What Does it Mean to Be Normal?

“What Does It mean to be ‘Normal?'”

“Normal” is an adjective that we all strive to become and hope to be in someone’s eyes. In the dictionary, the word “normal is described as: “Of average intelligence, or development.” We are influenced by society and educational standards to strive to become normal or above normal in our educational systems. It is something that is expected of us. If we fail short of the societies educational testing standards of intelligence and its expectations, then we are quickly labeled as being ‘abnormal,’ begin to doubt our abilities and placed in slow paced classes where we are mentally segregated from the rest of our peers and the world. We are measured by our test scores and our abilities are compared and weighed to the test scores of others – we forced to compete against our friends and peers. What does it mean to be normal? Does it mean that we are normal when we score in the expected intelligent range of our school ages? What happens when we fail to score within the expected educations standards? I know all too well about what happens when one does not score in the “expected test range” and how one is treated.

After reading a essay titled, ” I Just Wanna Be Normal,” by Mike Rose, I found myself lying still in my bed, staring at my stucco ceiling, grasping the story in my hands while remembering my own terrible testing experiences of anticipation, fear and doubt. These emotions unquestionably occurred each year when I was in grade school, the moment the teacher reminded us that we had to take the Standford-Binet Aptitude Test, which was mandatory for all children in the state of Arizona. I found myself comparing my own experiences of the Standfrod-Binet test with that of the character in the author’s unfortunate experience. Growing up in Tucson, Arizona in the early 1980’s, the standardized test is a well known educational ritualistic practice that is very familiar and still plagues me with horrible memories to this day. Yes, I had to take the Standford-Binet Test too, each and every year of my grade school life and that was one of the only events that children in Arizona could count on to come through. It was a promise to us, a promise that never let us down, all though many of us hoped that some most unfortunate situation, such as a tornado would drop down and destroy the school grounds. If you missed the test, then you had to repeat the your current grade level once more with an added bonus of knowing that you still had to re-test, and gamble on passing because if you did not, you were still screwed.

I humbly admit that I was never placed in vocational classes, but I was horribly stressed out, doubted my own abilities, and pushed by countless teachers at a young age to score high on math and reading comprehension levels. I never had nails or cuticles because I would bit them down to bloody nubs. I feared and dreaded the day when my test results would return and I would be placed in ESL classes, or worse, forced to repeat the current grade level. I can remember being a third grader and being forced to sit at a long rectangular table for 1 hour at a time, with fifteen minute bathroom-snacking breaks. I can recall scary memories of myself sitting at the faded, yellow, rectangular table, doubting my abilities, and squirming with other grade students as we read short stories, did what seemed so simple now, but wasn’t simple at that age, math problems and bubbled in the correct circles. I think that perfectly bubbling in the circles perfectly on my scantron was the best part of the test for me. Two weeks before the actual test, we were lectured and threatened by the teachers, and the principal to do well on the test, and to arrive 10 minutes early for seating arrangements. After these first points were made, we were then subjected to more intimidation that was usually masked by way of school assemblies in our auditorium, silly music, a hand puppet that served as our school’s mascot, and individual classroom visits from our principal. In addition, we were made to feel afraid of failure, and not succeeding; for we all knew that there was a promised impending embarrassment waiting for us at the end of each year if we did not test in the “normal intelligence to above normal,” score range.

Failing was no secret either; in fact, it was a widely publicized event that was broadcast like the white-sales that most major department stores have each year. The teacher made such an embarrassing issue out of those children who did not pass the test. At the end of the year, when the test results were sent back to our school from the state of Arizona, the teachers would make two columns on the blackboard. The first column on the right would be titled,” Passing On,” and the column on the left would be labeled , “Staying.” Then in red chalk, in the left hand column, the teacher would place the names of students who were not passing on to the next grade. We could all read the names well and we all know who was who. Learning to spell your classmates names was a usual assignment that was stressed in first grade class and we all had first and last names too. I remember leaving many of my friends behind, or moving to the next grade level the following year; noticing that fewer and fewer of my childhood friends were not sitting in the desk beside, behind or somewhere near me in the same classroom. I also knew that they were not assigned to another classroom of my grade either. I knew they had been placed with the same teacher from the following year, because they did not pass the Stanford-Binet Test. They were being forced to relive and wait on hell to repeat itself all over again. That’s right, I remember now, their names had been placed in red chalk to the left. Why red? The color red became so hurtful and intimidating to me and the color was now something evil. A color that is so beautiful, seductive, and usually associated with passion and love during Valentine’s Day was now associated with failure, hatred and segregation. I avoided using a red crayon or red magic marker during art assignments. The color red was removed from my childhood life – I would avoid anything red and this included the red, chalky, candy coated hearts, valentine day cards, and hearts on Valentines Day. If we had to draw fruit, I drew lemons, oranges, bananas, pineapples, but not anything that had to be red. I wondered if those students who saw their names in red felt he same way about the color. Did it make their stomachs drop, swirl and bellow the way mine felt each time I saw this color or heard the word test? What feelings did the color “red” impose on them? Were they afraid of the color red as well?

I can recall how I would only get to see my friends during recess when the other classes were set free onto the playground, and we communed in our usual place in the schoolyard, by the monkey bars and high-tower, in the far left of the playground’s sand box. I can still see all the tear-filled and streaked, sad faces of my friends from each and every year combined into one whole like an atom bouncing around. If I listen closely, I can even hear them sobbing. Furthermore, I can remember how my friends and I would huddle in sand boxes at recess, in the far right corner of the sand by the monkey bars and high-tower while we talked about all of our fears and doubts. We would sit around for thirty minutes or so and talk about the Standford-Binet Test. We were scared children who formed our own support groups of encouragement and doubt. We were afraid of failing; furthermore, we were afraid for each other. We shared the same fears. We were afraid that according to the results of the test that we would not be re-united, and separated for the following school year level. We were children sitting in a sandbox giving each other emotional support and courage to circle in the right bubble on the scantron. We were not running around in the sandbox like innocent children without a care, or worry in the world. We did not and could not run and play like most of the other care free kids because this test clouded our minds and removed our childlike innocence, consequently making us resemble a group of stressed out college students in a study group. We knew that this test was a serious matter and we intimately and deeply discussed what we felt or thought would be on the test.

I had my first standardized test in the First grade. Leading up to the test was filed with sleepless nights, sweats, nightmares, and even stomach aches. I remember having a loss of appetite. On the day of the test, most of my teachers would bring 56 soft lead pencils, scratch paper, paper cups, apples, or oranges, sometimes if we were lucky, blueberry muffins, animal crackers, chocolate chip cookies, and orange juice to fuel our minds during the test. I think that this act of kindness was also important because many children were not as fortunate as others to have a balanced breakfast or even a partial one at that. The teachers believed that the snacks and treats provided nutrients and energy that was essential for concentration. This was also their way of making a peace offering to us while encouraging our highest possible achievement on the test. As I grew older and became more educated, I came to realize that the treats were used as a sort of a compensation package for our suffering. Our seating charts that we normally followed had absolutely no relevance, or significance on this horrid day. We were divided by sets of two’s, all placed side by side and face to face, in alphabetical order along the rectangular tables, which made it easier for the teacher to swiftly pass out our booklets and test forms without any mix-ups or confusion. If we were lucky, we were placed across from, or next to one, or even two members from our comfort group and knowing that a familiar face was close to you sometimes made all the difference in the world for some of us. Next, the teacher would pass out paper plates and place the fruit, crackers, and candy on our paper plates. Beside everyone’s plate would stand a medium sized Dixie cup filled with orange juice and napkin. The kind gesture of the snacks and treats mildly removed some, but not all of the doubt we had harbored and faced days before the test.

I can remember how my stomach would be turning summersaults and twisting into knots as sat in my seat, moments before the actual test began. I felt as though I was on a never-ending rollercoaster. When everyone had their test in the proper order, and our pencils were sharpened; we would begin our test and attempt to bubble in the right answers. Depending on which section the teacher handed you, some students would begin with the Math section and some would begin with the English. The goal was to make sure that we did not start on the same sections of the test to prevent cheating.
On this day, I want to believe that we were treated the same, but that is not true. It was always obvious which students were having trouble understanding the reading comprehension questions, or doing the arithmetic because the teachers would kneel down besides them, take the their spare pencil and underline words and help without really helping. Everything changed on this day; teachers could not speak, or answer any questions that we had about test questions, or content. They could only tell us which row or section to complete.

As I sat in my seat, taking my test, I could not help but to notice the tension in my classroom. I would be distracted by the wrenching of the teacher’s hands, and looks of concern and discouragement on their faces as they peered over the student’s shoulders with their arms crossed and one hand resting on their chins. I knew we were being compared and I knew this because of how the teacher’s expression would change as they walked from student to student. I also noticed how some student’s answers elicited secret smiles and looks of approval and adorations from the teachers as they watched them answer questions and take the test. Oh, how I would give my all to see the facial expression, or emotions that was on my teachers faces as they looked over my shoulder. Did they smile upon me and what were they thinking as I bubbled in the circles? I wonder if I have ever received a smile? I was always too afraid to look over my shoulder, or look at them at all because I was too afraid to see their faces and possibly catch a look of disappointment, confusion, or concern that was focused on my answers. For all I know, maybe even a subtle nod would suffice. What bothered me the most was seeing the teachers peer over the shoulders of my closest friends with looks of disappointment, who had gathered with me in the sandbox study groups to discuss our fears. I could tell what the teachers were thinking just by the looks on their faces and sometimes it wasn’t good. I also remember how the teachers would meet in the halls with other teachers and stand just outside the glass doors watching us and talking. They talked with their hands and even pointed. They communed in hallways during testing time, when they were not pacing behind us as we sat at he tables like restless lions in captivity. These unsettling actions made me feel so uncomfortable and made it had to concentrate. I knew that I was not the only one who felt this way towards the teacher’s actions and I know this because as soon as we had our breaks, we would also commune in the girl’s bathroom to discuss the actions of the teachers and contemplate the meaning.

Three weeks before school ended, the results of the test would arrive. Its package and contents would come in the mail, in a long manila envelope, at the end of each year. There were three copies. A copy was sent and retained in my schools records for administrative purposes, another copy was for the teacher’s notes, and an additional copy was sent home for our parents to see. Somehow, by cursed fate, my Mother always received the test results right on time. She knew exactly when they were expected to be delivered to our mailbox. This was a very horrible time for me as well, because I was never a perfect student; however, I did always manage to pass the test. When my Mother would receive the test results, she would study them intimately and then show my Father. I always scored in the above normal mark as well. My mother would give me a big hug and say, “Good job baby! You are passing on to the next grade level. See, it is just a test, it didn’t hurt now did it? You did well and you scored high in all the right levels. Mommy wants you to know that this is just a test, it does not mean anything serious. You scored in the noral/expected testing range for your age. You are still special. Everyone is unique in their own way and even if you did not get good marks, Mommy would still love you anyways, and help you with the subjects you are having trouble with.” I remember thinking to myself, “Yeah, but you didn’t see the looks of discourage and anticipation on the teacher’s faces while we were completed the test, as they paced between the seats and looked over our shoulders watching our every move. It was a horrible test and I hate it. I wish that I didn’t have to take it every year.” I also wondered what would have happened if I had not passed the test and would not be permitted to go onto the next expected grade level.

This was a bittersweet moment because I would be pleased and overjoyed that I had passed because I could now let go of the doubts, stress and anticipation that I had harbored for so long. These feelings were free to leave my mind until the following day. I was mildly happy because this meant that I was free to pass onto the next expected grade level. I almost felt like I was a one of the little metal tokens in parker Brother’s Monopoly Game and I had just received the, ” Get out of jail free card, or the Advance to Boardwalk card.” This feeling of luck and relief only lasted for a few seconds because I would immediately begin to wonder about my friends and if they had received the same hand of luck that I had. Had they passed as well, or were they somewhere in their rooms or parent’s homes crying because they would had not passed and would not be advancing to the next grade level? I was a worrywart and maybe it was because I cared about the feelings of other children. I was raised to be considerate of others, and these kids were my some of my closest and dearest pals. We talked about everything and anything that kids loved such as cartoon, animals, homework, candy, dolls, television, coolest teachers, action figures, and boys.

The question of who had passed; which usually hunted me in my dreams the following night, was always answered the next day. The following day morning, the teacher would make an announcement to the class telling us that she had received our test scores and then follow their announcements with the news of how there were at least 4 – 5 students who had scored well over the above average mark on the test. After the student would receive their praise, the teacher would walk to the black board with red chalk and draw the,” ‘Passing On’ V. ‘Staying’,” column. I was always amazed to see how some of the students who saw their names in the “Staying” column and were still happy, but then were those who did not pass and had to be consoled by the teachers, or school nurse. Some never shed a tear.
I was an adult before I was able to understand the reactions and reasons of those who did not cry, and why. Now that I look back, it was their faces and courage that made me not feel as badly as I had the previous night and the moment I saw their names on the blackboard, but I still found myself crying for them and crying with some of my friends who did not pass. Usually after twenty minutes or so, I would begin to feel like my friends who did not pass and after hearing about the students who scored in the 10-15 point range I would then begin to feel badly about myself because I was not considered a genius. After the teachers had bragged, boasted publicly praised the students who were considered to be the school’s genius’s because they had scored the highest, I could feel the brief feelings of relief, satisfaction, and contentment that I once held, slowly fading away. The fact that I had passed the test and had advance to the next grade level suddenly became a disappointment; and my results were not good enough for me. Although my parents and teachers were satisfied and pleased, I was not pleased because I started to doubt my own abilities and wondered if my test scores had been mixed up with another child’s results that had not passed. I began to wonder if I had really passed and if I did, why I was not a genius? The fact that these students received awards from our principals and were overly praised for their achievements made me feel badly because I was “normal” and they were “extraordinary.” I was normal and that scoring in the normal test range was a good thing according to the Standford-Binet Test.

I had forgotten about my friends who had not passed the test, and were not seen as being normal by the test’s expected standards. I also wondered what the opposite of normal was according to the test? I was lost in confusion and did not understand anything except that I had passed and was considered to be normal. I was a first grade student and had no idea what the word, “normal” meant and how or why it applied to me and others. I only knew that the word meant something good and that still wasn’t enough for me. I did not understand this either because as I could see it, my friends who did not pass were sought as being normal in my eyes. My parents always instilled in me that everyone was equal. They never told me that a word or scores would or would ever determine someone’s place on earth as of yet – I was a first grader. I did not think or feel that my friends were anything other than normal because they were like me. They were my age, my size, wrote like me, colored like me, liked the same food, played the same games, and watched the same television shows – we were kids and how exactly were kids suppose to be? Were we expected to quote Shakespeare or one of Einstein’s formulas? I could not seem to believe, figure out, or understand they were different because of a test score. Furthermore, I did not understand, care, or believe nor feel that a test score made them different from me, butt his was the belief that the Standford Binet Test hoped to instill in us as children by determining and verifying its numbers and scores.
Now that I think about that word “normal” and relate the doubt, chaos and grief that the Standford Binet test caused me and many of my friends for so many years and little girls, I was able to appreciate but despise the meaning of the word, “normal.” I came to realize that being ‘normal’ is just a word that society has seized fort heir terminology and used to describe, label, and classify us. This in turn causes us to be self-conscious, insecure, and doubtful of our own abilities; therefore leading us to compare and weigh ourselves to our friends and peers. We are so desperate to be accepted by society’s standards that we are wiling to do anything to become normal or to appear to be normal to the outside world. Some of us are even willing to let a test determine our success and level of normality. I can now say that I fully identify with Ken Harvey’s Statement, ” I Just Wanna Be Normal,” because normal is what my friends wanted to be and no matter what some stupid test score labeled them as being, they were normal. All children want to be equal and treated like their friends nad peers; children do not want their teachers to single them out, embarrass, and put on a shelf, where their weaknesses are made to be a public announcement, and made to feel and treated like they are inferior to their friends. All children should have freedom and peace of mind, not weighed down with stress, and nightmares of test.
After compiling my own experiences, along with that of the author Mike Rose, I have learned that we should not compare, or measure ourselves and be made to feel as though we are inadequate, or inferior to the next person because we have failed to meet the expectations of another man’s status norms, which have been set and determined by means of testing. We must remember that we are all capable of achieving success, but if we fail to achieve this success, we should not be socially segregated, singled out, and placed in an inferior class status because the effects can be very hurtful and cause one to doubt heir abilities; therefore causing one to be insecure and distraught. We are all unique in some way, no matter what our test scores may be. I have also learned that it is okay to fail and that there is no shame in failing because no one is perfect and if we do fail, it opens the door for us to try again – we should view this as an opportunity to try harder. I see it as our infinite chance. Rarely do people measure up to societies overall standards, whether it is educational, occupational, professional, social, or otherwise. I am now twenty-seven years old and I have learned that this is no shame in failure. I now know why some of the children who did not pass the test were not crying, ashamed worried.

I have come to believe that these children developed the theory and belief that they were still humans, that they were still special and that they knew that the word “normal” was just a silly word, or maybe they did not care – who knows. These children would not and did not allow a word to determine, describe, rank, or compare their intelligence to other students. They knew that the fact that their names were the blackboard in red chalk, but did not care because they had learned to accept failure and would not allow a word, or test to determine, rank or describe them as a whole. They would not let this word determine their destiny. They knew that this word was not going to make them or break them because it was just a silly word developed by Anglo-Saxon terminology and nothing more. Deep in my heart, I knew this too; I just could not see it at the time because I was angered and outraged by the entire process leading up to the test and the events that followed thereafter. My Mother had told me what the word meant and its asinine meaning, but it was hard to believe when the teachers made such a big deal out of one word. Words are what we make of them. We allow words to serve some meaning. We also have the ability to mentally edit the meaning of words and give them a new meaning that suits us. I believe that words are just words and cannot hurt us, unless we allow or believe ourselves to be defined by a word. If we believe, or allow words to have significant meaning to us, then they will and can. Words will and can only affect us if we allow them too. I feel that this is true with any word; I feel this is the same for racist and derogatory terms. We allow words to have meaning and we have the power to accept, decipher, and transform meaning of a particular word.

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