73: The Weight of Labels

73: The Weight of Labels

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

The Weight of Labels

Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people.

~Martina Navratilova

By the time he was ten years old, Sean carried the heavy, invisible weight of multiple negative labels on his small shoulders. Over the past four years, he had been described as impossible, difficult, disobedient, rude, unmotivated, and uncooperative. No one knew what to do with him because he didn’t do his work in class and was a “constant disruption.” Some teachers privately predicted that Sean would end up dropping out of school and going to jail. Such is the cynicism that sometimes threatens to replace the idealism that most teachers bring to their vocations.

And so, day after day over the years, Sean was sent to me because I had a tiny room with only small groups for reading instruction. Sean wasn’t allowed to participate because, in theory, being banished from his classroom was intended to be a punishment. That was the intention, but not the reality. Over the years, my little room became a kind of refuge for him. Even though he was expected to sit quietly, it was obvious to me that he was glad to get out of the classrooms where he seemed to be stuck in a rut of bad behavior.

In my reading groups, I usually read a picture book to the students several times a week, and then a reading or writing lesson was created. While I presented my lessons, Sean wiggled around in his chair, chewing on his fingernails and occasionally looking up at the illustrations if I happened to turn my book his way. I assumed that he wasn’t interested in the stories because I had chosen those books for my younger students.

I was wrong.

One day, I finished reading a magnificently illustrated picture book, Heckedy Peg, by Audrey Wood with pictures by Don Wood. It tells the story of a very strong mother whose children are captured by a witch, Heckedy Peg. The clever mother is able to outwit Heckedy Peg and rescue her children. When I finished reading and slowly closed the book, there was a sweet and thoughtful silence as the children digested the story. Then I heard Sean’s voice from the back of the room. “Not a good ending. Really not good. I could have done better.”

I spun around to look at him. He had never spoken out during one of my classes before. I had been told to ignore him, and until that moment, I had pretended he wasn’t there.

“Really?” I asked. “You’re disappointed in the ending?”

“I like all of the other books you’ve read.” And then, to my great surprise, he began to list books I had read to my groups, providing a commentary about many of them. I sensed that this was a moment I needed to seize, and so I asked him to join me for lunch. While we ate our sandwiches, he continued to discuss the ending, and I had a crazy idea. I told him that if he would write down his suggested ending in a letter to Audrey and Don Wood, I would try to find an address for them and mail it. The next morning, he arrived in my room and proudly produced the letter. I found a possible address, used our school’s return address, put on a stamp, and dropped it in the mail.

That happened in May. In August, I returned to school and pulled a mountain of mail from my mailbox. Nestled among the catalogs and educational flyers was a letter with the return address of Audrey Wood — but it wasn’t addressed to me. Even though I was extremely curious about what she might have said, I knew the pleasure of opening that envelope was not intended for me. I tucked it away until the first day of school, and when the day came, I found Sean’s classroom and asked his teacher if I could interrupt for a minute. Sean had a letter from a famous author. Sean walked slowly to the front of the classroom and took it from me.

“Why didn’t you open it?” he asked.

“It isn’t addressed to me,” I replied with a conspiratorial smile.

The teacher, who knew Sean’s reputation, looked surprised, but then asked if he would like to open it. Sean tore it open and then nervously passed it to me to read. My heart soared as I read aloud the carefully written words that described how pleased the author was to receive his letter and that she liked his suggestions about a different ending for her book. She hoped he would continue to be a creative thinker… and from one author to another, she was grateful for his ideas.

I slipped the letter back in the envelope and smiled at the stunned expression on Sean’s face. I’m sure it was the first compliment he had ever received about his writing. The students sat in hushed awe, and then his teacher asked for a high-five. That was a life-changing moment. Over the following months, little by little, all those negative labels began to slip away. He wasn’t sent to my room anymore, but we met for lunch occasionally. He shared stories he was writing. I noticed he had stopped chewing his nails.

When Audrey Wood came to Colorado for a book signing, I was able to chat with her and thank her, not only for her beautiful books, but also for changing the life of a young boy who needed to find his true voice and know that someone cared what he had to say. Her letter to him lifted the weight of all those labels and gave him new possibilities.

~Caroline S. McKinney

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