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Don't underestimate?the power of words

A few weeks ago I was reviewing with my students the types of conflict that they may encounter when they read literature. When I got to "man versus self," I racked my brain for something that their seventh-grade brains would understand.

Here is what I told them: A long time ago, way back in the last century when I was in middle school, I was in the school's choir. In the spring of my sixth-grade year, there was an opportunity to try out for a citywide choir. I practiced the try-out song, "Moving Right Along" from "The Muppets." On the day of the tryouts, I was sure it had gone perfectly. When the list was posted, and my name wasn't on it, I burst into tears and in my naivete asked my music teacher if there had been some mistake.

I'll never forget what she said, "Honey, you have a nice voice, but the students who were selected just have more natural talent than you do." Translation to my sixth-grade self: stop singing. Ever since then, I refuse to sing (except in church, where I am banking on God's mercy). This is my woman-versus-self story.

Can I sing well enough to burst into song in the car, with only my family around? Probably. Will I do that? No. I have a woman-versus-self dilemma.

My students did, indeed, understand this "crisis of self-esteem" type of man versus self. It started me thinking of all the things that are rattling around in my head, mistakenly deposited there with an offhand comment: you look better with bangs; biting your fingernails makes you look weak; ladies don't swear — you get the point.

Sometimes very mundane words are the invisible daggers: shy, short, hyper, dramatic and other general comments made by adults to, and about, children. Unfortunately, the double-whammy is to throw in a little sibling rivalry, "She's our shy one," a parent might say, and one can easily see how so many people end up on the proverbial therapy couch.

However, as I pondered this, I realized that I have at least as many equally positive self-defining comments that were absorbed into my psyche: you have lovely handwriting; you seem very comfortable in your skin; you are a fun mom; you plan things so well.

As I drove to school this morning, I realized how powerful our words are in defining those around us. This isn't news to me, per se; however, what is a new revelation is the amazing ability to impact the future with a well-placed compliment.

Randy Paush, famous for his "Last Lecture," said, "A good compliment can last me three months." It's amazing how the confidence exudes from those who feel appreciated for their own unique qualities. Recently, a friend complimented me on my ability to put people at ease. In the weeks that followed, her words have come to mind over and over. Imagine if we did hand out compliments as easily as comparisons or complaints.

As I approach my fourth decade on the planet, I'm inclined to believe that words — both negative and positive — can last far beyond our own understanding. Last night, as I watched my 4-year-old son Oliver take over my living room with a sprawling circuitry of railroad tracks, I thought for a second and said, "Wow, buddy, you are so good at designing things." Here's hoping he's an architect or engineer someday and doesn't remember all the times I told him to clean up his mess.

Amber Chandler, of Blasdell, is a Frontier Middle School teacher and an adjunct professor at Trocaire College.