Labels

During our Monday School Meetings, we invite a faculty member to give a brief talk to our community about a topic that is important to them.  This past Monday, Melissa Schomers, English Faculty, gave a talk where she expanded on the concept that humans are meaning-making machines.  I was moved by her words and wanted to share them with you.

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What are you wearing?

No, I’m not talking to those of you out of dress code.

Seriously, what are you wearing?  Are you wearing J. Crew?  Hunter?  Perhaps you are wearing Gap or Ralph Lauren.  There are innumerous labels in the world, and we are all wearing them.

I, myself, wear many labels: Christian, coach, teacher, student, musician, artist, athlete, rower, gay, sister, daughter, friend.  These are just some of my labels.

We compare labels.  We see who is wearing what, or not wearing what, and we sometimes judge them accordingly.  At times, we can’t help it; snap decisions enter our minds when we aren’t fully conscious of our thoughts.  These labels are often singled out, focused on, and used to create the narrative of who we are.  

In one of my favorite speeches, Chimamanda Adichie remarks on the danger of a single story, saying, “the single story creates stereotypes.  And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story.”  We see static character tropes in novels and movies: the sinister villain, the charming hero, the damsel in distress, the four frenemies in Mean Girls.  We catalogue these characters when we sort through our own friend groups: the studious one, the fun one, the smart one.  Humans are, by their very nature, meaning making machines; we are storytellers, compelled by narratives.  We crave sense.  We love to categorize, compartmentalize and label.  Unfortunately, labels are just like stereotypes.  They fill our minds with narratives restricted to a single aspect of who we are and this becomes our whole story.  

Take into consideration my own labels.  

My life as a rower began when I was a senior in college.  I walked on to the team at Iowa because they didn’t say no, didn’t make cuts, and never asked me to leave.  I stayed because I fell in love with the sport.  I trained and competed with the team, spent twenty hours a week on the erg or the water learning how to be an athlete.  You see, I had never been an athlete before.  My high school didn’t require athletics, and I had chosen for years not to compete.  Many of you can probably relate to getting “hooked” by a sport.  Well, I did too.  After graduation, I began coaching because I was still in love with the sport; I wasn’t quite ready to leave it.  I have been deeply involved in the sport for ten years, does this make me an athlete?

I began playing the violin at age nine because my mother and brother played violin.  If you wanted to play an instrument in our house, you played the violin.  I loved being a musician.  I played the violin until high school, switched to viola and played that through college.  Sometime around middle school, I began teaching myself how to play the guitar, and I still enjoy playing guitar today.  I have performed in orchestras, ensembles, even rock bands, and now I play with friends and family.  I have dedicated twenty-one years of my life to music, does this make me a musician?

I began preschool at age four and since then have never really left schools.  In my earliest memories, I was a reader, always a reader, and a writer, a thinker, a lover of language.  Talk to the students in my classes, they’ll tell you–I love language.  I ponder language.  I wrestle with texts at a granular level because I think it is fun.  For instance:

What, precisely, is rotten in the state of Denmark?

Why is Madam the only word not translated from French to English in Madam Bovary?

When we clear away dust, we’re dusting, but when we clean up a spill, why don’t we call it spilling?

I have pursued my love of language through undergraduate and graduate school only to find myself back in high school.  I may be a teacher now, but I can tell my students the same thing I tell my rowers: it’s a different side, but it’s not a different sport.  Twenty-six years in classrooms, does this make me a student?

The truth is that I am all of these things.  When I am coaching, I am a coach.  When I am teaching, I am a teacher.  My identity neither begins nor ends with one label, and yet, isn’t that how we often use labels?  Remember that we love meaning.  As humans, we love to categorize what is from what is not.  One of my favorite things about teenagers is that you exist in the depth of your own self-referential ideas: you are constantly thinking about yourself in relation to both yourself and others.  In the midst of the teenager’s grand existential crisis, you are pondering how and where you fit in, and often, how and where you don’t.  

It can be scary, but it is also a very exciting time in your life.  You are basking in your own uniqueness–both struck by and stuck by your labels.

When we meet new people our instinct is to find common ground, to determine how we are similar, what labels do we share?  Do you have Bieber fever?  OMG, me too!  Do you love dining hall cookies?  OMG, me too!  We use our similarities to create the ties that bind us together in a moment or across a lifetime; however, we often use our dissimilarities to demarcate, divide and distance ourselves from others.

Christian, coach, teacher, student, musician, artist, athlete, rower, gay, sister, daughter, friend.  These are the labels I’m wearing–the labels I carry with me wherever I go.  To some of you, I may be just a teacher, a dorm parent, or a coach.  You may only see a single story.  Therein, lies the problem with labels.  When we allow a single label to craft our story of others, we are distancing ourselves from a greater depth of understanding, empathy and love.  We are forgetting that we are, in fact, all human.

As I consider the labels I carry, these external identities which have been created and crafted, I am also struck by and stuck by their definitions.  You see, these are not always the labels I wish to carry.  Certainly, I enjoy being an athlete, a musician, a teacher, but these are not the things I want you to see when you meet me, when we interact, or when you reflect on my presence in your life–be it for the few minutes during this speech or over the years to come.  

In 2012, I moved to a boarding school.  Unlike my arrival at The Gunnery, I didn’t have a truckload of furniture and boxes.  I arrived in my car, with a few boxes of clothing and an air mattress.  Needless to say, it didn’t take all that long for me to move in and get settled.  After unpacking, I got in my car and was heading off campus when I drove by a couple, also new teachers that year, unpacking their POD and getting situated.  I remember thinking to myself that I should stop and help them unload.  I was, after all, already in my workout clothes, had just finished unloading my own vehicle, and they looked like they could use a hand.  I remember debating it, knowing that if I just kept driving they would never have been the wiser–they wouldn’t have known that I’d almost stopped.  After wrestling with the gut feeling that I should stop, sitting with my own indecision, I did stop, and I helped them unload and unpack.  We became great friends on that day and have remained so ever since.  

In that moment, I wasn’t an athlete, a musician, or even a teacher.  I was just me.  I wasn’t thinking about their labels or my own, debating whether or not we would find common ground.  To be honest, I wasn’t thinking about much in particular, beyond the idea that they needed help moving furniture and I could provide an extra set of hands.  But as I reflect on that story and consider how it has shaped my perception of myself, it represents those labels I intentionally try to wear every day.  

I am not always successful, which is why I say try, but I do try to put on understanding, acceptance, patience, compassion, generosity, kindness, and love.  These are the labels I hope that I wear all the time and in all that I do–the “Things I Carry” if you feel like getting literary again.

Be conscious of the labels you ascribe to others and intentional with the labels you chose to carry.  Remembering that labels create connection and that they also create division, but in the end, we are all human and that shared humanity is our greatest label.