Beyond the Labels by Nancy Paulsen
If we are lucky, we have had them in our lives—the teachers who try to understand us and look beyond any labels we may have been given (no matter where in the range from “smart-aleck” to “troublemaker” to “knucklehead” we may fall!); the teachers who listen to us and take the time to see the real kid, with unique strengths, interests and fears.
In Fish in a Tree—the poignant novel by Lynda Mullaly Hunt—Ally is the girl who gets the gift of a great teacher, and because of that, her view of herself and her future is changed. How powerful is that?
Ally goes into the classroom with the lowest of expectations. After all, school is a place that has always fostered her low self-esteem. Because Ally is the poorest reader in the class, she has earned the “dumb” label. Ally hates labels. She says:
People act like the words “slow reader” tell them everything that’s inside. Like I’m a can of soup and they can just read the list of ingredients and know everything about me. There’s lots of stuff about the soup inside that they can’t put on the label, like how it smells and tastes and makes you feel warm when you eat it. There’s got to be more to me than just a kid who can’t read well.
Ally is right. When one looks closely at her, there’s a lot more to be seen than a troublemaker who won’t do her work—there’s an artistic kid; a kid with a wonderful imagination; a kid who is curious, loyal and brave. Those are the things that can be discovered in Ally once the labels are peeled off. And when Ally’s teacher, Mr. Daniels, begins to call out these marvelous things in Ally, she begins to see them too. Mr. Daniels shows Ally there is nothing wrong with learning differently. He believes that Ally’s doodling and daydreaming mean something other than that Ally is lazy. They reveal that there are creative facets to her personality that are worth celebrating and developing. Hearing this changes Ally:
And I think of words. The power they have. How they can be waved around like a wand—sometimes for good, like how Mr. Daniels uses them. How he makes kids like me and Oliver feel better about ourselves. And how words can also be used for bad. To hurt.
Ally wants people to have higher expectations of her—and she blossoms when they finally do. Her brother, Travis, says to her:
“When people have low expectations of you, you can sometimes use it to your advantage.” Then he looks me right in the eyes and points at my nose. “As long as you don’t have low expectations of yourself. You hear?”
Ally learns to have higher expectations of herself once the classroom changes into a place that nurtures self-esteem. And this means she is no longer afraid to try to succeed. She says:
I can’t believe it. My experience with endless frustration and having to work on things for so long has actually paid off.
I guess maybe “I’m having trouble” is not the same as “I can’t.”
There are so many things I love about Fish in a Tree, and one of the greatest is seeing Ally transform thanks to a caring teacher and a kind and nurturing classroom. I am thankful that so many of our students have that, and I will leave you with these last inspiring words from Ally:
I nod. Feeling so grateful for Mr. Daniels. I wonder if he knows that I came into sixth grade wondering what would ever become of me. Now I have dreams I know I’ll chase down.
I’ll set the world on fire someday.
And come back here . . . and tell him so.
Nancy Paulsen is the publisher of Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. She is the proud publisher of many authors who have won Nerdy Book Awards, including Jacqueline Woodson, Maira Kalman, and Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Her list focuses on picture books that are eye-opening and often funny, and fiction from diverse and distinct voices, especially stories that are inventive and emotionally satisfying.