Life can be full of labels. I sometimes imagine I am covered by so many red “Hello, my name is…” stickers that I look like the guy on the cover of Office Space. “Hello, my name is… Lauren.” “Hello, my name is… Miss Boersma.” “Hello, I’m your camp counselor for this week.” “Hello, I’m Lisa’s daughter.” “Hello, I’m the Funny One.” “Hello, I’m the Baby.”
Being labeled really puts me off. When Eminem screams at posers, demanding that the Real Slim Shady please stand up, I sit down very quickly. “Yes, please do stand up, Mr. Shady. Look. I am sitting down. Because I am certainly not the Real Slim Shady. I am just imitating. Somebody gave me this nametag, see? You are SO right. I did not get this outfit at Salvation Army. It’s from J Crew. Please stop yelling at me now.”
But labels continue to stick.
When I was fifteen, I was nominated as an ambassador to HOBY, the Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership Convention. (Being an ambassador sounded cool, but it turns out that you don’t just fall in love with cute British boys and save the model U.N. using nerf guns, as the Olsen twins led me to believe.) I was recommended by Mr. Beimers, who considered me a prize pupil because I had been the first of his students to advance to the National level of the History Day competition. My Dramatic Historical Performance had advanced to State History Day because it was one of only two entries, the other of which was horribly racist.
Still, I was nominated. And I went.
HOBY was everything a good youth leadership convention should be, colorful and cult-like. Everything had an acronym. A Junior Facilitator was a “JuFa.” A Senior Facilitator was a “SeFa.” When I arrived, neon green polo-shirt people swarmed our van in the middle of the street; they forced us to get out of the vehicle and pretend to play inflatable guitars. We were educated about famous HOBY alumni like James Van der Beek, most notably famous for playing Dawson on Dawson’s Creek. We chanted more than monks do. During breakfast, JuFas and SeFas would yell out things like “Heyyyyy Burrito!” to which we would yell “guacamole and cinnamon twist!” get up to swing a couple dance moves, then continue to eat our raisin bran as if nothing had occurred.
During one lunch, early in the session, I suddenly remembered that I had promised to call my mom that afternoon.
Did ambassadors call their moms? Did future presidents, astronauts, Nobel prize-winning physicist authors depend on the people who brought them into the world?
What would James Van der Beek do?
The worst part was that I was a sophomore in high school and I didn’t have a cell phone. I really wanted a cell phone. The first few years of my high school career were characterized by half-hearted attempts to try to be Natalie Portman; toe socks and a severe lack of Natalie Portman’s face held me back. A cell phone, though, meant many things. Emancipation! Independence! Responsibility! Weird abbreviations! Emojis! But I faced sophomore year without even a cinderblock Nokia.
“Doeeees… anybody have a cell phone I can borrow?”
“Sure. I do,”
“Could I borrow it for a sec? I need to make an important phone call.” Yeah. That’s right. It’s important. Cool. Now I sound like Colin Powell.
“Yeah. You don’t have one?”
All of the characteristics for great leadership were there; HOBY said so. But lacking a cell phone was my hamartia, my tragic flaw, the one thing holding me back from becoming a supermodel doctor. So, when Stupid Jerk Kid asked if I had one, I responded much as I imagine Achilles would if someone mentioned offhand that his mother didn’t dip him all the way in the River Styx.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t quite understand you.” (stupid jerk.) “Do you have one? A phone?”
“You don’t have a cell phone.” A statement.
“You don’t have a cell phone.”
“You don’t have a cell phone.”
Knock it off with the stupid italics, kid. I’ll end you. “HAHA, TURNS OUT I DON’T.”
“Why don’t you have a cell phone?”
“MY FAMILY DOESN’T BELIEVE IN THEM. I’M AMISH. THANK YOU.” Ha! Squirm, Stupid Jerk. Squirm beneath the fabricated inconsiderate nature of your ill-timed humor!!
I walked away. I made the phone call. I forgot about it.
Days later, the convention was awash with good convention gossip. Travis and Becca had made out and they JUST MET two DAYS ago. Somebody had a huge crush on their JuFa (not their SeFa though—that would be too much scandal even for Richard Nixon)! The bagels in the cafeteria were actually just day-old bread mushed up into cylindrical shapes!! There was an Amish girl attending the convention!!!
Wildly intrigued by the concept of an Amish Ambassador (I was already trying to figure out whether we could acceptably call her an AHM-bassador), my convention friend Shari and I drilled for information. Who was she? What was her name? What was she doing here? Where was she from?
People seemed notoriously ill-informed on the subject. Shari and I got a variety of responses from a variety of Ambassadors, JuFas, and SeFas alike. Then Shari lived up to her leadership potential and put two and two together.
“Lauren. It’s you.”
“The Amish girl. IT’S YOU,” said Shari.
“Hahahaha. Shari. Darling. I may laugh uncomfortably whenever anyone mentions anything that comes remotely close to a euphemism for… knowing someone in the Biblical sense… but I’m not Amish,”
“Yesterday. Lunch. You told that kid you were Amish when you asked to use his phone.”
“That was sarcasm! He doesn’t even remember.”
“HE THINKS YOU’RE AMISH. HE’S TELLING EVERYONE.”
I panicked. And not without reason. Beans were spilled somewhere, and suddenly everyone knew me as The Amish Girl. I might as well have worn a nametag.
And I didn’t know what to do. I was now either a butter-churning traditionalist or a compulsive liar.
“Do you have a TV?”
“Where do you poop?”
“How large is your grandfather’s beard?”
“Since you’re Amish… I don’t mean to offend you… But why don’t you use electricity?” (That is a verbatim quotation. I will remember it long after I have dementia and every other thought has withered from my mind.)
And I did what many people would do in a situation such as mine. I panicked. I lied. I made up an answer every question.
“Certainly larger than Uncle Adonijah’s chin strap.”
“I’d rather not talk about it, thanks.”
Someone future Director of the FBI wisened up to the fact that I didn’t dress any differently than anyone else (except for the fact that Birkenstocks stopped being cool in 2006) and I used microwaves and telephones with the ease of the experienced.
“How come you don’t seem like you’re Amish?”
This was the moment in which I tap-danced upon the precipice of redemption. I could have come clean. I could have experienced bravery, freedom, the growth and catharsis that accompanies a noble act of truthfulness and contrition.
“…I’m on Rumspringa.”
“It’s this thing that Amish communities do where they let their kids leave the faith for a while to go out and sow their wild oats while they decide whether they want to be Amish or not.”
I’ve never been one for sowing oats, wild or otherwise. Had I been born into the Amish faith, I would have refused to go on Rumspringa. Had Rumspringa been an expectation of the Amish youth, I would have smoked a pipe and French-kissed a boy, then returned to the fold saying, “There. Was that bad enough?”
The nice thing about pretending to sow wild oats is that, at the end of the day, you don’t end up with lung cancer or chlamydia. And when you’re only pretending to be Amish, you don’t have to worry about being shunned, especially by those peers who aren’t aware that you’re a lying scumbag.
I’m not a big liar. I’m definitely a little one, though. And I’ve lied about worse things, or manipulated people towards noticing my better qualities. I like to be in control of my labels.
“Iowa? Yeah, that’s where I’m from. I hated it though. It’s just as bad as you think. Thank God I got out of that hell-hole.”
“Calvin girl? Sure. Sure. But like, I never wore a pair of sweatpants to class.”
“Did you know I love beer? Beer beer beer. It tastes good.”
“Noooooooo, I definitely have something that night. It’s this thing where I go to a hospital and read to kids about my faith and then I make pottery for the homeless.”
There’s a moment in The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis where Aslan asks Diggory how the Witch came to be in his beautiful new world of Narnia.
“‘She woke up,’ said Digory wretchedly. And then, turning very white, ‘I mean, I
woke her. Because I wanted to know what would happen if I struck a bell. Polly
didn’t want to. It wasn’t her fault. I—I fought her. I know I shouldn’t have. I think I
was a bit enchanted by the writing under the bell.’
‘Do you?’ asked Asian; still speaking very low and deep.
‘No,’ said Digory. ‘I see now I wasn’t. I was only pretending.’”
This is how I imagine God reacts when I try to convince everyone around me to label me with the labels I have self-selected and pre-addressed.
A pause. A look.
Then, “Do you?”
I hope I don’t pretend as much as I did when I was sixteen. And I hope I continue to improve. I think it helps when you start realizing that you don’t have to accept the labels, or at the very least, you don’t have to care. At the very most, I’ve learned to identify myself a lot more with labels that mean something. I’ve started to pray “Please, God, let me see people today the way you see them.” And I’ve started to realize that this includes the way I see myself.
And perhaps I’m going to invest in a label-maker.
Lauren (Boersma) Harris (’13) is a spontaneous, idealistic, independent, fierce, over-thinking, damaged, adventurous, ordinary megalomaniac with a healthy sense of self-worth and a high word count. She has been a teacher both indoors and outdoors; she loves improvised comedy, backpacking, and writing, even when it’s required.