Today, a tale from my past which I think illustrates some interesting social attitudes about “intelligence,” social expectations, and children.
When my father and I returned to the United States from Greece, he was informed that I would need to be assessed by a child psychologist before I could be placed in school. Although I had in fact attended school for two years in Greece, California’s education system was deeply suspect of school records in a language they couldn’t read. I later learned that all “immigrants” (by which they meant “people who may or may not speak English but definitely speak some other language”) were subjected to the same evaluation before being placed in an elementary school class, while the “American” (monolingual English speaking) children were not.
At any rate, off we went to the child psychologist’s office, where I was given various coloured blocks to play with and asked to draw things and interviewed. The psychologist asked me questions about my friends and what I liked to do, and I answered truthfully, talking about the time Yannis and I played a prank on the baker and how I liked go to Athens and look at the Parthenon and how we had just gone to Istanbul and seen a folk dancing performance (“but it was boring”) and how on Saturdays we went to the castle and poked around, and in the summers we would go to Xhios and look after Markos’ goats.
My English at that point was perfectly competent. I might have had a little bit of an accent and sometimes I said things in Greek because I didn’t know the English words for them. When I got excited, like while telling a story, I switched mostly to Greek, talking at high volume with excited gestures, like the Greeks do. I probably had equivalent English language skills to American children of the same age, and I had basic reading and writing skills which I could have demonstrated, if asked, mostly in shaky capitals, in both English and Greek.
The child psychologist nodded and noted things down and occasionally asked followup questions, and then I was sent into the waiting room to sit while my father talked to the psychologist. Years later, my father told me about the conversation.
“Well,” the psychologist said, “your daughter seems to have some communication problems, and she doesn’t understand the difference between fantasy and reality.”
“Oh,” said my father, not having observed either of these things. “What do you mean?”
“She makes up stories about people and places, and she uses a lot of nonsense words,” said the psychologist.
“What kind of stories,” my father said.
“Well, she told some story about going to the Parthenon, and then she babbled in nonsense words for a while,” the psychologist said.
“Are you aware that we’ve been living in Greece?”
“Oh, well, no,” the child psychologist said, shuffling his paperwork. “It’s mostly the Mexicans we get in here. [No, really, I am not making this up, this is exactly what he said, my father remembers it vividly.]”
“Well then,” my father said, “I think it’s you who has the communication problem.”
The psychologist looked offended.
“She speaks Greek,” my father said, “and you don’t. And you talked with her for an hour and somehow failed to elicit the fact that she had been living in Greece for several years.”
And with that, my father left (and took me with him, of course!).
I ended up being placed in the “slow learners” group with the other “immigrants” (many of whom were also born and raised US citizens, but who just happened to be the wrong colour). We were mostly just left alone in the corner (no, really) and the other kids would chat with each other in Spanish while I looked at books and drew things. Eventually a teacher realized that I wasn’t just looking at the text, but actually reading it, and I was “rescued” and brought up to be with the rest of the class.
I couldn’t help but wonder, at the time, what would happen to all of my “immigrant” friends left to their own devices in the corner.
This is a pretty classic case in which differences in communication styles, in this case languages, are used to make judgments about “intelligence” which have far-reaching effects. It was assumed that no one in the “immigrant” group had any potential or anything to offer the class, so we were just ignored. This sort of thing happens all over the world, every day. Children aren’t “slipping through the cracks” because they communicate differently, they’re thrown into a pit and forgotten about, for the most part, unless someone puts out a little extra effort and attentiveness.
It shouldn’t have to be this way.