I don’t remember the circumstances, but I remember her words. At 14-years-old, I sat in my biology class for advanced students and heard my teacher call us all stupid. Here I sit, 28 years later, and I still remember the disbelief I felt in that moment. I was appalled that my teacher would dare say such a thing to any students, let alone students who clearly loved to learn and worked hard.
The other day I guest taught at a school. During recess duty, two students approached me who had switched into my room for a breakout time from another class for a brief period. “Have you thought about going back into teaching full-time?” one of them inquired.
“A little bit. Why?” I returned.
“We’d like you to come be our teacher. Our teacher’s really mean. She calls us pathetic.”
Ugh. Immediately, I remembered being that freshman girl again, reeling from the unkind and untrue comment of my teacher.
Now, having worked with kids for a long time, I know they have a tendency to exaggerate. I also know there is a difference between being called pathetic and being told one’s behavior appears pathetic in a given situation, although it’s still not the best choice of language, probably.
I talk quite a bit to my boys about not calling others names, so I was a little dismayed one day when my youngest burst through the door and declared, “Tommy is an idiot!” (Name changed to protect the guilty). He quickly launched into all of the reasons why. I reminded him his word choice was unkind. Later, after he had time to cool down, he asked, “Mom, would it be better if I just said he was stupid with his choices instead of calling him an idiot?” I agreed that he was much more on track with that comment, although, let’s be real, sometimes calling someone an idiot might actually be accurate.
I used to tell my students that it takes five put-ups for every put-down. Statistical research exists to back up that statement to some degree. Criticism of any kind can be tremendously difficult to overcome.
My husband sent me a link to an article called The Persuasive Power of Repeated Falsehoods. The idea behind the article is that people begin to believe something they 100% know isn’t true if they hear it often enough. That’s why words can be so damaging. If you’re told you’re worthless repeatedly, even if you know in your gut it isn’t true, you will begin to act as if the statement is indeed a fact.
C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Screwtape Letters which is a collection of 31 imagined letters of advice written by a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, who is trying to win the soul of an unnamed young man. One of the comments Screwtape makes is, “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.” We often think of the Devil as tempter, but when we cannot believe the good truth about ourselves, it can be just as damaging to our souls.
Friends, we must be careful with the words we use to describe one another, but we also must use caution with what we believe about ourselves, regardless of how many times it has been repeated.
As Aibileen Clark says in the movie The Help to the little girl in her care: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” Those are good words for all of us to remember and dwell on.