I gave a quiz in my 10:00 class yesterday. One of my students, who so far has always been ready in class with the right answers, and excited about the course material, and in every way just the kind of student I love to have in class, fell apart when he got the quiz. His hands shook, sweat beads popped out on his forehead. He second-guessed every answer he put down, raising his hand constantly throughout the quiz for clarification, reassurance, validation, his voice wobbling nervously every time he asked a question. My heart went out to him, over and over again.
After class, when he handed in the quiz, I asked him, "How did you do?"
He hesitated. "I think okay," he said.
"See! There was no need to be so nervous."
"I'm just an average student," he said, "and I don't want to screw this up."
He left before the full impact of his words struck me. Average? How was he an average student? Who applies these labels, anyway? How do they come into existence? What does average mean?
Average. I dislike that word so much.
In third grade, during all the preparations for end-of-grade testing that went on, and while giving instructions right before a prep test for a math assessment, L.'s teacher read this part of the instruction sheet to the class:
"The average student finishes the first part of this test in an hour."
It seemed a harmless enough statement, but the fallout from it has extended across to almost every math test L. has taken since.
You see, when the teacher said "average" L. heard "usual or ordinary or below the highest level" and since then he has always rushed through all his math tests in ten minutes or less.
"'Average' just means the 'statistical norm'" I tried explaining to L. "It doesn't mean that if you take an hour you're less than good, or unexceptional."
But when L. hears something and defines it to himself in his own mind, there is no budging him; this is a type of mind block so common in children (and adults) with Asperger's. I tried explaining this to his math teacher recently. She likes to send home his math assessment tests with the Time Started and Time Ended written in pen on the front of the test and with lots of exclamation points, just to underscore the point that he finished in seven minutes. Yet I know that L. finished the test quickly just because he wants to be better-than-average. If the average student finishes in an hour then by god he's going to do it in less. Much less.
I don't know how to work through this particular mind block, but I do know that I dislike the word 'average'. I dislike it not because I think it's a terrible thing to be average, but it's a muddy, ambiguous word. Even being below-average seems to imply something more concrete, and interesting; it connotes a sense of motion, implying that you can move up from there, leap from someplace underneath, out into the open light. I dislike the word 'average' because it locks so many kids down, sucking them into the plainness of the word, painting everything they do gray and flat.
"You're not average," I told my student. "No one in my class is average."
I tell L. over and over again, "You're not average."
Maybe if we repeat it often enough, people will listen. There are no average kids, no average people; we may not all be good at everything we try all of the time, but we're better than average, of course we are.