erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

High schools are full of labels. You remember them. If you’re like me, you either put them on yourself or let others put them on for you. There’s the nerd or geek, a label actually becoming quite trendy today. There are the jocks, the ones too big for those little desks, and the cheerleaders, desperate to catch the eyes of the jocks. There are the popular kids, wearing the Jordans to match their shirts, the class clowns, the smokers, and the kids with special needs.

Even teachers use them. We’ll label kids as ESL or 504. Some are enrolled in AVID and others have behavior disorders. Labels are placed on kids like titles on books, but there’s so much more to us than labels, more to our stories than even the labels we give ourselves.

My 7th period class could have all kinds of labels. They’re sweet because they genuinely care about each other, like Ciana noticing Julie’s scarf. They’re curious, always full of questions. They’re the kind of class gifted at getting me off topic, which I’m sure is never really their intention, right? They can be loud, incredibly bright, even spiritual, but on a few occasions, the one label that rises above all the others is “different”. And when I say “different”, I mean very unusual.

Let me clarify. There was this idea I couldn’t wait to try. I pulled out our old “Perfection” game. Remember that game where the timer is ticking, and the person fitting the shapes into the slots has a minute before everything explodes? It’s a great game. Anyway, I asked for volunteers to try, and one by one, kids came to the front and gave it their best shot. The point was that working with limited time is hard, and practice makes perfect, just like with standardized tests.

Genius right? I thought so, but apparently Jennifer wasn’t impressed. Kids were lining up for “Perfection”, and she came up to ask, “Mr. Ahnfeldt, could I borrow some sticky notes?” It was an innocent question. After all, some kids like to use sticky notes as bookmarks, or even—wonder of wonders—to annotate some pages. Sticky notes have lots of great purposes, but Jennifer didn’t have any of those in mind.

A few minutes later, in the middle of the Perfection clock ticking away the seconds, I watched her walk slowly to the front of the room and stick a yellow note on the stripes of my American flag. I glanced at what she wrote; it said “flag”. “Oh boy,” I thought, “Here it comes.” Do you see what I mean? Different, right? I wondered how far this would go and initiated my first bold teacher tactic; I ignored them.

“Who’s next?” I asked. Cameron came up to give Perfection a shot, but as he came, I watched Jennifer and Kevin follow behind, sticking yellow labels on my fake ficus tree and my desk. You can guess what they said—“Desk” and “Tree”. I smiled and watched them walk back, sly grins growing on their faces.

“What are you guys doing?” The back of the room answered with a fit of laughter. “Okay, Cameron, are you ready?” I asked. Cameron hunched over the game ready to break Natalie’s record. “Go!” I started the timer, and Cameron went to work. Then Isaac walked up, acting like what he was doing was the most natural thing in the world, and put a yellow note on the mounted projector. I checked it. Yep, it said “Projector.” They were labeling everything in the class, and by the time they were done, the walls, the podium, the screen, the clock, and even most of the desks were labeled with sticky notes.

Their faces were priceless. They’re honors kids; many of them have straight A’s, they’ve done well on essays and reached goals in sports, but I’ve never seen their faces beaming with more pride than when they finished with their labels. “Different” to say the least, but they felt accomplished. “Ha ha, you guys are funny,” I shouted, half-sarcastically. Then I saw a yellow note on Will. Julie and Sadie had them too.

The students put labels on each other, and they all said the same thing—“Loved human.” The bell rang, and all the giggling pranksters walked out the door, leaving their labels behind. I stood there, after all the laughing, after all the conversation, the ticking timer, and the moving, screeching desks. In the quiet, the little prank moved from being something silly in my head to something profound.

Life throws all kinds of labels at us, some we wear with pride and others carry shame. If you were to look at my yellow stickies, you’d see the one I often put on myself that says “too old”, you’d see “OCD” as I check the lock on the classroom door one more time, and you might even see one I try to hide that says “scared”.

Others might be a little more positive. There’s always the “teacher” label I wear with my District 11 ID and the “nice guy” one I try to wear most days. The problem is those labels change, and they never tell the whole story.

That prank was months ago. One by one, the yellow notes lost their stickiness and fell to the floor, all except the “screen” label, still holding on like a champ. The truth is that’s what labels do. They eventually lose their stickiness, but we have to let them go. All of them, that is, except for maybe “loved human”.

Looking at all those labels scattered across the room, I laughed to myself, but I also felt tired. I’m tired of the labels that stick to my heart and the ones I stick on others. They’re heavy and hold us back, but there’s freedom in that “loved human” label. Clinging to that one makes all the others lose their stickiness. That label gives people the courage to keep going, and as I watch my students struggle to find themselves in a broken world, that reminder from a 7th period prank couldn’t have come at a better time.