Recently I’ve stumbled upon the word exceptional several times in literature and in current events. From my former knowledge I defined exceptional as superior, better than average. However, according to Merriam Webster, exceptional can alternatively mean having above or below average intelligence. Even more interesting, it can mean physically disabled. Oddly enough, physical disability and exceptionalism relate very closely a book I’m reading in my senior English class: The Poisonwood Bible written by Barbara Kingsolver. The story follows a family of Americans from Georgia on a missionary trip in the Congo (for a complete summary visit here). Briefly in class we discussed the American view of white supremacy over the Congolese or even the “white man’s burden” to bring salvation and Christianity to Africa (keep in mind the story takes place in 1959). It turns out the Congolese didn’t even want to adopt Christianity.
Although cultural superiority is a worthwhile discussion, I wanted to focus on the less prevalent definition of exceptionalism. The Poisonwood Bible is written as series of “books” separated into sections narrated by four daughters and the mother in the story. Adah, one of the daughters and more importantly a twin, suffers from hemiplegia. She is exceptional in the fact that she is disabled. She doesn’t talk but she is a very eloquent, quirky writer. Adah narrates a scene about her mother’s view of education as she explains,
“She is especially beset by Leah’s and my status as exceptional children. When we entered the first grade, we were examined by the spinster principal of Bethlehem Elementary, Miss Leep, who announced that we were gifted: Leah, on account of her nonchalant dazzling scores on reading comprehension tests, and myself by association, as I am presumed to have the same brain insofar as the intact parts go” (Kingsolver 56).
After finding the different definitions of exceptional I began to think that maybe the twins are different in more ways than what’s written on the page. Adah seems to view herself as exceptional in the negative, handicapped sense. Even though Adah is physically disabled, it has changed her view of the world. Of all the siblings I feel that she is most skeptical of missionary work and she is very perceptive in sensory ways. Adah learned from her handicap and ended up becoming a very insightful and independent young adult, whose opinions aren’t only those of her parents (like Leah who will believe anything their father says). Adah’s physical exception allows her to become more exceptional in school and she now has a clearer perspective of the Congo.
So readers, be forewarned when using the term exceptional. Even supposedly righteous causes like missionary work can be exceptional in a negative way from the perspective of the people being forced to convert. Don’t be too discouraged, sometimes we come across truly exceptional people like Adah who defy norms and overcome their physical ailments.