Our family had a house cat with a terrible temper that made her a creature more to be endured than loved. We did our best, but problems always developed, and never more so than when she had to go to the vet. Our doctor was a man of few words, but it didn’t take long to realize that Ellie was already on his radar as a “behavior problem.” He apparently asked his assistant to put a red plastic tab on the top of her file as a warning flag. This decision probably came after the time she leapt out of his arms and back into the waiting room, climbing picture frames and an ornamental tree all the way to the ceiling. There were loud protests from Ellie and general commotion in the room. The ruckus was something the subdued dogs waiting their turn surely took as just a typical feline stunt.
Over the years other disruptions followed. And we sheepishly looked on while the veterinary staff perfected their “all hands on deck” drill. The vet never actually told us that our family member was considered an outlaw. I think it was an assistant who mentioned that the red tab on Ellie’s manila file folder was a warning that this four-legged was prepared to do anything to be anywhere else.
This got me wondering about how many versions of the red tab I have accumulated since my ragged days in a third grade: a year that seemed to test the patience of everyone. Over the years how many of the equivalents of a scarlet letter of warning were placed in various filing cabinets from California to New Jersey? In my defense I would just note that sometimes you learn a lot by not doing things very well.
I’m pretty sure I attained at least one red tab from my father, who placed me in charge of payroll for the men who worked in the steel fabrication plant he managed. This was a payroll with a twist: an incentive-based pay scale increasing a worker’s salary for pieces produced over the minimum. I thought I had figured it out. But I botched it so badly that the company had to send one of its specialists from halfway across the country to stave off a shop floor insurrection. We all agreed that math just was not my thing, so for my next summer of employment I was banished to the hot galvanizing line of an adjacent plant.
This was a job that no one wanted, so the only red marks that came were on my flesh. You knew you fell short of the skills needed for galvanizing metal if you were maimed, scalded or dead.
High school percussionists selected for their skills are supposed to play their instruments well, not pull them into a heap in an unplanned and abrupt departure from the stage.
Years earlier in high school I had been better at grilling hamburgers for tourists. But it turns out that I had no talent for changing the expensive CO2 cylinders used in a small restaurant’s soda machines. These could last a whole summer season. But with one small washer misplaced by my distracted self—the only male employee—it ran out of gas within hours. That was surely worth a red tab somewhere. And probably another one as well for falling off of a stage mid-performance. It happened in the midst of a concert held yearly of the Colorado All State Band. High school percussionists selected for their skills are supposed to play their instruments well, not pull them into a heap in an unplanned and abrupt departure from the stage. More red faces, and a serious reason to edit the record being made for the other proud parents who showed up.
As I have had to say perhaps too many times, we can’t be expected to do everything well. It applies to cats and humans. But it is still hard to live down the stigma of a red tab slapped on a file baring your name. I have certainly survived and fully earned my red marks. But we tend to forget the real damage that can be done when the tools are more subtle and linguistic. Words we use in the pretext of passing on information about another can do more than signal a problem, they can stigmatize the named person as well. As noted in another post, terms for psychological problems (crazy, obsessive, paranoid, etc.) often get passed around as their own forms of wounding labels.