The Walking Wounded

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woundedA couple of weeks ago I posed a question on Facebook:

What was the most discouraging thing a teacher ever told you about yourself?

I was surprised by the dozens of answers I received – and by their specificity.

“You’re not a good writer.”

“You’ll go to prison before you ever graduate from high school.”

“You’ll never be a singer.”

“You are cognitively disabled.”

“You have to be pretty to be a flight attendant.”

“You’re going to have a nervous breakdown before you turn 21.”

“You’ll never get into college.”

A few people noted their own surprise that they still held on to those dispiriting words all these years later. A friend whose integrity was once called into question by a teacher said, “Third grade and I still remember that. I still hate that teacher.”

For the record . . . that guy who supposedly wasn’t a good writer? He’s now a producer at NPR who has written award-winning stories.

The one with the alleged cognitive disability is a doctor, now working on his third book.

Many of us overcame the naysayers . . . but oh, the power of words. Whoever said that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” was quite frankly full of crap. Words have great power to heal us, but they wound us as well. We do not forget.

What prompted me to ask that question was that this month I began a 12-week “creativity jump start” program called The Artist’s Way. Two blogger friends of mine—Rachel Marie Stone and Reba Riley—are doing it with me, and from time to time I may be writing about the experience.

That first week of the program was all about recognizing where we might have gotten creatively blocked in the first place. You can’t easily get unstuck until you identify how you got mired in unhealthy patterns or negative thinking.

So I found myself journaling about wounds, some old and scarred-over and some more recent. (A few particularly nasty blog comments came to mind.)

It was surprising to see how many such emotional paper cuts there were . . . and how angry I was about them.

I think of myself as a strong and resilient person who does not hold grudges. But when I scratched just beneath the surface, the wounding words were legion.

Recognizing their ongoing presence, rather than immediately denying their power, has been paradoxically freeing. It felt significant to write them down, speak them out loud.

In case you were wondering, I was that girl whose teacher said she would never get into college. I wonder how much those antagonizing words propelled me to excel in school and eventually get a doctorate, just to prove that teacher wrong.

Think about what your teachers or parents said to you — the messages you received about your potential, your creativity, your intelligence, your looks, your future. Did you believe those messages? Do they still affect you today?

  • One of my first editors said, “This is the worst writing I have ever had to edit. You have no future as a writer.”
    That was almost a decade ago, but my inner critic still whacks me over the head with her words.

  • Geraldine

    Thanks for this Jana. When I was pregnant for the first time and in a vulnerable position I had a couple of women tell me I should abort, and that it would be irresponsible for me not to. I’m so glad I found the church a couple years later, and that I kept my wonderful daughter, who is now grown up and married. The atonement is what helped me forgive those people and move on!

  • Dovie

    This reminded me of this posted on my sis in laws FB page. I have had a few, cruel encounters over the years. I was a frustrating kid to teach I’m sure, but that is not an excuse. I contrast my experience with my son now in sixth grade. When I was in sixth grade, I was terribly unorganized (it’s a feature of me). Mr. Hunter my teacher dumped my desk out in front of the class aggressively in frustration towards me and to shame me when I said I couldn’t find something, a common occurance. My sixth grader suffers from some of the same tendency towarda chaos. He missed Friday because he was sick. When he came back to school someone (I’m sure with his kind teacher’s direction) had cleaned out his desk putting everything into his folders and binder that has remained in unused all year long. They are working on getting all their work turned in before Wednesday and so he can be eligible for the end of year field trip. He was so happy. I was so happy that his sixth grade year was punctuated by kindness from his peers and teacher rather than the other. I’m going to go write a post about this now. Thank you Jana for bringing to light such important things. Words matter. Kind or cruel can make a world of difference, I’m going to strive to make my difference in the world be kind.

  • Marsha Memmott

    One of my master teachers told me I would never be a good teacher because I was too enthusiastic. After 35 years on the job and several awards for my teaching I can honestly say that being too enthusiastic made me a better teacher. Having a 70’s song for every occasion, laughing instead of being mad, and calling my 14-year-old’s “honey” saved many a day from being a failure. I cried at the time, but it made me realize I cared enough to love my job most every day.

  • TOO enthusiastic? No such thing in teaching . . . your students are fortunate that you stuck it out.

  • So glad to hear that your son’s experience has been more positive. Some things really do get better in society over time . . .

  • Well, speaking as your editor, you know I think you are a terrific writer. And I’ve been editing for a long time.

    Either you’ve improved immensely since you wrote for that editor or he/she was just flat-out wrong. I’m guessing the latter. Be sure to send that editor a copy of your book when it’s published this fall. 🙂

  • What a powerful story. I’m glad you listened to your own heart.

  • Char Lyn

    I once wrote the following in a student’s yearbook: You will either end up president or in jail; it just depends on which path you choose.” He was very angry with me when he saw it and asked why I had written that. I told him it was because he had so much power within him that he would be a leader no matter what. But the kind of leader he chose to be would determine where he ended up. He was not mollified. I’ve often thought of him, though to be honest I can’t even remember his name, and I wonder if my words helped him or kept him from being the leader he could have become. As teachers, there are so many moments like this, and without knowing the outcomes, I don’t know whether or not to regret them.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    In our society, being a K through 12 teacher is not considered a high achievement by many. There are surely many of our past teachers who were frustrated by their own career histories, and took it out on the innocent students in their classes. Some others saw no flaws in themselves but loved to point them out in students to bolster their own egos. My kids had some of those people in their school years (one reason my daughter is home schooling her own).

    I have to admit that I can only remember my own teachers in Utah as a succession of nurturing people who took a personal interest in my progress and went out of their way to find things that would provoke my interest and achievement. One of my math teachers had me in classes for four years. One of my former junior high principals became head of admissions at the local university, and helped me gain admission without completing 12th grade, and procured a four year scholarship for me. I hope I have made them proud of me.

  • Burkhard

    English teacher, in front of entire class, shortly before I did my “Abitur” (A levels/Scottish Highers in the UK, no idea what the US equivalent is): Burkhard, your English is just hopeless. You know it, I know it, we all know it. I’m nonetheless going to give you a (bare) pass, but only if you promise, promise, promise me that you will never take a job that requires any English”

    I’m afraid I broke that promise when I took a job at Edinburgh University, where I have been teaching for these past 16 years, 4 of them as Chair. My students seem to be happy, though admittedly, editors still send me back papers with almost as many red corrections as I used to get from her for my term papers, so she was not totally wrong. I don’t think it affected me badly – but then again, I remember it word by word 28 years later, so something obviously rankles.

    PS: I used examples from your “twible” in several lectures on internet law, and one conference paper (GiKii) – so many thanks!