The movie "Freedom Writers," set in 1994 at the height of racial tensions in Los Angeles, is based on the true story of Erin Gruwell, an idealistic new English teacher who takes a job in the slums. A former "A-list" school, it has become run by gangs amid intense racial hostility.
The other teachers decide that it's impossible to teach these students. They believe Ms. Gruwell is too naive, too inexperienced, to really get it – to understand how hopeless the situation is.
But Gruwell doesn't agree.
She refuses to label these students as unteachable and instead maintains that believing in them, giving them enough care and attention, will convince them that they can learn – and even more important – that they want to learn.
It isn't easy, and Gruwell faces many obstacles. But she finally connects with her students after asking them to write in a journal about their lives of violence, drugs, fear, and poverty. She gains some understanding of them, and they gain some respect for her. From that point on, things change dramatically for the better.
The result: all of her students graduate from high school and about half of them go to college.
The film moved me to think more deeply about how I could take steps to stop labeling myself and others.
I thought of Jesus and how he refused to buy into labels no matter how real or legitimate they seemed. He didn't go along with conventional thinking that agrees with outward appearances. Instead, he turned to God and found the spiritual view of others that transformed their lives.
One time Jesus was at the pool of Bethesda where he met a man who had been an invalid for 38 years. Tradition held that on occasion the water would be stirred, and whoever entered the water first, at that time would be healed of whatever disease he or she had.
Jesus asked the man if he wanted to get well, and the man replied that when the water was stirred, he had no one to help him into the pool. Jesus said to him: " 'Get up, take your bedroll, start walking.' The man was healed on the spot" (see John 5:1-8, "The Message," Eugene Peterson).
It might have been easy to believe that this man had been an invalid for so long that that's just who he was and that's who he'd always be.
But Jesus didn't succumb to that way of thinking. Instead, he listened to God. Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science, explained: "Jesus beheld in Science the perfect man, who appeared to him where sinning mortal man appears to mortals. In this perfect man the Saviour saw God's own likeness, and this correct view of man healed the sick" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," pp. 476-477).
Recently I woke up not feeling well. I was tempted to believe that the discomfort was simply part of me and that I was stuck with it. But instead of continuing to focus on the negative, on the pain, I remembered how I was learning that being grateful for the good in my life always helps me move forward.
As I focused on the good, I heard a message from God that said, "You can't be labeled by matter; this problem isn't yours because the only label you have is 'child of God.' "
I knew that being a child of God meant that I included only good, freedom, joy, health – not limitation or pain. I started feeling better, and by early afternoon I was completely free.
Letting go of labels of limitation is something anyone can do. It is possible because as we listen to God, we get a different view of everything – a view that transforms and heals us.