I had a friend named Chuck but it came at a cost and I didn’t know it; social isolation. Chuck would share with me hard stories about his family, in particular about his dad who struggled to find work and to make ends meet. It wasn’t because Chuck’s father was an alcoholic or lacking skills, but it seemed he would be pushed out of most places he attempted to get a career going. As a result, Chuck and his family lived on the other side of the city in a worn out home in a worn out area. I suppose it would be helpful to share that Chuck was black. This was my very first introduction to racism and it was as vile then as it is today.
Perhaps we could dismiss my experience of this as something happening in yesteryear, like whenever my early grade teacher would catch me writing with my left hand she would grab the meter stick and come over and smash it down on my desk, hands be damned. I didn’t get that either. How was it that I was being singled out and punished socially and physically for using my left hand? I used my left hand and Chuck was black. I couldn’t figure out why both of those things mattered. Then it made sense. One was social ignorance and the other was ugly racism. One went away as society became more enlightened about such nonsense and the other became more and more prevalent, Martin Luther King Jr. be damned.
My own life’s circumstances was creating a heightened sense of justice within myself. In fact, my teachers in this city would make that clear in their quarterly reports to my parents, but I would characterize it as becoming more and more pissed off. Sure, my pissed-off-ness probably originated out of my own selfish pursuit for normality and inclusion, but the more I was being isolated, I was growing in awareness at how others around me were being isolated as well. And this was pissing me off even more.
A new initiative from the ministry of education was launched in a few school districts and this was one of them. Every student would go through specialized IQ testing and the most elite would be skimmed off from the others and placed into what they affectionately called, the ‘gifted’ class. Many years later when this social experiment came to an end the pendulum swung to the other extreme where in my middle grades being placed in the ‘gifted’ class took on a completely different meaning.
However, for me, in this place, it suddenly meant that I was skimmed off from my classmates, all of whom I was desperately attempting to make some sort of meaningful social connection with and instead I was mixed up with kids of all ages and placed in a magical new place. The contrast was stark. I left a crowded classroom, sitting at forty year-old metal desks, staring at a fading chalkboard with institutionalized wall colors staring back at me and a window or two to bring light to the darkness. Now, I walked into a brightly lit multi-purpose playground with state of the art everything surrounding me. This was my new school home and I had an exclusive VIP pass.
As it played out I would come and go in a moment from my ‘regular’ class to this ‘gifted’ class. The timing always seemed interesting to me. My classmates would be about to write a test and I would be summoned to my new class, given a free pass to that test. Instead of studying history with my classmates, following along in someone’s textbook, I studied whatever the hell I wanted to. The other elite students and I would sit together and brainstorm different passions and ideas we had about curiosities or how we wanted to change the world and then people would emerge from the sidelines – at our beckon call – ready to equip us with whatever we needed or desired, in order to accomplish whatever latest project we deemed we wanted to work on. My classmates learning about geometry and the history of Canada? Boring. I was researching Blue Whales and the entire whaling industry, focusing on the endangerment of the species. I won an award for my project and a special badge through cubs for that work. As for the geometry and the history of Canada, those sections on my educational requirements were simply signed off on. A free pass all as a result of academic privilege.
In this city I didn’t pay attention to the cost as much because I was enjoying the privileges of my new surroundings. However, the true cost of social isolation caught up to me in the next city and it was there that I decided to do something about this academic privilege. Looking back, however, I should have noticed the sideways glances, the raised eyebrows, the snubbing at lunch and recess, the turned backs in social circles, and perhaps even the participation of some of these same people standing around enjoying the bullies beating the crap out of me. That was their justice I suppose, seeking their own social inclusion to the norm.