Friday, February 12, 2016

normalization: remedial gym class, eye patches

I’m letting ideas swirl around a bit. Some of my motivation for investigating normality and normalization is autobiographical.

I wrote in a blog post once that I had been in “remedial gym” in elementary school. This is not what the school called it; in fact, I don’t know if they had a name for it. This happened in first grade, so my memory of it is not all that reliable. Some parts of it are crystalline.

Evidently, I was so awkward and inept physically that it was noticeable in gym class. I couldn’t catch a ball thrown or bounced to me, or throw or bounce a ball to someone a given distance away.

I don’t remember the precise circumstances, but I was sorted into a special gym class, of something like six kids. The one classmate I remember was an unfortunate soul who lived down the street from me, David Swisher. He was chubby, hyperactive, a fairly ineffective aspiring bully, and unsuccessful academically later on. He was called, of course, Swishy or Swish.

I had homework for remedial gym class.  So I could practice, my parents had to buy one of those hideous raspberry-Koolaid-vomit pink rubber inflatable balls with the scuffy texture—you know the thing, it was the “gym ball” because it wasn’t any particular kind of ball. I spent time in the hallway between our front door and the kitchen, bouncing this stupid ball back and forth to my mom. I think I wasn’t very good.

Now, this was strange, because I was physically very active, especially outdoors with my neighbors and best friends, Ryan and Trever Sink. It was hard to get us inside for the night. We spent every available daylight hour in good weather riding Big Wheels, bikes, or our old undersized trikes. We used the tricycles—solid steel and iron monsters—to play “Smash-Up Derby,” which involved riding them as fast as we could and running directly into each other as violently as possible. In the snow, we tromped around trying to see how far we could walk between yards, over fences that were nearly covered. I seemed reasonably coordinated for these activities.

It finally occurred to someone that I couldn’t catch, throw, or bounce a ball accurately because I couldn’t see it. On came the glasses. I still had trouble when the ball was to my left. It turned out I had a lazy eye. On came the eye patch, which was prescribed back then to try to train lazy eyes to work (I gather this has been abandoned since).

These were efforts to normalize my body and my movements. It didn’t matter that I was able, spontaneously, freely, and gracefully to crash tricycles together, to dig out of collapsed snow banks while suffering only minor frostbite, or to variously run, ride, leap, and so on. I did not perform to standard in the throw-catch-bounce test. Normalizing this performance began with identifying it as abnormal, separating my body from a mass where it could have remained relatively anonymous, placing me in a special location and prescribing special treatments. It reformulated my spontaneous, free, graceful embodiment as uncoordinated, incapable, and in need of correction.

Of course, a six year old with glasses and an eye patch (stuck onto the lens) is subjected to merciless hazing by other six year olds. This reinforced my body’s difference, the judgment that I am in fact uncoordinated and incapable, or in a word, defective. The failure of the eye patch to correct my lazy eye (lazy to this day) was my failure to achieve normalization, so along with my glasses becoming thicker every year, I remained defective, and it was my failure.

Now, imagine if my case had been really serious.

1 comment:

Domestic Kate said...

Your experience really speaks to the problems with setting an arbitrary (or not arbitrary at all, but obscenely prejudicial) standard in school and then punishing kids for not being able to achieve it. Meanwhile, those kids can do all kinds of things with their minds and bodies that are never recognized. Who gets to decide which kids are going to be singled out and ridiculed?

Thanks for sharing your story.