Stoner. Space cadet. Bulimic. Sped.
Not too long ago, when I was hurtling towards adolescence, we separated the world into geeks and jocks, dorks and potheads. Kids still learn to label each other by middle school, even elementary school. The names of the labels have changed, but not the effects. It’s still easy to stick a label on a child, and excruciatingly difficult to unstick it.
As if the kids themselves don’t do enough, adults increasingly label students. Hyper. LD. ODD (oppositional defiance disorder). Nonverbal learning disorder. Bipolar. As a journalist covering education on and off since the 1980s, I, too, have succumbed. In my haste to churn out articles, I often saw kids as sterotypes: the floundering LD girl; the out-of-control ADHD boy; the gawky nerd; the hippie holdover.
Then I decided to write a book about teenagers who are sent away to a therapeutic school to deal with their drug use, drinking, eating disorders, and depression. These kids didn’t simply have labels; they became labels: the cokehead; the gang-banger; the wannabe; the “ana” (anorexic).
I spent 14 months camping, hiking, and biking with 16 students at the Academy at Swift River, a private boarding school in western Massachusetts for kids on the edge. I watched them in group therapy three times a week. I volunteered as an English teacher and played Ping-Pong with them. Along the way, I soaked up the minutiae of their lives—the names of the gerbils that died in 2nd grade and the stepfathers who yelled at them; the taunts of the stuck-up girls who rebuffed them at the cafeteria in 7th grade.
Gradually, I peeled away those “troubled teen” labels and saw the kids as guitar players, poets, mountain climbers, photographers—as individuals. Behind the jaded, callous teen facade, they were smart and funny and empathic. That’s a message I hope teachers and parents will find in my book, What It Takes to Pull Me Through: Why Teenagers Get in Trouble and How Four of Them Got Out.
One of my favorite students at Swift River was D.J., a slight 15-year-old with arched caterpillar eyebrows, a sprinkling of acne, and the insouciant look of a 12-year-old. The son of an elementary school teacher and a high school teacher, D.J. is no stranger to classrooms. But he learns better during hands-on activities, often outside the school.
Adopted at birth, D.J. is the classic example of the kid who is labeled early and often. A pediatrician decided that he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at age 5, and started him on medicines. At home, D.J. played with fire and hid from reality by immersing himself in computer games for hours on end. At school, he was known as the “ADD kid” to everyone. Even himself.
For weeks, D.J. was on the verge of getting kicked out of his group at Swift River. One day in the spring of 2002, counselors, learning specialists, and administrators gathered to decide what to do about D.J. As others discussed his inattentiveness and impulsive behavior, Gennarose Pope, an English teacher, silently reflected on his attributes. A recent college graduate, Pope didn’t want to interfere with all the specialists.
I observed the meeting, then debriefed the participants afterwards. (The names of kids and their families have been changed, but I used the real names of faculty members.) In the excerpt below, I try to capture what Pope was thinking. Although I used to pride myself on being an objective journalist, I cheered for these kids. I was heartened when the staff decided to give D.J. another chance. They agreed that he didn’t need one more reason—one more label—to make him see himself as a failure.
David L. Marcus is a visiting scholar at Ithaca College’s Park school of communications. He has been an education reporter for U.S. News & World Report and The Miami Herald. Last year, he held a teaching fellowship at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. The excerpt below is from his latest book, published in January by Houghton Mifflin.