By Shannon Bentley – In January 2015, I wrote a blog post about how I shouldn’t judge my 9th grade students before I got to know them. I made a reference to one of my Middle Eastern students whose name was after a well-known terrorist of the United States of America. His name reflected a possible label that he will encounter the rest of his life because his name represents the blood and tears that our country suffered and witnessed. The real problem is that he will suffer through labels that he did not acquire himself.
During one of our Friday trainings at City Year, all of the corps members and senior corps members participated in an activity where we wrote labels we were given throughout our lives on strips of tape. Labels are terms that are given to us outside of our government name. These labels can negatively identify our social groups and create a negative impact in our lives. It was time to expose those labels and get rid of them. We were able to write down positive labels and even negative labels, anything that we felt the entire corps should know how society identified us.
I did not want to acknowledge the labels that have followed me my entire life – I only wanted to name the positive labels that I decided to grant upon myself. Everyone’s face spoke the same truth: We all didn’t like the labels we were given. Some members showed signs of frustration and anxiety because their labels were finally coming to light in front of a large group of people.
When I look at my students now at Rufus King International Middle School, I don’t see labels. I don’t see students who represent a particular word based on how they present themselves. I see misunderstood individuals who are only trying to find their place in the world. As human beings, we all go through the phases of searching who we are and where we fit in life. We also will go through the days where we will be misjudged by others who believe they know us better than we know ourselves. Our students are going through the same struggles now, and it is important that we eliminate those labels, so that they can form a positive identity of themselves and not rely on the likes of others to determine their character.
Inclusivity was the City Year core value that stressed this idea. We should be able to include all of our students and help them understand who they are as an individual. Let our students understand their gender, their socioeconomic status, their sexual orientation, their religion, and their race without being judged. Let our students incorporate ideas that support each of these social groups and stresses the idea of equality amongst all. We must allow ourselves to say that we are not the label that society has given us – we are individuals. Every time I think about our students being labeled and misjudged, I can only think about my Middle Eastern student and how life will continue to label him based on his name as he grows older.