are human, too. They vary from each other.”
Sam’s life really began to get complicated in third grade, when, as if to give physical manifestation to the difference he always felt, he stopped getting haircuts. At one point, his hair was down to his waist. That started the name-calling and teasing that followed him into adolescence. Strangers would deliberately ask, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
His parents were torn between wanting to protect him from the ridicule and not squelching his need for self-expression.
“Sam was very obstinate and self-determined from a very young age, says his father, John Paterson, a computer software engineer. “I didn’t want to beat him down. But I would talk with him a lot and tell him there are all kinds of situations you have to deal with in the world.”
The Patersons also have a 7-year-old daughter, Rosie. Although the siblings are close, they are very different. Both children are honor-roll students, but Rosie is athletic, much more logical in her thinking, and quiet in class.
Although children like Sam can feel very isolated, Yamokoski, the Akron psychologist, says many of them wear their outsider status as a badge of courage.
That’s certainly true for Sam. He wears a T-shirt that says, “The Government is Lying.” On his wrist, he has printed the name of the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. His hair, which he cut last year, is still down to his shoulders.
Sam says what sets him apart from his peers is, “They’re pleased too easily.”
If the teasing over his long hair has hurt, Sam doesn’t show it.
“The teasing was because of fear,” he says. “The fear of what’s different. I just felt like an outsider. I didn’t know why. But I knew where I stood.”
Rachel Swadener, a 16-year-old senior at Ellet High School in Akron, also knows where she stands -and pays a price for it.
Unlike many of her peers, Rachel speaks up any time she is confronted by remarks that she believes are racist, sexist or homophobic - irrespective of whether those remarks are made by a fellow student or a teacher.
For this, Rachel has been labeled “the P.C. (politically correct) girl,” by her classmates.
“Sometimes they make fun of me before I even open my mouth,” Rachel says. “Mostly I just turn my back. Usually I’m too tired in school to care. Sometimes it hurts. But if I take it personally, then it becomes about me and not the issue.”
Recently, one of Rachel’s teachers made what she considered a homophobic remark in class.
“I was so angry,” she says. “There was not a single person appalled by it. I couldn’t believe that. Even my friends didn’t see it. I wrote across my notebook, ‘I lost all respect for my teacher today.’ I was crying when I got home.”
After talking with one of her mother’s friends, Rachel wrote her teacher a letter. She told him that his students respected him and expected respect in return. She quoted statistics showing the high suicide rate among gay teens.
Though she’s an honors student in an accelerated program that will let her finish high school in three years, Rachel has had other run-ins with school officials. She gathered about 500 signatures protesting a school policy that forbid students from coloring their hair unnatural colors. And at last year’s homecoming dance, she went with a boy who wore a prom dress. She wore a tuxedo.
Rachel’s parents, Beth and Daniel Swadener, have always encouraged their daughter to speak out on behalf of minorities. But they take different approaches in counseling their daughter.
“They both listen to me,” says Rachel. “Mom really tries to find a way to fix it. Dad sits back and listens to me.”
Beth Swadener, who is an associate professor of early childhood education at Kent State University, agrees: “I theorize about it, get nervous, get angst about the issues, and take them on. Daniel helps us lighten up and get some distance from it.”
Both parents are vigilant when it comes to their daughter’s emotional health.
“I’d rather she be angry and express it in a safe way,” Beth Swadener says. “Rage to me is healthier than withdrawal and self-blame.”
Sipps says parents of children like Sam and Rachel can protect their children by giving them “unconditional love, a feeling of value, and a warm home environment.”
He also recommends reading books like “Raising Your Spirited Child” by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka (Harper Perennial) and “The Drama of the Gifted Child” by Alice Miller (Basic Books).
Kids who don’t fit in with their peers because of personality disorders or damaged home lives may carry those problems into adulthood, though therapy at a young age may help fend off some of their problems, Sipps says.
On the other hand, kids who are misfits because of their creativity, individuality or intellectual curiosity, often grow up to be successful adults.
“The same things that got me in trouble in grade school and high school made me a star student in college,” Yamokoski says. “I was always ready to question what I was told. I finally got in a position where that was accepted.”
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