Published Online: March 22, 2005
Published in Print: March 23, 2005, as Dreams and Labels

Book Review

Book Excerpt: Dreams and Labels

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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.

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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.

From What It Takes to Pull Me Through

As the youngest person, the most recent hire, and the only teacher in a room of counselors, psychiatrists, and administrators, Gennarose hadn’t offered too many thoughts. Still, there was much that she wanted to say about D.J. Others saw a restless, reckless kid. They didn’t see the D.J. who sat in the hall at night, passionately talking about rock-climbing techniques. They didn’t see the D.J. who came up with an original take on Melville’s “Bartleby” in English class, or the D.J. who sobbed while reading a card his dad had written about a father-son deep-sea-fishing trip they’d taken 10 years before.

Although D.J. couldn’t sit still for more than a few minutes in a class, Gennarose had watched him outdoors and on field trips. When he was exploring the woods or working with his hands, he was a changed kid—enthusiastic, curious, confident. During the fall, when the group assembled to build a sweat lodge in the hills above the campus, D.J. collected sticks and pieced them together for three hours without complaining or losing interest. He’d been completely at peace with himself.

D.J. had an extra burden—the burden of expectations. Gennarose found his parents kind, caring people, but she worried that, as teachers, they put too much emphasis on his academic progress. They called and wrote about his homework; they fretted about his tests; they sent e-mails to the staff to help negotiate extensions for his papers. From what Gennarose could see, many times when D.J.’s mother and father earnestly spoke to him about school projects, he ached to talk about the change of the seasons or about the squirrels and chipmunks he watched longingly from the classroom windows. In her short time as a teacher, she’d realized some fundamental things about how kids learn. Some students came across as stupid or lazy, but in fact they just didn’t fit into traditional classes taught in 50-minute blocks.

Maybe it had always been that way. D.J. reminded her of Huck Finn, America’s most famous adopted kid, who preferred exploring the outdoors to being “cramped up”indoors. At a recent schoolwide meeting, the headmaster had discussed a note he’d received from one of his former students, who was now in his 30s, married with two children, and managing a professional hockey team. He’d cleaned up his life after a stormy adolescence. “I’m living my dream,” he’d written. The headmaster used that as a way to ask the kids to share their dreams. What would they like to be doing in a decade? They had plenty of ideas, from being an Olympic gymnast to producing rap videos. A girl from Dallas wanted to travel the world as a photographer. A girl from Florida wanted to appear in a Broadway show. For once, D.J. had raised his hand. He wanted to be in charge of a Fourth of July fireworks display for New York City.

Gennarose, who fantasized about giving up her job in order to sing, liked that about D.J. You could know him for close to a year without truly knowing him. Somewhere under his indifferent facade surged energy and creativity that would let him pursue his dreams.

From What It Takes to Pull Me Through: Why Teenagers Get in Trouble and How Four of Them Got Out. Copyright © 2005 by David L. Marcus. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Co. All rights reserved. More information is available at or by e-mail at [email protected]

Vol. 24, Issue 28, Page 32

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