Strengths & Weaknesses

I was in the Gifted Program in school, I was lucky. My mother was a teacher and advocated for me. What this meant was that I was able to receive extra instruction. In elementary school this might mean an art, Spanish or guitar class during a time that my class was reviewing things I already knew. In third grade I spent one hour a week in a sixth grade class while they did science. I was also permitted to get ahead of the other kids in my class. I remember in first grade practicing counting money on my own (including dollars) while the class was still learning what each coin stood for. In fourth, fifth, and sixth grade I was in a pair of classes that worked together. One teacher taught language arts, while the other taught math. This allowed the students to divide up by ability level instead of grade level. But by sixth grade I had covered the main math information that they taught to the rest of the classes, so I spent the year doing more self-directed studies.

I am very thankful that I was able to do things like this. It allowed me to not be super bored in my classes and move at my own pace to a certain extent. However there are many problems with this system.

First and foremost: Not every child has access to it. This type of program is not set up in every state, those that do have it vary widely in implementation, even between districts. Within a district some schools support it, some do not, just like any special education program. The middle school that I went to did not have a gifted program, but I went there because that is where my mother taught. Because she knew the teachers, she was able to get me in the best classes for me, even though I had to go outside the established ‘team’ structure the school used at the time.

Even if a child is lucky enough to live in the right place to be able to take advantage of the system, their parents might not know to get them involved, and their teachers might not advise them to do so.

Secondly: Tailored education for all. I do not write this post to tell you how smart I am. I used to think that I was better than other, normal, people and I apologize for that.  I now know that everyone has strengths, and everyone has weaknesses. Because my family was full of teachers, and traditional education was such a focus of my upbringing, I thought that it was the most important thing, and that since I was good at that, I was some kind of super-genius.

I now do not support the use of the IQ test. I do not support a system that puts a single set of abilities over another. I believe that it is very damaging. The first thing you may think of when I say that is the people who are told that they are not smart by such a system, and that is a huge part of what I mean. But because that is so obvious, I am not going to go into it. I will tell you why it is not good for the above average kids as well.

As I grew up and I saw the strengths of my friends, I thought that because I was ‘Gifted’ that I should be better at everything than people who did not receive the same label. This is probably part of why I have dabbled in so many different things. It’s not just that I get bored with it, or that I like to be a Jack-of-all-Trades, but that I felt the requirement to beat others at their own strengths. Obviously this is an unrealistic expectation. Through a long and arduous journey I have discovered a long list of things that I am not very good at. And every time that I try these things again, I find the realization again. And every time I have to get over the disappointment again. I have to fail over and over again, and waste my time repeatedly just to re-learn the same lesson I did not learn when I was young. No-one is good at everything.

For a long time I assumed that the people that I made friends with were also in the Gifted Program, because they were smart. I would later find out that most were not. Some were actually in the lower levels of Special Education. Some had failed grades in school. This surprised me. Yes, if a child has dyslexia, that needs to be addressed, but they should also be addressing the things they are good at.

I believe everyone should be allowed to pursue the things that they excel at. This does not mean they should ignore the things they struggle in. Everyone needs to understand trying to learn something outside of their strength. I do believe that there are some skills that should be universal, but these are extremely basic compared to the requirements for school today. (I also understand that these concepts are outside the realm of possibility for some people.) People do not all think in the same way, and as a society we should use each-other’s strengths to grow, rather than requiring everyone to maintain roughly the same experience from which to grow.

Third: Labels. The Gifted Program is part of the Special Education program. As we all know, there is a stigma that goes along with being a Special Ed kid. (When I first got into the program, I did not know that and bragged about being special ed. I was very confused as to why people were not in awe of my awesomeness.)

Referring to my previous point, everyone should be able to get the tailored education that the gifted program is supposed to provide. There should not be a need to label someone as unusual in any way in order to give them what they need. We all are different, we cannot expect everyone to be good at the same things or to learn at the same pace.

In my time in school, the Gifted program offered me the opportunity to explore many things. But unfortunately I found that the extra classes that I was able to take did not make sense for me. These were the first classes I ever struggled in. Because school was so easy for me I expected everything to come just as easily. I know that these classes were supposed to challenge me. I understand that intention now, but at the time, it just seemed too hard. During my time as a substitute teacher, I saw students struggling with the core concepts of math so much they cried. This gave me an insight as to how much strength and weakness really affect our learning. (As well as the problems with expecting too much of students too soon.) I gave up many of these extra classes before trying very hard. This means that from my experience in school I have no way of knowing if I could have been good at them if I gave them a chance. Having tried again later more doggedly I have come to the conclusion that these were not my strengths. It seems odd that because I was good at one thing, I should be given the opportunity to pursue things that I was not good at, while other students were denied the opportunity to pursue something that they might have excelled at because they struggled with something completely unrelated.

Society For Creative Anachronism

Ok, so today I am gonna plug for the SCA.

I made the black dress from a pattern. I now know that the princess seams are not period, but I still wear the dress. This picture is not mine, but since I hate putting pictures of people up without their permission, and this is the only SCA picture I can find that doesn’t include a lot of other faces, this is what you get.

What is it? – The SCA stands for Society for Creative Anachronism. So what does that mean? It means a group of people (Society) who creatively are out of time and place (Anachronism). Ok, still a little literal. It is a medieval recreation society. We do our best to live as people lived in medieval times. (Without the plague, religious persecution, and lack of sanitation.)

I say medieval, but really any period prior to the 17th century is fair game. Most people stick to European history, but some do delve into the Stepps and even into Asia.

Who are These People? – All the funny clothes, strange names, and crowns can be a little intimidating. It can feel like another world, and that is the point. We take care to make our outfits, accessories, and sometimes even speech, our escape from the mundanity of everyday life. In fact, we refer to life outside the SCA as ‘Mundane Life’, imagine that. Most people choose a name that goes with a persona. They create a person who would have lived in a particular time and place. Then they live in those shoes. SCAers tend to get confused when they find out that I do not do this. I don’t because I cannot choose just one period or place. People can have several personas, but I find even that too restrictive. I will often go every day of an event in a different era. When I joined there were a lot of people whose SCA names were variations of my name. I don’t really see a point. I feel more at home at events anyway.

The crowns are a little different. SCA has our own royalty. The crowns are worn by people who are permitted to. Just to confuse you, the bigger the crown does not mean the higher the rank. The crowns are designed according to the wearer’s preference.

So What Do People Do? – If someone did it during the time period, someone in the SCA probably does it. If it is more obscure, you may have a hard time finding them, especially in a small group. At large events though, GAME ON!

The Biggest Examples –

  • Fighting – Most people who know something about the SCA know about the Fighting, so I will start there. We have two main fight styles. What we call ‘Heavy’ and ‘Light’. All of our martial activities have strict safety measures regarding the weapons, and the armor used. We rely on the honor system to count hits. In the SCA, unless specified in a particular event, if an arm is hit, you ‘lose’ that arm and must fight without it, the same goes for a leg. Fighters will kneel at this point, although I have never seen it, I do not think there are rules again hopping around. If a fighter looses both arms, they will admit defeat, although once again, I don’t think there are rules against going all Black Knight.

Heavy fighting is a recreation of broadsword melee mostly. However many people choose to use axes, maces, or even pole arms instead. We are not a live steel group, which means that when we fight, we are not using real weapons. Most are built by members out of Ratan which is like a heavy bamboo. Usually they are wrapped in duct tape. Because Duct Tape.

Light fighting is a recreation of fencing. We use heavier swords than that used in the Olympics, but use similar face masks. These swords are tipped so that no-one gets run through for real. Beginners usually use only one sword, but more advanced fighters can choose an off-hand weapon as well. I have seen a dagger, a buckler, a cloak, even a rubber chicken.

  • Other Martial Stuff – The main categories here are Archery and Thrown Weapons. These are essentially target-based activities, since we don’t actually try to kill each other. In some large-scale battles, archers are invited, provided they wear armor that meets the regulations of the battle, and use special ammunition.

I do archery, but I use a Cherokee Flat bow, so it’s not quite period. I do have to shoot a little bit differently than most people who shoot long bow. Other people use the later re-curve style. I have also seen people shoot crossbow, although they are more expensive, and therefore rarer.

I have also done some thrown weapons. I usually use knives, but have dabbled in axe throwing as well. The principles are the same. This is the least popular of the martial activities, although in many ways it is the simplest to get involved in.

  • Performance – There are also bards musicians and dancers in the SCA. People study instruments that most people have never heard of. Sometimes we can even get musicians to play for dancers. Usually this is drummers around the campfire at night while some budding belly dancer shows her moves. Occasionally we will have a formal ball, with court dances that are taught during the day for those daring enough. Bards often travel between camps singing their tales of faraway places. At my son’s first event, it was a bard that finally managed to get him to sleep.

As with everything, there are experts and there are novices. People are not deterred from doing something they are not good at, but rather recruited as someone to pass knowledge on to.

  • Arts & Sciences – In the SCA this mostly means arts, or stuff you create. As an activity, this is not the most obvious, but it’s effects are evident the moment you see a gathering. While some things are purchased outside of the organization, most things that people wear or use at events are made within the group. Some people take pride in making everything themselves, while others contribute to the SCA economy. We use modern currency, but I consider the SCA to have its own sub-economy. Some merchants are able to earn their livelihood by traveling and selling their wares at events, although many include Renaissance Faires as well. We have our own supply and demand trends, sometimes fueled by the fads. Yes, even though we are re-creating the past, certain periods go in and out fashion.

Once again, if someone made it then, someone probably makes it now. I know blacksmiths, weavers, leather-workers, seamstresses, and jewelers. Some people focus on period re-creations. Many SCA members carry knives and even swords on their person, even though they are not allowed in combat. Other artisans focus on SCA-specific crafts like creating the regulation weapons that are used in combat.

I always say that I do not like shopping, and I take great pride in breaking the female stereotype in that. But I have to admit, I lie. I love shopping. I just cannot stand the places that most people shop. I love thrift stores. I will have to write more about that another day. I also love Merchants Row. At most large events there is a designated area for craftspeople to set up stores. This is my weakness. These people sell the types of things I like. People sell period clothing, weapons, armor and jewelry. Others do intricate hair braiding (When you are at a week-long camping event and the showers are full of sweaty fighters most of the time, a braid can be a big help.) or henna. Some people sell modern paraphernalia like t-shirts. Period games are always interesting. Real root beer is always a classic. This is one of the only places that you can find period fabrics and trims to make stuff yourself. Many of the merchants accept not only cash but also barter. More recently, with the help of technologies like square, most can now accept Master Card and Lady Visa as well. I only include that because I find it amusing.

Where is it? – The SCA is an international organization, but mostly exists in the United States. There are local groups in most large cities, and even smaller ones, although it really depends on the town. The city I just moved from had, at its height, more than twenty. Then a lot of people everyone moved away around the same time, leaving around eight active members. A larger city that I lived in had its branch nearly dissolved because no-one was participating. A few years later it has grown and it thriving. Check out your area.

So Why Do I Play? – I got into SCA because I am a history nut, okay, so since I now have a bachelors in History I have decided that I can say Historian instead. But I stay in because the people are awesome. In general the people are far more accepting of others. This is the place where people who feel alienated by society at large find a home. I have made friends of different religions, political parties, and gender identities. People who have been outside the norm for their hobbies, or the way that they look, walk or talk fit in just fine in the SCA. There are some people who will point out historical inaccuracies. Usually that is done in fun, and with the best of intentions, but sometimes it is a merchant trying to sell their wares.

How Much Time and Money Does This Take? – As much as you want to put into it. Some people camp in extravagant period tents, I use a cheap two-man tent I found at Wal-Mart. Some people build elegant Elizabethan gowns, while others wear simple Viking T-tunics. (Some people build those in a period way, while others use modern techniques.) You can spend as much or as little as you want, but if you are like me, you will always want to spend more than you should.

Freedom of Expression; Costumes and Dress Codes

A few days ago I was reading a blog by a teacher about the day after Halloween. I did not save the link, and I should have. One of the students wore a cape to school that day. The teacher kept considering telling the child to take it off, but she noticed that a child who is normally awkward and clumsy was far more confident. The article seemed to be written in order to pride herself on doing a great thing for this kid, as it seemed to help him in the future as well. No students even mentioned the cape, although teachers did do a double take. I think that all of this is great. But in the end, the teacher, while she did compliment the cape, told him not to wear it again. I cannot figure out why.

I wore costumes to school every day. I got a lot of flak for it from my peers, but it allowed me to be who I am. In high school, people who did not know me by name knew me as Little Red Riding Hood because I always wore a red cape that I had made. Today there is a lot of discussion about school dress codes. They are being attacked for being sexist, and even for creating the very over-sexualized environment they were created to fight. I agree with all of those points. The rules are often stated in ways that target girls more than boys. They are nearly always more strictly enforced with girls than with boys. By making such a big deal of it, we are teaching young kids to look at one another’s clothing and bodies and question “Is that enough clothing”, “Shouldn’t they cover up more?”, and “Why, what is wrong with this outfit that I have to change?” We are saying that what they wear is more important that who they are, and more important than why they are at school.

Some of the rules are unfair to certain body types. In my district short and skirt lengths were determined by arm length. A silly rule since some girls were completely within regulations and still showed ass when they sat down, while I broke that without ever being questioned since my skirt was plenty long because my arms are long.

This is not the message we should be sending kids. We need to be encouraging them to look beyond the clothes, and beyond the body to what a person is really made of. When we focus on the clothes, the person gets lost. This encourages people in our society to dehumanize one another. This allows people to do things to people without feeling regret. Whether that action is teasing in school, or physically assaulting someone. We live in a society where we do not have the luxury to personally meet everyone that we interact with. This means that we cannot afford to make any of the interactions we practice with those we do know contribute to that dehumanizing effect.

The point of many dress codes is to avoid ‘distractions’. This is ridiculous. The fact that a girl’s skirt is a little short, or that a boy’s pants are too baggy (showing my age a bit) should not be allowed to be a distraction in the first place. A teacher notices that someone is leering, call them out. If they persist, they should be sent to the office. Not the person they were looking at. We should not be teaching children that others, girls especially, should cover up so that people looking at them can feel more comfortable. We need to be teaching children that people have different tastes and make different decisions. We need to be teaching children that they are responsible for their own actions.

I went to a middle school with a more extreme dress code, called a Uniform Code of Dress. It was not quite a uniform, but very close. We had 2 colors of pants or skirts we were permitted to wear, in one style, and 5 colors of polo shirts. This was initially instituted to prevent students from wearing gang colors. My friends and I were so out of touch with that world that we could not even tell you the names of the gangs active in our area, let alone what their colors or signs were. I would probably have worn gang colors a lot without realizing it, as many people do.

This system ended up in a lot more time tied up in determining if students were within regulations or not. Not only were we measuring if the girl’s skirts were actually longer than their finger tips to also trying to determine if someone’s pants were the right color. My first dying project was adding coffee to the washing machine while washing a slightly lighter skirt that had been called white too many times to make it more khaki. After I left the school, it was decided to keep the style restrictions, but lift the color rules. So the entire reason for the Uniform Code of Dress was thrown out the window.

During this period I was very frustrated with the rules because I could not express myself. I took to wearing what I call “happy socks”, or the ones with bright colors, pictures, or separate toes. I took a lot of time braiding my hair on the car ride in so that it was as weird as possible. In trying to find ways to express myself I tested the limits that no-one had thought to make. But I also lost something. The goal was not about me being me, but rather about being strange or drawing attention to myself. I still wear the happy socks, but the hair took too much work, and did not really mean anything to me. Later I turned to doing elaborate masks in makeup, which worked when I had an hour and a half bus ride each morning, not so much once I started driving. I kind of miss the masks.

There is another issue that is gaining attention these days. Gender identity. I think that this ties in perfectly with this topic. In high school I had a gay friend choose to wear a skirt one day. I honestly did not even notice it until he mentioned at lunch how much shit he was getting. He had chosen to do it in part to find out what the reaction was. He committed to going a full week. Of course when he stopped, the people around him may have felt like they won, but there is no point in continuing something on the principle of proving someone wrong.

I do believe that clothing is a key way to express who you are. I look back on that as inspiration to be myself no matter what since I cannot wear costumes to work every day. These days wearing a full costume is rare because I am lazy and getting all dressed up to go shopping doesn’t really feel worth it. Childhood is a special time, you do not have to worry about what bosses or clients think. If we allow children to express themselves when they are young, they will be more accepting when they are older, and they will have a better concept of who they are. I do not think that expression should be restricted unnecessarily, to me it is a part of Freedom of Speech. It is a human right.