Friday, August 19, 2011

Why Be Normal?

Normal: It’s such a highly-charged word these days, what with everyone trying to come up with politically correct or (we hope) compassionate terms for people who aren’t…you know. My first child was born with severe orthopedic problems and I struggled to find ways of talking about her that were compassionate but still accurate. The truth is, she wasn’t normal. That’s a hard thing to face, especially with that word.

Then a couple years ago I did some work for my father-in-law that transformed my understanding of the term. He was compiling the history of a school in Wilmington, North Carolina in order to publish a book about it. He called it the Tileston School, as did most folks in Wilmington in recent times. But as I went through the old newspaper clippings about the school, I discovered its original name: Tileston Normal School. My first silly thought was, “Did Wilmington have an abnormal school as well?”

My ensuing research into schools in 19th-century America led me to an interesting discovery about the word normal. We’re all familiar with the image of the one-room schoolhouse in which a dedicated school-mistress instructs a collection of students ranging in age from 6 to 18. This was the standard in many parts of the U.S. until the early 20th century. And it is this multi-age schoolhouse with which the normal school contrasts.

The word normal simply means conforming to norms. In the case of schools, the norms are ages; a normal school separates the students into classes based on age rather than putting them all together in one big group. That was a smack-myself-in-the-forehead moment. I got out the dictionary and looked up the word, just to be sure I was getting it right. Besides the specialist meanings in mathematics and engineering, the word normal means “according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule or principle.” And of course, those norms, rules and principles are made up by people.

My philosopher-daughter caught me with my nose in the dictionary and asked what I was so interested in. She pointed out to me that what’s normal has changed over time, and is even different from culture to culture around the world today. Of course. We aren’t head hunters like our Celtic ancestors were and we don’t drive on the left side of the road like the Brits do. Each society has its own set of norms. If you don’t conform to your society’s norms, you’re not normal. It’s as simple as that.

Change occurs in a society when a portion of the population decides that the norms are wrong. The suffragettes weren’t normal. Neither were the supporters of the labor movement in the 1920s and 1930s. But now, women who vote and workers who have rights in the workplace are the norm in the U.S. Journeying to the stars to heal fellow tribe members was completely normal for the ancient Siberian shaman; seeing visions of the divine was normal for medieval Christian mystics. Neither of these activities is normal in western society today, unfortunately.

Some people choose to violate the norms of society on purpose; artistic bohemian types have long done so, as have independent folks who don’t want to be constrained by someone else’s rules. And that’s all norms are - an agreed-upon set of rules (agreed upon by most of us, anyway).

So now, when I hear someone labeled not normal my immediate thought is, "Did they choose to step outside the lines?" Obviously my daughter didn’t choose to be born abnormal, and people with mental illnesses and severe injuries don’t choose that either. But many of us decide that we don’t like where society’s lines are drawn. We don’t agree with the norms. The fact that many people disagreed with those norms created the changes that allowed me to take my wheelchair-bound daughter out in public without shame and without having to confront physical barriers in buildings and public places.

Maybe the most important thing about normal is that we all have to agree on it. And when enough people disagree, we have no choice but to redraw the lines.