On Labels

Student journalists assembling our school newspaper in time for this semester’s first Distribution Day!

We’re putting the finishing touches on our latest issue of the BFA Chronicle newspaper, admiring a photo of Fiddler on the Roof cast members in the Arts section when one reporter looks up at me suddenly.

“You play violin?”

She phrases it as a question, but since this student journalist is also herself a member of the Fiddler cast, I know it’s not. We’ve been in half a dozen rehearsals together, and I’ve seen her squinting across the stage at me, as if trying to decipher if, indeed, it’s really me playing that instrument with the little pit orchestra.

“I do,” I reply with a nod. “I mean, not terribly well, but I do.” For a moment, the room is abuzz with chatter, the journalists suddenly curious and interested in this fascinating new tidbit about their teacher. It’s a senior editor who calls it to an abrupt halt.

“Yes! She’s a teacher and she does other things. Shocking!”

I laugh, and the students get back to work, which may have been Senior Editor’s intention in the first place, but the moment sticks with me.

Later, I’ll discuss labels with the ninth graders in my Advisory group. We meet twice weekly, the ninth graders and I, focusing our time on a variety of topics and activities designed to help them grow smoothly from uncertain middle schoolers to confident, autonomous high school students. After a brief video, our conversation brings us back to labelling, its uses and danger, especially in relationship to gossip.

Knowing that the defensive ninth graders are unlikely to incriminate themselves by listing harmful labels they apply to others, I begin by asking them how even positive labels could have unintended consequences. “I mean, you’re missionary kids,” I remind them. “That’s not a mean label. If anything, it’s a good one, but still. Do you always like to be ‘the MK’?”

They do not. The ninth graders erupt with tales of being asked to recite random Bible verses from memory, or speak languages that they’ve never really learned. “It’s like people only know this one thing about me,” one of them comments. “I’m more than just that one thing.”

In some ways, I think that young people are better at recognizing the consequences of labels than adults are. Or rather, they resent the labels more. I look around my school and see students that are sculptors and soccer players, graphic artists and members of the Model UN. High school is a time when we encourage kids to try things out, to see what they like and what they’re good at. At the risk of falling into cliche, it’s a time to “find yourself.”

Adults, on the other hand, seem to cling to our labels. How ardently I resisted being labeled as a teacher at 21! It’s with equal passion, though, that I claim the title now. Once we find something we love, we sink into it with abandon. This is who I am. I’ve found myself!

Except, just like the ninth graders, we’re more than one thing.

I recently listened to a sermon from our church in Seattle in which the pastor spoke of the “latent gifts” of the shepherd boy, David. Certainly he loved being a shepherd, and was very good at it. It’s probable he never expected much more for his life. God knew differently, saw the gifts of faith and leadership that would make him one of Israel’s greatest kings. David could have shut his eyes to it, crying, “I’m a shepherd! Leave me alone!” but he was aware that he probably didn’t know himself, his capabilities, as well as God did. So he listened, and learned something new.

I love people who live this way. Rooted in Christ as their only static identity, they pursue various callings and gifts in various seasons. My sister majored first in theater, then in Global Development Studies, and now owns a bakery in Seattle. My mother studied outdoor recreation in college, then went on to be a mother and later a bookkeeper for three decades, before using the last few years to become a volunteer snowshoe guide with the U.S. Forest Service.

I’ll soon shed the label of “teacher,” at least for a while. And though at times that feels painful, a stripping-away of this role I’ve loved so much, for so long, I’m inspired by the ninth graders. We’re not just one thing. We belong to Christ, who knows us best, and sees what we cannot, the king inside the shepherd, the violinist behind the teacher.


Remembering How To Read

My last experience with an orchestra, for BFAs 2011 production of Suessical.

In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not.

And what you do not know is the only thing you know

And what you own is what you do not own

And where you are is where you are not.

“East Coker,” T.S. Eliot

I turn the page and squint, hoping maybe the swarm of five b‘s hovering next to the treble clef will go away if I frown at it. I don’t even know what to call this key, much less precisely how to play in it, but there’s no time to complain. I have to–literally–face the music. The song is “If I Were A Rich Man,” in the key of Evil.

Except… I used to know it. There are things I don’t know how to do, like knitting and experimental physics. There are things I do know how to do, like making pies or teaching English. There are even things I’m learning to do, like being a wife and a mother, or speaking German. But there are a few things, fragments of old passions, that I used to know and love well, and have simply forgotten.

I dusted off my violin (literally dusted it off, folks) a few months ago to start rehearsals with the pit orchestra for our school’s production of The Fiddler on the Roof. I’ve played in a pit orchestra before, six years ago for Suessical, but there were some key differences:

  1. I was single then, with theoretically unlimited time for practice.
  2. I was playing viola, the parts of which tend to be more percussion than anything tricky or melodic.
  3. It was Suessical, a show full of poppy little ditties, not the intricate, Russian-influenced themes of Fiddler on the Roof.
  4. It was six years ago, six years closer to college, which was at that point the last time I’d played in an orchestra. (Now, that college orchestra is a horrifying 15 years back.)

I chose to play violin this time instead of viola because playing in alto clef makes my head hurt, but this decision comes at the price of actually having to play lots and lots of notes. Notes that I no longer know, fully, how to read. I stumbled through the first read-through of each song, trying to keep up through the exotic keys and notation that is what happens when the incredible vivacity of “To Life” makes it onto the page. I’d expected to be a small part of a full string section, but alas, there are only three violinists. So my missed notes are a third of the notes. No pressure.

Having finished the first pass at the music, we come back to the beginning today, and something strange is happening. I can follow along. I still can’t do everything, every time, but I know what I’m supposed to play. My fingers can find the notes faster, now, than my mind can name them. In the still-challenging trenches of these still-complicated pieces, I’m remembering how to read.

A Greek philosopher once advised, “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things.” While I’m not certain what “external things” he had in mind, I know that this return to music over the last two months has often left me feeling foolish and stupid, a little lost and several steps behind everyone else. It’s a not a pleasant feeling, not one I want to hold onto forever, and of course it’s possible to feel both of those things without improving. And yet as I sit up straighter, as I hear the rhythm on the page before I have to play it, and realize that the notes that look impossible are actually quite within my reach, I realize that sometimes, maybe often, true growth waits on the other side of just this discomfort.

I’m also struck, here in this genial little rehearsal, among gracious fellow violinists far more talented than I and led by a chronically upbeat director, that I’m willing to keep trying because I know that I’m well-supported. If I miss a few notes, I’m not fired. The director keeps listening for the good, bringing it out in our little group.

It’s a lesson I try quite often to convey to my students. Risk working hard at this–striking out on a new book, a new idea, a new thought–and you’ll grow as a result. I’ll do my best, I promise, to help you avoid feeling foolish or stupid, but you may feel a little lost, once in a while. It means you’re ready to learn something new.

What it doesn’t mean, though, is that the learning will be easy. The stakes of the pit orchestra, small violin section aside, are relatively low and an English paper won’t follow anyone past high school. The harder sight-reading often takes us by surprise, in the unexpected twists and turns of life, and our students are fluent in transition. They are constantly moving, reading cultures and picking up languages, making friends and somehow learning dozens of unwritten and unspoken rules of each new place they call home.

My stronger fingers are a promise, I realize, that the transitions that are common to my students’ and my life are not forever. If we keep walking through them, in the company of people who care about us and following the direction of a God who cares more, the unfamiliarity wears off and we grow stronger, bolder, more fully who we were made to be, even in new places. Knowing that we’re loved, we’ll remember how to read, no matter where we go from here.



Left to Right: Mayzie LaBird, Bird Girl, Violist, Sour Kangaroo

“Hooray!” shouted Yertle. “I’m the king of the trees!
I’m king of the birds! And I’m king of the bees!
I’m king of the butterflies! King of the air!
Ah, me! What a throne! What a wonderful chair!
I’m Yertle the Turtle! Oh, marvelous me!
For I am the ruler of all that I see!”

I pause before turning the page of Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle, giving the girls huddled around me in the school cafeteria time to appreciate the gravity of the situation. Nine turtles, by order of their tyrannical King Yertle, have been stacked up to form his far-reaching throne.

“No!” squeals one of my students, pointing at the illustration, with its stern top turtle and long-suffering subjects. “On the bottom, it isn’t fair! So sad!”

Around us, snatches of refrains from Seussical, the Musical fill the cafeteria, where we’ve gathered after tearing down our sets for a cast party. After countless after-school and weekend rehearsals, hours of personal practice and three sold-out performances, tonight we’re finished with the musical. From the evidence around me, no one really wants to be done. Though the cast has changed back into street clothes, many of them still wear their “Who” makeup and crazy “Who” hair, and every few minutes someone bursts into a favorite part of a favorite song. They are happy and triumphant, these performers, confident of a job well done.

For me, this musical was at first an overwhelming experience. I was the only violist, an instrument for which I hadn’t read music in eight or nine years, playing music that even on a violin would have challenged me. There were several rehearsals at which I was alarmingly humbled, stretched far out of the areas in which I feel safely knowledgeable. And yet, as I remembered how to read the notes, I remembered also how much this part of my life once meant to me. I remembered the sense of belonging and ownership I felt in high school orchestra, the way that I could catch both the conductor’s motions and the first violins’ bowing out of the corner of my eye, trying to stay aligned to both. I remembered that what I really loved, all those years was this sense of alert community, the mysterious way in which the orchestra became greater than its individual instruments.

Twenty years of playing music recently passed for me–something I recalled one day during a Seussical rehearsal–and I’ve been reflecting on what that means. Though I’ve not played continuously all that time, music has continued to follow me. Playing in an orchestra this year wasn’t something that I expected, but the abilities that I fostered as a child and adolescent made it possible to serve in this way, at the same time sharing this rich connection with the students, a bond built on a shared effort.

One of my professors at Seattle Pacific University was fond of reminding us that life works in spirals, as we’re always returning to places, people and learning that we’ve seen before, looking at them with new eyes, from new perspectives. This weekend reminds me how true this is. God has used so many pieces of my past–a global childhood, a variety of educational experiences, friends who attended BFA–to prepare me to serve here. What continues to amaze me are the more obscure parts–the youth work and track team, the rock climbing and viola playing–that He continues to retrieve, reminding me of the intricacy of His plans and the importance of staying flexible.

At rest in the present and thankful for the past, I turn the page with my current students to “The Big Brag.”

“This is the best one!” I hand one of them the book and recite the first few pages, to their amusement and perplexity.

Why do you know that?” laughs Make-Up artist.

“My family used to do it as a skit,” I reply with a shrug. “When I was a kid.”

“Your family sounds awesome,” Mayzie the Bird says.

“Oh, they are.”

And I’m content and blessed, sitting at a table with half a dozen Korean and French Junior girls, sharing my favorite stories from childhood.