Learning Normativity, Resisting Labels, Carving Identities: The Everyday Work within Children’s Live
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
Ajay and I were only ten years old when I first began noticing his ‘oddness’. Put into each other’s company by a family friendship, and together attending a school where we were measured by the cars we arrived in and the expensive, imported sports shoes we wore, Ajay stood out. In wealth, he far exceeded my status, but his wealth could not compensate for his ‘oddity’ among peers. For Ajay preferred the company of girls and preferred spending hours amongst their gossip, rather than with boys and their competitive sports and jocular wrestling. In a desperate attempt to join us, he would come running and flaying his hands, buzzing like a bee around us; on other occasions he would pretend to be a fire-breathing dragon circling us as we played quietly in one corner of the playing field. We girls detested it; I probably the most, worried about the loss of my peer standing due to my close (unwanted) association with him. In one such moment of shame-mixed-with-fear, I probably even told him off, asking him to go away and leave me alone. He remembered every word of it on the day he left school in the seventh standard, when his family was permanently moving to Indonesia. Stating that he now hoped I would be happy, he said “I’m also happy I’m going away. Now no one can compare me to you.”
With more maturity and more self-confidence now, I can retrospectively see the pressure Ajay must have felt growing up, as unreasonable expectations had been laid on him by our families and friends, to become more ‘normal’ like me. This meant having more friends and academic achievements, as expected of all ‘good students’. With maturity, Ajay too has now been able to open up about his choice of being gay, and I’ve been able to accept him for who he is. Having left behind the high school pressures of fitting in, I can now understand his attempts at self-expression through dress, language and personality even during his school years – something that I was unable to accept then, as he buzzed around us as bees and butterflies, behaving very differently from other boys.
Many years later, in my practice as a child psychologist, I’ve continued to encounter many Ajays – that is young boys and girls who fight to carve their own identities and resist the normative categorizations of who they should be. For starters, there was five year old Srijith, cognitively as sharp as a needle, but suffering from spasticity, which caused stiffness in his leg muscles and led to poor balance and control. Though included in a regular school, Srijith was made cognizant of his disability every day, as he was left out of certain activities such as sports, or would be left behind in class when the children had to be taken upstairs to an auditorium. Within an inclusive school, Srijith’s exclusion was premised upon ‘safety concerns’ informed by an understanding of what "normal" bodies could do, reinforcing an “abnormal” identity for Srijith. However, even at five, Srijith was already cognizant of the ways in which physical strength combined with notions of masculinity, and worked hard to appear masculine in every way. Despite the poor balance and loss of control, and encouragement by his mother and the centre staff to walk slowly, or take support of the walls, or our extended hands, Srijith exceedingly fought to move around the centre independently like any other person, challenging us all to look beyond his disability. Srijith, no doubt, carved a unique identity for himself, as the bravest and the most determined young man, we have known.
Then there was Zara, a fourteen year old girl, cognitively a slow learner with low IQ, who behaved like she was just eight or ten years old. Zara came to me when other special educators had given up hope of her ever being able to read and write. Concerned that as a young girl, she should at least have functional literacy in order to be able to recognize familiar numbers, names and addresses, in case of unforeseen emergencies, I began working with Zara to teach her simple words and numbers. For several frustrating months, we would both plod on, amidst fitful tears in response to the tough tasks I set for her, but gradually Zara learnt to read and write small words and sentences. Once she had got past the initial hurdle, her mother even reported that she would spend hours every day excitedly and proudly writing and rewriting the same words and sentences across every book and paper she came across. Yet, in terms of prognosis, we both knew Zara would be able to go no further and worried endlessly about her future. On one such occasion, when Zara and her mother had arrived for class, she pleasantly surprised us both by remarking about my appearance. “Looking good ma’am”, she said. “Aaj kya saj-dhaj kea aayi ho?” (How come you have come dressed up today?) After I recovered from my initial surprise, I did realize that on that particular day, I had dressed up more than usual for a formal meeting. The unexpected comment got her mother and me discussing Zara’s taste in clothes and jewellery and colours, and I learnt for the first time, about the fine aesthetic sense that she had. Her mother reported how her favourite activity involved making bracelets and necklaces with the toy bead set she had. In my anxiety to make her self-sufficient, my thinking around Zara had been clouded by the dominant understanding of what children should be learning and how they should be prepared, leading me to completely side-line and ignore other aspects of her personality and self. On that fateful occasion, Zara showed us both how she would not be type-casted as a slow learner, but was someone who could perhaps appreciate and enjoy beauty more fully than many of us who went about our everyday life with a sense of functionality.
Finally, let me just end with the story of two boys, Ashfaq and Anjan, middle school boys from two very different schools and families. Ashfaq, who belonged to a lower-middle class, patriarchal, Muslim joint family, attended a private school on an RTE seat. Anjan, whose parents were scientists, belonged to a liberal, middle-class Muslim nuclear family, and attended a progressive, alternative school with small class sizes and caring teachers. Both boys were extremely bright (had they been given an IQ test, I suspect both would have scored above the ‘normal’ range). Yet both boys were deeply in trouble at school and at home, for being disruptive, for asking too many questions, and for challenging authority. With cognitive capacities that demanded more challenge and engagement than what their schools and homes were able to provide them with, Ashfaq and Anjan were quickly bored and had resorted to behaviours that tested the limits of tolerance and patience of their families and schools. They were trying to gain attention to themselves and their needs. While Ashfaq was progressively turning violent, Anjan was disruptive in class, resorting to humour (which nevertheless relied on making quick mental connections, punning with words and creativity that drew out new connections in the otherwise mundane). Not fitting the mould of ‘good students’, who would work hard, stay quiet in class and be faithful to the lessons of the textbook, Ashfaq and Anjan were both simply slotted into ‘being boys’, expected to be aggressive, disruptive, combative and disobedient towards authority. Ashfaq was soon asked to leave school, with the school management threatening Ashfaq’s family to withdraw the RTE seat without which they could not afford to keep him in the private school. Anjan was asked by the school to be home-schooled and sent to school only for the exams with an additional injunction that his parents take him for counselling. While the schools and their families interpreted Ashfaq’s and Anjan’s cognitive fluency, wittiness, humour through stereotypical lenses of what is expected of boys, the two boys themselves were trying to draw attention to their abilities and capacities. In normalizing their behaviours as ‘what boys do’, the schools and families, had in fact lost sight of the potential of the two children.
Several experiences such as these have been personally informative of the ways in which children are both normalized and stereotyped through dominant discourses in an adult world, and how each of them struggles against these categories to carve out a unique identity, if only we cared to see and listen. Two things have stood out for me through these encounters: first, how even in our well-informed, politically conscious and reflexive engagement with children, we are unable to escape categorization, in making sense of children’s worlds (as perhaps is true for much of our engagement with the world). Second, in my various engagements with children battling the different labels and impositions on them, I have come to also observe how being identified in one manner (e.g., ‘disabled’, transgender, ‘truant’, etc.), does not preclude self- and others’ expectations for them to fit certain other categories (for example, as in Srijith’s case where he sought to compensate for his disability by embracing an embodied masculinity). These experiences have particularly been pedagogic, both for my research, and practice as a psychologist, teaching me to carefully approach labels, categories, and binary divides through which our world is framed and also imposed upon children.
Names of all persons in the blog have been anonymized to protect their privacy
I’d like to thank Apurva K H, M.Rashmi and Sujatha Subramanian for their valuable feedback on the blog.
R.Maithreyi is the Strategic Lead of the Adolescent Thematic at KHPT, Bangalore. Her work spans childhood, youth, skills and education. She has ten years of experience working as a child psychologist.