LABELS: Why humans aren’t like jars of spice

If only people could be labelled and sorted so easily…

Before my son was born, when I was in a complete panic about whether THIS baby (after multiple miscarriages) would really survive, all the “labels” people gave him were so reasurring.  “Listen to that active little baby’s heart”, the midwives would say, as we heard the water encased sound of “womp-womp-womp” at the speed of a hummingbird’s wings.  “Wow he’s really a mover!” said the sonogram technician, as she tried to catch a picture of a little shadowy body, rolling and turning and eventually soothing himself by sucking on his own toe.  “He’s so impatient, he’s ready to face the world NOW!” was a nurse’s comment as my water broke unexpectedly a week before a scheduled C-section.  My son had turned breech and then forced himself so low in my uterus that a male technician, reading the pre-surgery sonogram started laughing and pointed out the only thing he could get to show on the image from below – two perfectly round circles.  “What IS that?” I said, alarmed.  “He’s sitting directly on your cervix,” said the tech, chuckling, “and we know it’s definitely a boy ‘cause there they are – the family jewels!”

But soon after his birth, there was a definite shift in vocabulary and how labels felt.  First, he was a “challenging feeder”.  He lost weight rapidly and we needed to supplement his feeding constantly.  Then his newborn whimper cries turned to outright sobbing at only 3 days old, still in the hospital.  Exhausted and terrified I called a nurse and said through tears, “I’ve fed him, changed him, burped him, and he screams and screams and won’t sleep!  What more is there?”  She calmly took him in her expert hands and began all the baby tricks – swinging from side to side, gently bouncing, walking, shushing, rocking, on and on it went while my impervious son screamed as if his life depended on it.  After a long time, she shook her head, gently returned him (still crying) to his bassinet and shook her head.  “I’m sorry,” she said, attempting to smile, “He, uh, well he just doesnt seem to work like a normal baby.”  

Crying as if his life depended on it 🙂

At that point the label “colic” became the extremely unhelpful answer to any questions I asked.  Why didn’t my son sleep more than 45 minutes at a time, and only while being vigorously rocked in a swing or walked in a wearable carrier?  Colic.  Why did he scream for 7 to 8 hours a day?  Colic.  Apparently many babies have this – haven’t we come up with a friendlier name by now?  I vote for offended-to-be-stuck-in-a-baby-body syndrome.  Or maybe, Ear Splitting Screamer Disorder?  Trying to talk to people over my screaming baby was always awkward, but if I could have shouted “Don’t worry, it’s just ESSD!” maybe I could have gotten a laugh or two?

Little did I know, labels much more challenging than colic would be coming our way soon.  If people were like jars of spice, we could label my son and put him in the cupboard.  But it seems that I should have learned by now that any label can never fully explain a human and who they truly are.

In 2007, 5 years before my son was born, I was teaching adult English classes at a Quaker Friends school in Ramallah, Palestine.  Having lived in Egypt previously, I had a basic understanding of Arabic – just enough for my students to have a wonderful time mocking my “fil tariq”  accent.  This means “of the street”, or as one of my students so lovingly said – “you sound like a taxi driver from Cairo!”  Remembering some of the taxis in Egypt – many literally held together with twine and spewing black fumes constantly – I knew this was not a compliment.  The Palestinian arabic is softer, sounding closer to Persian to my ears, and I definitely wished I could have learned it there first.  

Ramallah, Palestine

On the other hand, Palestine was a volatile place to visit, and to get to Ramallah from my East Jerusalem boarding house I had to go through military checkpoints and a massive barrier wall.  I had many heartfelt talks with my students about their hopes and dreams for someday being an independent nation.  The students were professionals in various fields like engineering, education, government, and hospitality.  They hoped to create a brighter future for their country by becoming fluent in English and engaging with the outside world.  Honestly, it was embarassing sometimes to be unable to answer their questions about past participles and present simple tense – they took it all so much more seriously than I did!

I tried to encourage open ended conversation practice with fill in the blank sentences like “My hero is ________ because he/she____________.”  This sentence led to a tense moment when one of the students loudly declared “My hero is Saddam Hussein because he was strong and never giving in to the enemy!”  Some students nodded, but others whispered fiercely to him (in Arabic) that this was a very rude thing to say to an American teacher.  The young man sat down with a mix of confusion and defiance on his face.  I looked at him, taking in his starchly ironed pants, button down shirt with gold stripes, and cloud of cologne that was redolent from a few desks away.  I decided to take the route of English teacher, and merely commented, “Ok, thank you for sharing, but remember to keep the tense of your verbs consistent.  It should be never GAVE in, not giving.  Who’s next?”

My students became more like friends as time went on.  One brother/sister team named Zaid and Amira invited me over for tea and showed me their wonderful garden and aviary – completely confined to a small porch off their upstairs apartment – so full of greenery and cooing birds that it felt like The Secret Garden.  Another young woman named Islan, who always had magazine-perfect cat wing eyeliner would frequently pull me into the bathroom during break to fix my hair, belt, or other fashion mishaps that were driving her crazy.  “Ahhh, teacher,” she would say, looking at me with disappointment, “don’t you know better what colors to wear?”  As I would work to suppress a laugh, she would smile and shake her head.  “You don’t even wear BRANDS!” she would lament with passion, and then lecture me on how to dress for the next class.  As someone who could never seem to care about fashion, it was a relief to blindly follow her intructions!

One day I had a conversation practice that went from interesting to frightening.  “In my free time (or vacation) I like to _________ because _________.”  Islan went first “In my free time I like to visit my family because family is important.” she said with a nod of her head, which was encased in a silvery blue silk scarf.  Other students continued, mostly choosing answers about cooking, reading, and travel vacations.  

Then a student who often merely shook his head at some of my questions raised his hand.  He was an older man who always seemed to wear bright orange shirts, and left class without talking to anyone but the slighty younger man who always came with him.  He sat stiffly in his desk, always choosing a seat far to the side and far from any female students.  I pointed at him to answer, realizing uncomfortably that I didn’t remember his name.  He stood up and said loudly and firmly “I do not take vacation!”  I pulled my head back in surprise, and he sat down.  There was a murmur of discontent around the room.  He had been disrepectful to me as a teacher, and worse he hadn’t answered the question.  I decided to act as if he hadn’t understood the question, whether or not that was the real issue.

“So we are discussing any kind of free time,” I explained calmly, “it doesn’t need to be formal vacation.  Just any time you are not busy with work.  What kind of thing do you like to do then?”  The man shook his head angrily, and muttered in Arabic to his friend.  The friend gave me an apologetic smile and hissed a response in Arabic at which I caught the word for “prayer”.  “Prayer?” I said in English, “You like to pray in your free time?  That’s a great answer!  Can you say it again in English?”  The older man was as stiff as a statue but his friend gave a nervous laugh, half-stood up, and quickly squeaked out “In free time…. to the mosque for praying,” and sat swiftly back down.  “Ok, thank you,” I said, trying to process the situation.  There seemed to be no use in forcing the original man to answer, and correcting his friend’s grammar might not be a great idea either.  Across the room both Islan and Amira were making frantic “come here” gestures.  

The flag of Hamas

“Everyone take a minute to work on the next phrase, please,” I said, and pointed to the next “fill in the blank” on the whiteboard.  Then, while the students began to write notes in their journals, I walked over to Islan and Amira.  Amira nervously tugged on my sleeve and pulled my ear to her mouth.  “Teacher!” she whispered fiercely, “they are HAMAS!”  I tilted my head in suprise.  Islan nodded, her eyes wide with what might have been fear.  “Please,” she added, “don’t ask them more questions!”  I nodded automatically and began to walk around the room to look at student’s answers.  My head was spinning as I thought about what the label “Hamas” actually meant.  Technically, Hamas is an Islamic terrorist group.  But in a recent complication, elections held in 2006 in the southern part of Palestine (called Gaza) Hamas had won and now had to be considered a legitmate government.  Our classroom was in Ramallah, the part of Palestine called the West Bank, where Hamas was a minority and the government was run by a group called Fatah.  

What could I do with the fact that outright terrorists were in my English class?  Was this the kind of thing people had warned me against when taking this job?  Having been there only a month or so, I was still trying to understand the actual situation of Israel and the Palestinian territories.  My East Jerusalem boarding house was in a Palestinian neighborhood, but an Israeli bus picked me up just around the corner.  Getting a taxi home one night had become impossible when my Jewish driver learned the address and flat out refused to take me closer than 4 blocks.  This was confusing to me as the neighborhood seemed competely safe.  A fellow teacher, Patrick from Ireland, had tried to help me understand some things by drawing parallels to his own experience in Belfast.  

“I remember when we heard that some English soldiers had been taken up the hill near our house and shot in the head,” he said with his charming brogue, “my dad was trying to explain it to me, because I wanted to know who the bad guys were.  But he said – no story is that simple.”  Patrick told me of the founding of Hamas, how the word meant “courage” or “passion” and that the founders had been poor people whose land had been taken by Israel.  “They see themselves as freedom fighters,” he explained, “starting a revolution to take back control of a land they believe they have the rights to.  Not unlike your revolution against the British, hey?”  His roguish smile seemed challenge my understanding of my own country’s history. Depending on which news outlet I looked at, Patrick’s explanation of the Israel/Palestine conflict seemed either completely correct, or willfully false.  The complexities of the issue were beyond my short term knowledge.  But I now had personal experience to know that the label “terrorist” didn’t mean what I had always imagined.

If they were labeled like spice jars would we throw them out of the kitchen? Were they “the bad guys“?  Yes, the Hamas men in my class were apparently prejudiced against me and other women.  Yes, they were often rude.  But did they plot my death?  Definitely not.  Did they have a genius evil plan to destroy the world?  No, and they didn’t have the grammar skills for it either.

As my son grew from a crying baby to a wide eyed, curly haired toddler, the labels he was given continued to challenge my view of him, and the world. 

Toddler with the curly hair…who also has SPD

First it was Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a recognition that small sounds or touches could drive him crazy, that his body processed certain sensory information in a way that was completely different from my brain.  A few years later he received a diagnosis of autism, and his school entered him in the Special Education department.  This was one of the most confusing labels I had ever encountered.  My son’s IQ was incredibly high, and he had taught himself to read literally before he even talked!  How could he be in Special Ed – a label I associated with kids who could not learn?  But there it was again, the power of the label.  Call someone a “terrorist” and we are all afraid of them.  Call a school department “Special Ed” and people (like me) assume it means remedial rather than the actual name – special – as in, unique or different from the typical.

No label can ever tell the story of a human being.  In fact, it can tell us only one thing about that person.  I absolutely disagree with the “terrorist” practice of bringing terror to your enemies by violent acts.  But remembering that a “terrorist” can also be a father, a student, or a son can broaden our understanding of their humanity, and maybe even change their practices someday.  Knowing that my son carries the label “autistic” has caused me a range of emotions from proud to scared, and more.  But he’s not a jar of spice, and I hope I’m learning – every day – to trust less in the labels we give people.        

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