As I navigated a sidewalk crowded with Nevada Day revelers, I saw a former student standing along the parade route with her family. In fourth grade, Anna had smiled shyly from behind shaggy bangs, learned adequately with a bit of extra help, and created intricate works of art she sometimes slipped onto my desk, whispering, “I made this for you.”
Now in 9th grade, she looked like the teenager she was: clothing her peers would approve, makeup awkwardly applied, and an air of embarrassment at being in the company of her family.
As I approached, her eyes lit with recognition. The smile she gave me was the same, though it seemed more guarded. Before I could speak, her mother intervened: “Mrs. Bohart, right? I remember you. You once taught this dumb, dodo daughter of mine. I tell you, she’s as stupid as ever.”
Anna disappeared into the crowd.
I like to think most of us choose not to hurt others with unkind words. But sometimes we unintentionally use words that have a negative impact or enforce stereotypes.
I used to deliver a keynote speech at educators’ conferences. During it, I talked about words and their impact: “I’m going to ask you a couple of questions. Please respond by raising your hands. First question: how many of you women have been called a tomboy?” Usually I heard amused chuckles as hands shot up around the room to everyone’s approval. Next I asked, “ And how many of you men have been called a sissy?” This query met an uncomfortable silence, an absence of raised hands, and then rueful laughter.
Our words send loaded messages, intentional or not.
Sometimes unkind words are used with cruel intent.
I once entered a middle school as the bell rang to end of the first day of school. I moved to the wall and watched the students leave. Surrounded by chattering groups, a large, ungainly boy, obviously wearing new school clothes, walked alone. A girl’s voice rose above the noise of the departing students, cutting and quick: “Hey, Moose Boy, where’d you get your new shirt? Thrift store?”
The boy’s face burned red; he stumbled as he pushed through the door.
All these years later, I still see that young man’s face and hope he went home to a loving family.
We need to prepare our children to both withstand verbal assaults and refuse to use them. But how do we do so? I’ve never raised children; I’ve taught them, and I know what I did at school to help them survive the rough spots. I hope you have some ideas to share with my readers and me about lessening the use, and impact of, hurtful words.
Have some ideas?
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