"You know," I said to a classmate one day, "I flunked Kindergarten." My classmate laughed, thinking I was joking. I assured her I was not. Flabbergasted, she responded with disbelief, "How can that be?!"
Why was my classmate so shocked? A label. You see, by that point in my life, I'd been labeled "gifted." This is how she knew me, and the only way she knew me. How could a gifted kid fail Kindergarten? To her it just didn't compute.
She wasn't alone...it was something I had a hard time parsing through myself. There was a duality in me that was difficult to process. It often seemed like I had lived two lives, and I struggled to reconcile the two.
When I was ten, I had left behind everything I’d ever known – my mother, my brother, my school, my friends, and even most of my belongings. I was disoriented, without any ties, or anything familiar. I began to feel as if my past just didn’t exist, as if it was simply a dream that I’d awoken from.
It got easy to live that way. When the bullying began, it made it even easier. It was easier to believe that the kind world I’d come from just didn’t exist – because if it did, why would I ever live like this?
And of course, in such an environment, it became all too important to suppress the difficulties in my past. It was a matter of survival not to give the bullies any further ammunition to use against me. So, I learned not to talk about it.
My new school made it even easier to avoid, by labeling me gifted. Now I had a new identity, one that set me apart, but in a positive way. Of course, I now dealt with new preconceptions.
The differences that had once been used as reasons to hold me back, now had new meanings. To my teachers, difficulties interacting with my peers were no longer labeled “emotional immaturity,” but were evidence of my giftedness. To my peers, they were evidence of arrogance.
Every now and again, I’d lose patience with such assumptions. When that happened, I’d throw out something like I did that day with my classmate. An attempt to shock or confuse – to challenge their preconceptions of my reality. To play with expectations.
Then, when I was heading into high school, I made the choice to move back with my mother. I’d missed her, and my home. I wanted to reconnect with my past. Although I looked forward to being back in the only community that had ever felt truly like home, I now found myself dealing with an intense fear.
They would know.
They would know about the meltdowns that had left me hiding, screaming, under tables. They’d know about the social mistakes that still had the power to make cringe in agony and embarrassment. They’d know about the strange behaviors that had led my appalled teacher call for an investigation. They’d know all the things I couldn’t talk about.
They would judge.
They would reject me.
When I finally found myself sitting in a schoolroom, surrounded by familiar faces, I was assaulted with a mix of powerful emotions. I felt excited, hopeful. Maybe they’d remember me! At the same time I was fearful, anxious, and afraid. Maybe they’d remember me.
As I sat in an early class, I saw a group of girls who had gone to the same day care program that I had, clustered around one girl’s desk. I sat quietly wondering if they’d know me. But I tried to be invisible.
I knew my efforts were thwarted when I saw one of the girls break away, and walk in my direction. Squatting down next to my desk to meet my downcast eyes, she said, “Hi! Do you remember me?” She reminded me of our shared history, and asked me if I wanted to join their group for lunch. Slightly stunned, but grateful, I accepted eagerly.
But as the time clocked by, doubts began to grow. Maybe she was just being nice. Maybe it was a trick. Did they really want to have lunch with me? By the time the break came, I my stomach was quivering with anxiety.
When I joined them in a sunny spot on the grassy quad it felt like I had never left. They asked me questions, talked to me. I was happy, but also afraid. Was it just a matter of time? My conversation lagged as I weighed every word, terrified to let on how awkward I really was.
With my anxiety fighting me every step of the way, it was difficult to keep up the conversation. I stumbled and fumbled for cues. And every time I felt that I’d hit the mark, another person would stop by and I’d lose it. A parade of faces new and old.
As I watched them come and go, I made a realization. I was sitting with the popular kids! How could that be? Kids like that didn’t like kids like me. How did I wind up here? My anxiety ramped up yet another notch.
It was getting loud now, and unable to follow the rhythm of the conversations, I found myself just falling into silence. Speaking only when spoken to. A cute boy sat next to me, and they introduced me to him. A jock from the polo team.
He’d just had a birthday, and he was excitedly talking about his new prize possession: a brand new BMW. His parents had given it to him for a present. Now I was really nervous – I couldn’t imagine anyone ever giving me a car. Certainly not a luxury car. What would my lunchmates say if they knew that I’d worked the better part of the summer just to buy a secondhand Schwinn?
In the old days, it had never mattered. I never thought about economic differences. In fact, I had a hard time even conceptualizing such a difference. I’d struggled just to learn the concept of what constituted “a lot of money.” It seemed everybody had a different definition of what, exactly, that meant.
But in the interim, I’d had experiences with people for whom economic differences mattered deeply. In fact, they were often seen as the most important aspects of a person. So, now I looked at it differently. I was suddenly very afraid to be where I was.
I tried to fight the feeling – but eventually it got the better of me. One day, I just didn’t go. I didn’t tell them why. I didn’t know how. I just didn’t go.
I told myself it was better for all of us. I told myself that their response to my absence, viewed from a distant quiet corner of the quad, was relief. But now, I’m not so sure.
In the years since, I’ve had ample chance to observe people. From that, I’ve learned something. People are usually consistent. Kind people are consistently kind and mean people are consistently mean.
These were the girls who sought me out as an awkward young girl. Who taught me songs and clapping games. Who showed me how to trade in the capital of the schoolyard: stickers and trading cards. Who taught me how to value them, and to tell a bad trade from a good one. And who sat next to me, to whisper warnings in my ear, when someone tried to take advantage.
They didn’t need to put a fancy name on my differences to see that I needed understanding, help, and support. They just saw a need, and reached out to fill it. These early experiences are at the root of my faith in the possibility of true inclusion.
There was no reason for me to believe that they had changed so drastically – except for the labels that I had applied to them. That is the problem with labels. If you’re not careful, they can redirect your attention to traits that aren’t really relevant. And they can hide from you that which is most meaningful.
What my experiences have taught me about labels boils down to one simple truth: People are multi-dimensional. Labels are not.