The Labels We Carry

When I was a girl, I was a dancer. Even before I was big enough to take ballet, I was twirling in my sister’s hand-me-down tutus. Once I started taking classes, I continued with many forms of dance all the way through college, with only a few years off when I labeled myself a gymnast instead of a dancer.

I remember when I first let the “dancer” label form as a word in my head. I was probably around nine years old when my park district dance director decided that instead of participating in a regular recital, all of his classes would work together to create the ballet Coppelia. The pivotal moment happened during dress rehearsal, when I saw the cast list up on the wall. There were a few people in the cast who were not dancing at all, and their names were listed under the word ACTORS. And the rest of us, well, we were listed as DANCERS. Oh! I’m a dancer!

One high school summer, I split my time between scooping ice cream and taking classes in the “carte blanche” program of a studio that was well-known for their professional adult dance company. Each day, I took a bus to Evanston, dance bag on my arm, and took as many classes as I wanted. By this time, I already realized that I wasn’t all that good — I needed more time than some others to pick up a combination, and I wasn’t really physically built for dance. And I’d been passed over for some dance opportunities at my high school. Didn’t matter. That summer, I was taking classes nearly every day, and besides, when I was nine and in Coppelia, my name was listed under the word DANCER. I can still remember what it felt like to walk down the long hallway to class, while girls chatted their dance-chat as they changed their shoes. The label worked for me: I was a dancer.

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I’ve been thinking about the power of labels recently. We’ve learned to view them as troublesome when we talk about students, not wanting kids to be limited by what we say about them. And I agree with this; we need to be awfully cautious with our language when it comes to children! We are especially carefully when referring to students with disabilities, using person-first language such as “child with autism” rather than “the
autistic” (it is hard for me to even write that — it now feels so wrong!), making sure that we label someone first as a person, and then describe a disability. Disabilities aside, we can do a lot of damage when we carelessly slap negative labels on young people (ANY people): trouble-maker, bully, liar. A mentor of mine likes to remind, “We don’t define people by their worst acts.” These wise words apply to so many situations, and are especially powerful when we think about the twists and turns of the days, weeks, and years of childhood. Because a child has made trouble, is she a trouble-maker? Because he has lied, is he a liar? We can address the behaviors without labeling the person responsible for the action. You never know… he might make a completely different choice tomorrow! Let’s let him re-define himself.

However, giving students certain labels can be positive. I believe there is power in giving students labels that define something that they can do: Writer. Reader. Helper. Athlete. Dancer. Artist. Leader. And we do hear this in classrooms: “Writers, please share your work with your partner.” “Artists, it is time to rinse out our brushes.” Those labels are empowering because they cause children to see their “work” as important, and help them dream up futures built on their passions.

My college-daughter, Sophie, has been home for a few days for part of her Spring Break. This time together has had three focuses: shopping for her older sister Eliana’s wedding dress (We found one! It’s gorgeous!) and her own maid-of-honor dress (We found one! It’s gorgeous!); celebrating her 21st birthday a little early; and preparing for an upstairs carpet/paint job by virtually emptying out her childhood bedroom. This last activity brought many delights (that sounds sarcastic, but isn’t, I promise!), as her room was chock-full of buried treasure. First of all, it turns out that this girl who always felt she wasn’t a Writer was indeed a Journaler. She found at least seven different notebooks that recorded a vast array of events, some monumental, some mundane, all important. Although I love to write, I’ve never mastered the art of journaling, can’t seem to write just for myself, and I’m green with envy that my daughter now has this record of her own young thoughts and events. Her Bat Mitzvah DVD also turned up, and we watched together, listening to her little voice carefully reading and chanting, remembering her Bubbe, and laughing at who awkwardly danced together at the party. And then there was a lovely moment when sixteen year old sister Eliana stood in front of about 200 people and said, “I’m a musician, and like many musicians, I like to express myself through song.” Instead of giving a lengthy speech, Elli labeled herself a musician and sang a meaningful song to her sister. Confidence can bring labels, and labels can bring confidence.

A wedding and a new job will bring new labels for me in the year ahead: mother-in-law and superintendent. These labels will bring new experiences and new perspectives, and likely will layer over some of my older labels for a time. But they will still be there. Am I still a dancer? Any family member who has spent enough time hanging out in my kitchen will tell you, “Yes.” Thank you, Mom and Dad, for supporting those years of dance when you surely knew that I was not headed for the Joffrey. It made a difference.



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