Feel Like a Number

I'm sitting in a local book store fleshing out the outline for a book I'm working on, and am finding myself a bit distracted by a conversation between two unrelated parents at a nearby table. They're talking about their kids, which is awesome; many parents barely think about their kids, let alone talk about them. And they are talking about how well their children are doing, with obvious joy and pride. I appreciate that; I love my kids, too, and I love to talk about how amazing they are.

But they are also using a lot of labels and numbers to describe their children's accomplishments. It's almost like watching an episode of "Point/Counterpoint" as the hosts attempt to one-up each other with enticing anecdotes about their children and how successful they are. They are talking about GPAs, and swimming records, and areas in which their children are both "succeeding" and "failing." I'm imagining that one or both of them have those little "My Child is an Honor Student" stickers on their car, which always make me wonder what happens in that house when the child has a bad semester and doesn't make the honor roll after being labeled an "Honor Student."
It's an interesting conversation, to say the least - and it has me thinking about labels and numbers and the various ways in which we define our children.

Several years ago, I dropped out of Corporate America for a year and taught at an inner city charter school for at-risk teens in Sacramento, CA. Regardless of your feelings and beliefs about the inadequacy of our American education system, and there are truly major inadequacies on several levels, there is something very inspiring about teaching in such environments. All of the kids in our school had been kicked out of the local school system, for some reason or another. Several of our kids were homeless; others came from homes with serious substance abuse issues or were addicts themselves. Some of our kids came to us straight from the juvenile court system, while many others would leave us to enter that system for the second or third time. Virtually all of our students were the victims of some combination of emotional, sexual, and physical abuse. One of our kids was convicted of murder, and one committed suicide. It was life in the trenches. One of my fellow teachers referred to it as "feral education", which seemed appropriate at the time. The challenges these kids faced were more important than long division and ABCs, though many of our students could not read and those who could often struggled to comprehend the meaning of what they read. The challenges these kids faced were simple, fundamental, and heart-breaking: food, shelter, and safety came first, with confidence, acceptance, trust, and faith close behind.

When I worked with these kids one on one, free from their parents and peers and pressures that they fought against daily, I often saw the sheer want in their eyes. They wanted to be more; they wanted to know more, to be better, and to escape from the Hells that were in. But over years of neglect and abuse, they had lost their faith in their ability to do so. Making matters worse, the very people to whom children should be able to turn to for support and guidance had reduced the spirit of the child to a statistic used to validate their worth. At best, these children were reduced to adjectives: difficult, challenging, lazy, stupid, troubled, homeless, addicted, worthless, retarded, ignorant, or ugly. At worst, they were treated like a number. Their parents treated them like cost or a tax deduction. Their schools treated them like a cost, an attendance record, or a GPA. The social services system treated them like a statistic to quantify in order to approve a housing allowance or food stamp allotment. Their entire lives, be it 12 or 20 years, had been reduced to labels and numbers. And the more that adults reduced these amazing children to adjectives and statistics, the more the children began to lose their sense of independence and self-worth.

Each time we accepted a new class, I had the privilege of leading them through a brief orientation session. In the session, we were supposed to cover the basics of how our program worked: student expectations, the grading system, success criteria - the basic "welcome to the world of measurement" stuff. But I simply could not shake the feeling that these kids needed more than just another option to get a diploma; they needed a fresh start in life, someone to believe in them and tell them that it was okay to want to do well and have dreams. So after a few weeks, I changed the orientation a bit and added a simple exercise to the beginning.

We talked about dreams first; what theirs were, what mine were, and whether or not they seemed achievable to us. Every student - every single one - had dreams, ranging from the simple ("I'd like to get a job so I can move out") to the awe-inspiring ("I want to be in charge of the UN".) But while each child had dreams, they all felt that their dreams were unattainable. When I asked why, and poked and prodded an answer from them, they would uniformly come back to some sort of number or label. "Well, I can't do that because I'm stupid", they'd say, or "That won't work because my GPA is too low." We would then talk openly about labels and numbers, about what labels had been applied to them and how they felt about it. These sessions were always filled with anger, fear, tears, and plenty of defensiveness or deflecting behavior, because the topic was just too painful for most of them to broach.

I then told them about a real-world person with the following history: the person was a drug dealer and addict in high school, was suspended a number of times, failed to graduate with their class, and eventually escaped with a 1.7 GPA and 75+ detentions. When they finally finished high school, they did no better for 6 or 7 years, hopping from state to state and holding (or losing) more than 70 jobs, losing hope at each step along the way. By the age of 24, they were broke, unemployed, and living on their Dad's couch hoping that he would give them $20 so they could buy a dime bag or a case of beer. I then asked the students if they thought that this person was capable of being successful in the pursuit of their dream of being able to positively influence the lives of young people.

Predictably, they laughed, hooted, and hollered, and said "No fucking way."

And then I told them that the person in the story was me. Knowing I had dreams, but unable to fulfill them. Knowing that I had worth, but losing my faith in that with each failure. Knowing I had potential, but no idea on how to break the cycle which had, by then, defined me with labels and numbers: 70 jobs, 1.7 GPA, broke, loser, fat, stupid, wasted potential. And here I was, not too long after, fulfilling my dream of having a positive influence on the lives of young people.
That caught their attention. We talked about the fact that based on their current numbers and labels, society would tell them that they were not a success and were incapable of becoming a success. They could, as many people have done, let those numbers and labels define them and control the rest of their lives. But they could also accept responsibility for their mistakes, assign some blame to others for their mistakes and potentially forgive, and then let themselves off the hook and strive to create a new story of their lives that they would be proud to tell forever.
Many of our kids were able to do just that.

While derogatory labels and numbers can be held at bay with a lot of work and a lot of help, they can drag on your soul for the rest of your life. I'm not sure that the labels from our youth - "lazy", "stupid", "good for nothing" - can ever be truly overcome so much as merely locked away, compartmentalized for the sake of our sanity. When things get difficult and we're under stress, those old labels can come back to haunt us and pass themselves off as our new reality, requiring us to attempt to conquer them yet again. As the years pass and our successes, however we define them, become more lasting, we may need to revisit these less and less. But I don't think they ever truly go away.

Labels and numbers, like schemas, help us make sense of the complexities inherent in our world. We use them in virtually all aspects of our lives. Whether the numbers and labels are "good" or "bad", they can be helpful and convenient when used to describe inanimate objects or concepts. I enjoy reading a movie review before I see it so I don't waste my money on a movie with only two stars as opposed to five. I sure do appreciate health inspector scores for restaurants, and I would rather go to an "honest" car dealership than to a dealership that is "crooked."

But even when the labels and numbers are assumed to be positive, we still run the risk of using a number to objectify the real true spirit behind a person and their actions. Parents in particular seem conditioned to talk about their children in terms of labels and numbers: "Mary has a 4.0 GPA and is the captain of the gymnastics team. She volunteers at the hospice every weekend, and is a black belt in Karate. She is just so creative and driven!" Now, there is nothing wrong with captaining the gymnastics team or having a 4.0 GPA, and there is nothing wrong with being creative and driven. There is nothing wrong with feeling joy at what your children choose to do and how they do it. And of course, we like to talk about our children - what they're doing, what they're interested in, etc.

The challenge comes when we use these labels about what they do and how they do it - 4.0, captain, black belt, creative, driven - as proxies for who they are. It seems like many parents are more concerned with the performances of their children than with the enjoyments and passions of their children, as though somehow being cool and having fun just isn't good enough to measure up. I think that in many cases, we use the achievements of our children, their numbers and labels, as a way of competing against other parents to see who has developed the best child. And as the children themselves become accustomed to hearing these labels and being defined by quantifiable measures of their performance, they run the risk of having success and failure defined for them, with a set of standard measurements that need to be attained. How can that do anything other than stifle their individualism and creativity? Just like children who were molded by negative numbers and labels, the more that adults reduced these amazing children to adjectives and statistics, positive though they may be, the more the children began to lose their sense of independence and self-worth.

Children are not objects to be measured and evaluated, restricted and molded by our own need to ensure that they are achieving on our terms. They are individuals, with distinct spirits and personalities and preferences which, more often than not, defy description at every turn. Free of numbers and labels, they can set their own paths for us to support and enjoy.


  1. Oops. I meant to post this comment here, not on your Facebook page.

    I saw a quote by Søren Kierkegaard just a few days ago that resonated with me - "Once you label me you negate me." I think that this is *especially* true with children.

  2. .. another fabulous post .. I so enjoy both your content and your writing style

  3. This is just a wonderful piece. Thanks.

  4. As someone who was identified by the labels applied by parents and teachers early, it has affected my whole life. I strive everyday to let my children be and stay away from the "keep up with the Jones'" mentality when parents talk about their kids. As a unschooler (mostly) my kids go at their own pace and certainly it has been a great training ground for me - I can't talk about what Little Johnny is doing in school, how well he is doing, what marks he got etc. (And in fact the kids don't even know that the district we homeschool with sends out report cards) And I appreciate that fact all the time....It's amazing how often you hear what you describe in your post. I guess it's not enough to say "My kid doesn't stop all day - he is playing, riding his bike, building obstacle courses, jumping on the trampoline, shooting his nerf gun (gasp!) building lego, playing blokus, playing arcade games, picking strawberries, making jam, swimming in the pond, trading pokemon cards, making up games, catching ants......"

  5. Since I'm not from North America (or even America) it took me ages to work out what on earth a GPA might be. Sounded a bit like a CPA (certified practising accountant).
    J in Aus

  6. Man! I love this post. I have read it twice and each time my mind wanders off in a different direction. Thought provoking, speaks volumes of truth, and pretty somber. Damn awesome post!

  7. Your post reminds me of what my Dad used to say to me when I was little. He was saddened by children who were labelled "slow" or "stupid" or "behind". He said once you give a child a negative label, they will do their best to prove you right.

  8. This is so true, sadly. I know so many people my age (high schoolers) who feel they have to live up to their label, whether it's valedictorian or barely graduated, mainstream or goth. It's makes me really upset that they can't (won't?) define themselves by what they care about and enjoy, but instead try to be what others want them to be. I think well-meaning adults really are to blame - I can definitely sense that my parents and grandparents are a bit disappointed that I never had a 4.0 and that I don't want to go to college. They still have a lot to brag to their friends about, but I'm much harder to compare to others my age.

    Like always, great post.

  9. Just found your blog and love it!
    Thank you for this post. I loved reading about your experience with your students. Amazing, the power of labels, chains stronger than iron for many.