I’ve gotta tell you; I don’t like labels.
When I was a kid, adults all around me thought I was smart. They told me often how smart I was, how easily I picked up on things, how I could read at a grade level much higher than the one I was in. They told me I was special.
My second teacher, Miss Blank (who was perfect in every way)* nominated me for the “talented and gifted program.” And I joined a small group of kids from across grade levels to have a more “enriching” educational experience.
And that set off the creation of beliefs and stories about who I was that I struggled with for years.
You see, because other people were praising me all the time for being intelligent and somehow better than the other kids, I tended to believe them.
My critical thinking skills hadn’t yet kicked in at the age of seven.
And for a long time, I held onto that belief. Much of what came my way in my early schooling wasn’t that challenging. I could put the minimum effort in and get straight E’s (for excellent) on my report card.
High school was a different story. Primarily the advanced placement classes I took for college credit. That’s where the beliefs in my labels of “smart, gifted, special” met Miss Lathrop, my AP English teacher.
Miss Lathrop had high expectations of all of her students. If we were going to get college credit, she expected that we write at a college level, follow the APA format standards, show citations, and have proper grammar and spelling. None of which I knew how to do.
Up until this time, the Talented and Gifted Program was during regularly scheduled English classes. So I missed out on sentence diagramming, the basics of grammar, and how to do proper citations. I was off to the Museum of Science and Industry, learning about dinosaurs.
When I received my first assignment back from Miss Lathrop after her red pen massacre of it, I was devastated. There were so many corrections needed that I began to question everything I knew about myself.
I received an F on my first paper.
Filled with shame, I hid my grade from everyone I knew. I was smart; I should know how to do this stuff. It didn’t even cross my mind to ask for help.
My second paper fared as just as poorly. How could this be? I was SMART!!
And that’s my problem with labels, even positive ones. We live into them, and then it becomes a problem when we can no longer identify with that label.
We’re smart until we find a topic that challenges us; we’re beautiful until we age or talented until our bodies give out. And then…who are we?
On the flip side, we label ourselves with phrases like “I am angry, dumb, unlovable, incapable, old, etc.” We put labels on ourselves and live into them instead of expressing what’s really going on. We’re experiencing temporary situations.
We would never say, “I am broken arm.” Instead, we can say:
“I am feeling angry at this moment.”
“Oh, wow, I just did a dumb thing.”
“I don’t know how to do this yet.”
“I feel lonely tonight.”
Can you see how all of these statements include a sense of temporariness?
I ended up with a final grade of F in that semester of high school AP English. Miss Lathrop let me rewrite two of my papers so I could graduate. It was one of the most shame-filled experiences of my young life.
It took me many years to learn how to learn. And just because I wasn’t great at something right out of the gate didn’t mean I couldn’t do it. It only meant that I couldn’t do it yet.
What label are you putting on yourself that may be keeping you from expanding beyond your perceived boundaries of possibility?
*I probably shouldn’t have labeled her perfect, but she was in my seven-year-old brain.