It didn’t start at Berkeley High School (BHS). I was first labeled a “difficult student” at Sequoia High School in Redwood City. I was an odd case for administrators, a student with good grades who was on the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma track yet missing classes left and right. It was a running joke with friends that school for me was optional. It was easy enough to outwardly pretend missing school was fun for me instead of isolating and nerve-wracking, something that marked me as abnormal to the point where it made me uncomfortable.
I went home often because I was incredibly sick. My symptoms were akin to the stomach flu for an entire year. I was known for carrying Altoids around, popping them every couple minutes. The carbon monoxide in our house wasn’t at a level where it was lethal, so our meticulously up-kept alarms never went off. Still, I was sick for about a year before we found out. In that time, despite my near-perfect grades, I was shunted off into the twilight zone of school administration.
Overworked and misunderstanding administrators had already set me down the path where all noticeable issues go, following the universal American educational motto: you will be respected if you can be successfully ignored. The worst thing you can do as a student is to be inconvenient, and inconveniences can be anything: being female and harassed by another student, being a person of color and uncomfortable with a teacher’s joke, or being sick and unable to make class.
The Pew Research Center found that disabled students make up 14 percent of national public school enrollment, meaning that at BHS, there would be an estimated 342 disabled students. So why does the school system continue to isolate them? There’s innate dehumanization in your “special” needs being labeled and clinically overseen in order to make you as productive as possible. According to the Atlantic, “Children with disabilities are far more likely than their classmates to be disciplined, removed from the classroom, suspended, and even expelled” (Reynolds Lewis, 2015).
In David M. Perry’s account of advocating for his son with down syndrome, “I know [his teacher] is a good person, a hard-working educator, a part of the team, and she doesn’t mean to exclude my son. But it’s also clear that she doesn’t really see him as her student” (The Nation). Without a system that supports and respects disabled or chronically ill students, the system will always see them as extra labor, extra attention, and less than ‘normal’ for deigning to need something else.
There’s also the idea that there is some innate separation between the disabled students, the 504 Plan students, and the “good” students. Although this idea is not malicious in nature, I fell victim to it too, once. It’s incredibly easy to sit in your IB or Advanced Placement (AP) class and think how you did the work and that’s all it takes. Only recently has that small line of separation grown thinner, especially with the dialogue we’ve been having about former “gifted kids.” This self-identifying group of students seems to skirt the line entirely, demonstrating their need for help in the system without being isolated within it.
Many have recounted being labeled as “gifted kids” and sliding into a burnout. There’s almost a defensive posturing to it, that they were gifted, that they were once hailed by this system. Why are so many students able to relate to this? These posts and tweets get hundreds of thousands of students agreeing and sharing their own similar experience— which is a large enough group to be wildly suspect, on the whole.
The truth is that any student who’s quick to work and quiet in the classroom is celebrated by this system. Were any of us ever really “gifted kids,” or were we just convenient?
So much of the burnout described by these former “gifted kids” is simply no longer conforming to the education system’s demands. They describe being unable to turn in assignments on time, losing all motivation to study, and needing something different from the system. That is the crux of the ‘former gifted kid’ issue, that needing anything is unconscionable to what we’ve required of our ‘good’ students.
The most telling aspect of the education system’s refusal to change is the pandemic’s shifting standards of what dictates a classroom. Online classes harmed some, but made it possible for chronically ill students to consistently show up for class without needing aid. With the transition back to in-person schooling, we’ve also seen how schools are yet again re-isolating an entire population.
I transferred into Berkeley High my senior year with high hopes for the Independent Study Program. I’m still affected by some long term exposure symptoms, and I hoped that in-person expectations would be more lenient (in reality: only slightly). It’s an odd, quiet sort of humiliation, one I’m sure many students outside of the ‘norm’ know. Outside of school I run a magazine, talk with friends, and am considered capable and intelligent. It doesn’t change the feeling of imposing myself as a burden onto a school system that didn’t ask for me.
Many students are in Independent Study because in one way or another they didn’t do the work. Does that equate to unintelligence? Within the Berkeley population, the undiagnosed with ADHD, the depressed, the ill, and those who have family responsibilities will not always be the ‘perfect’ student. The understanding that students needing accommodation are intelligent cannot exist with how we are treated by the system.
This is not the fault of individual administrators. When we look at the faults of the education system as a whole, we must also look at how it places all responsibility for care on its teachers. This is not an opinion piece on why BHS is corrupt or ableist. It’s merely acknowledging the fact that it’s part of a system in which ill students are seen as burdens before they are recognized as students.
I had high hopes for my BHS experience, but not all are currently possible. Regardless, I continue to have high hopes for the people within BHS. I hope most of all that there is an understanding of the intelligence and respect that chronically ill people deserve. People aren’t inconveniences, and with different perspectives, we can continue to learn how to connect and understand each other. Maybe this kindness is new to our generation, but hopefully it will last.