My first “real” job was in the late ’60s in an institution for “retarded” people. That’s the label they had then, though the individuals in the institution ran the gamut, from those with severe handicaps to those with no particular impairment other than having been born into a family that didn’t want them. It was a rewarding job, but grueling and, at many times, sad.

After that, I worked in schools that were established by parents in both Rhode Island and Maine for children who were excluded from public education. These parents were part of the National Association for Retarded Children and were instrumental in changing laws for the education of the handicapped in the United States.

Then, from 1972 to 1974 I worked as a teacher’s aide in a school in Ripley, Maine, that housed special education students. It was part of the Dexter public school system and served students in grades K-6. An education that was separate, but not quite equal. This changed with the Education of Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975.

Eventually I went back to school and became a certified special education teacher, then worked for 13 years as a resource room teacher. Part of my job was to explain why a student was having difficulty learning in the regular classroom. This was a team effort and generally resulted in classifying the child’s difficulties or giving him/her a label such as “learning disabled,” “autistic,” “speech and language impaired,” etc.

Labeling is a natural part of learning and life. Young children may first call all furry creatures “dogs,” but eventually learn to notice the difference between dogs, cats and other animals. This is how we make sense of the world.

There’s a danger, though, in putting people into categories. While these labels are necessary for a child to receive supportive services in public school, they can have a negative impact on the child’s self-image, particularly if the child leaves the regular classroom for services. These difficulties led to the inclusion model of providing services to students. Wherever possible special education personnel would work in the regular classroom setting with those students who qualified.

Handled well, inclusion can provide seamless support for students. There are drawbacks, though. It’s not a good model for all students. Some students are placed in regular classrooms without adequate support. It requires teamwork between the regular classroom teacher and the special educator, but often there is no time built into schedules for this. The inclusion model is what eventually drew me into becoming a regular classroom teacher. I felt it was the best place for me to teach all students well.

Education isn’t the only place you find labels. You may know people who are “outgoing” or “introverted,” “hardworking” or “laid back,” “Democrat” or “Republican.” Whatever the label, it’s important to see the value in the person underneath.

In this week’s poem, Ellen Goldsmith explores categories in nature. In talking about this poem, she said, “When I came to Maine after many years in New York City, I was taken with the landscape and all that inhabits it. On a walk with my husband, I paid attention, perhaps for the first time, to ducks feeding on the surface of the water.”

When we are lucky, nature can lead us to new understanding of ourselves and the human world as it did here for Ellen. This experience, Ellen noted, “…led to a conversation with me learning something new. I love when an observation in nature opens into emotional territory as it did in this poem, when paying attention is a springboard to a wider consideration of life.”

Ellen Goldsmith is a poet and teacher from Cushing. She is professor emeritus from the City University of New York. In 2006, she relocated to Maine, where she enjoys the rich literary landscape of the Midcoast.

For her, poetry is essential, a way to explore and discover, uncover and recover. Her most recent book, “Left Foot, Right Foot” (Maine Authors Publishing, 2021), deals with a life-threatening illness and her journey of healing. This poem is the first poem in her book, “Such Distances” (Broad Cove Press, 2009).

The Classification of Ducks

Rounding the bend at Swan Lake,

I see two ducks, up-ended,

their tail feathers wiggling like a hat

in the breeze, heads submerged

as they feed. Dabblers, you say.

I learn that ducks can be divided

into dabblers, like these mallards,

and divers—like mergansers

who disappear and reappear.

I think of the divisions I’ve swept

people into — early risers and night owls,

complainers and stoics, joiners and loners,

get-it-doners and let-it-waiters.

What are you? I ask. We both

want to claim diving. Yet

to get nourishment right

below the surface, to grow from

what’s close at hand, not so bad.

Judy Kaber is Belfast’s poet laureate.