More than any of the principles that guide my life, there is one I return to, sometimes on a moment-to-moment basis: words are sacred.
And no, this isn’t just the English teacher trying to tie everything back to the classroom. It’s actually a lesson I learned before I started teaching high school.
This is how that day went. I was in the early stages of my divorce – the time when people are still trying to convince you to either stay together or break up. My aunt told me about one of her daughter’s break-ups. Right before the actual split the ex told her that he’d rather shoot himself in the head than marry her. And, my cousin still wanted to be with him.
Looking back, I’m not even sure what position my aunt was taking on my personal situation, but what I took away was this: you can never unsay anything and, on the flip side, you can never un-hear anything. Words can’t be erased. They mark us right down to our souls, whether we like it or not.
Can I ever un-hear the teacher who told me I’d never amount to anything? (Mr. Haas, 9th grade, after my outburst over the uselessness of learning grammar – the exact part of speech in question: the gerund.) Maybe that is the motivating force behind my drive. I could still be trying to prove him wrong.
Now, as a parent, I was reminded of word’s power on a particularly trying day – the kind where I’d keep counting slowly to ten to try to hold on to what’s left of my rapidly dissolving patience. As my three year old continued to battle me over being buckled into her car seat, words slipped from my lips almost without my realizing it… I asked her why she had to be so bad. She looked at me defiantly, even as her bottom lip quivered, tears would surely soon follow, and said I’m not bad. Of course, she was right. She wasn’t a bad child – willful would be more like it. And I felt instantly guilty for being so careless. I reassured her over and over that she was, indeed, a wonderful child – good was not even a sufficient descriptor – and still, for days she kept asking me Momma, am I bad?
Since the year’s start, a sign has hung in my classroom under the most frequently referenced item in the room – the clock. It reads: WATCH YOUR WORDS! It’s there as a reminder to my feisty, urban teenagers that profanity is inappropriate in the classroom. But it also stands as a constant note-to-self. Words may appear to be innocent little things, but they possess powers that I will never be able to completely control or even understand. The only way I’ve found I can be responsible with them is to follow my truism: I can never unsay something I’ve said.
So, I treat my words with utmost respect, because I believe that words are sacred.
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