I once taught an amazing girl in fifth grade named Brittany Finch. Sadly, she had received a bad reputation. Her last two teachers made a point to warn me about her; her school counselor warned me as well. I was told that she was uncontrollable, had a history of suspensions, had no respect for authority, and would make this year of teaching pure hell. I was astonished by what the teachers told me. I’m kind of a stubborn person so maybe that’s why I wouldn’t buy into what I heard. But as I listened to their reports, I couldn’t help but think, “Give me a break! This girl is ten! I think the problem here is the label, not this girl!” Feeling strongly on the matter—or maybe just a determination to prove them wrong—I refused to let the label of that student mold in my mind. After all, I had heard these kinds of warnings before about previous students but had deliberately and consciously disregarded the negative comments made by others. I had decided before I even started teaching that I would not engage or listen to negative talk about my students. I wanted to give them a fair chance and learn about each of them myself without any preconceived notions. It was a hard task not to allow the comments I heard get to me. But having never met the students, I was determined to give them a fresh start and prove—oftentimes mostly to them—that they had been branded incorrectly. It’s something I know all who are labeled desperately need.
As a teacher, on the first day of school, I did something that usually took the kids by surprise. After I had seated the class, I would go around the room and greet each student by name and personally welcome them to my class. I’d take the time to talk to each of them a little bit. I promised the class that it would be one of their best years with a unified effort from both students and teacher.
Well, the year of Brittany Finch, I thought deeply about how to go about this challenge. I decided to place her in the center of the second row—not the first row because then she would feel labeled as a trouble maker and not the back row because then she would feel she wasn’t even revered. In addition to positioning her on the second row, I placed Brittany next to a special education girl, Dani, who read on the first-grade level. Dani wasn’t an inclusion student and would only be in our class for homeroom and art. But she was with us all day on the first day of school. I felt that the one thing that would help Brittany the most would be for her to lose herself in service to others—to feel needed and valued.
On the first day of school, Brittany strolled in very tardy. She had a smirk on her face and challenge in her eyes as if she expected to be chastised for her lateness, but I did not respond to it. Instead I greeted her in a friendly, welcoming way and showed her to her seat. I told her how very glad I was to meet her and that she was in my class. Brittany looked at me coldly and suspiciously. Ignoring her reaction, I explained that we were going through our new textbooks to see if there was any writing in them and then recording the damage on a piece of paper.
Brittany got through very quickly, as I suspected she would. (I knew most “trouble makers” are very bright and capable people—possessing merely a knot in their hearts and not in their minds.) I complimented her on her efficiency and then asked if she could please help Dani, who obviously was struggling and needed help. Brittany reluctantly and begrudgedly consented. I suspected it was just an act and that silently Brittany was amazed to be used, considering her label. It was not long until Brittany was engrossed in serving Dani who really needed help. Taking note of Brittany’s efforts, I took the opportunity to praise and commend her meticulous and helpful behavior.
That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship between Brittany and me. There were more challenges that Brittany put before me to see if I was really genuine but it wasn’t long until I had miraculously won her over and Brittany began to shine. Brittany would even stay in for recess just to talk to me. She worked hard on all of her assignments and proved to be an outstanding student. She often told me that she never behaved well for any other teacher because she felt that none of them really cared about her. She said they always yelled and told her she was only headed for trouble. She began to believe it and acted accordingly. Brittany was in need of assurance, security, and love. I tried my hardest to plant seeds of love in Brittany.
When I went on maternity leave later that year, Brittany called me almost every week, sometimes twice a week because she was struggling with school and the substitute teacher. Two and a half months later, on my first day back after maternity leave, Brittany ran into the room, gave me a big hug, and with tears in her eyes said, “Mrs. Hartline, you’re here! I thought you would never come back!” When the year ended, Brittany wrote me one of the most beautiful tributes, thanking me for loving her and giving her a chance.
Brittany was an example of someone who was in real need of a release of label. She needed to be warmed and loved and cared for like all people. She had been warned and chastised her whole life. What she needed was someone who saw past her angry words and behavior and who looked into her heart, recognizing beauty and potential and godhood.
…The point here is that, Folks, labels hurt. We need to remember that our view on others is limited.
Further, it’s not Christian to negatively label. Christ does not put us in boxes and tell us to stay put. No! Christ teaches us there is a better way, a higher way, that none of us are dropped or forgotten by Him. None of us are labeled as “no good”, “less than”, or “past rescue”! No, not one.
I am going to work a little harder on examining myself and release the harmful labels I find I might have on others. By doing so, experience has taught me that I can then better help others live up to their full potential, lifting their eyes and their hearts to God. Will you join me?