People tend to underestimate the capability of simple words, but I believe they can change a person’s life or kill a person’s spirit.
As the first generation child of a Vietnamese immigrant, I speak English very fluently. However, when my mom first came to America, she couldn’t speak a word of English. I remember going to stores with her and she would bring her Viet-American dictionary to look up words whenever she had a question. Sometimes she would even cut out pictures of things that she needed like milk, and point to it because she didn’t know how to say them. Every time I went with her, I would try to walk on different isles, or quicker than her because I was embarrassed to be with her because I thought it made her look dumb whenever she did that.
I was about six at the time, too young to understand how difficult it was for my mom to do that. At home, she is a very intelligent women and mother; nothing would have made her seem dumb. Her self-esteem came being a mother. She was extremely motivated to learn English because she felt that it hindered her ability to take care of us. Now she can speak much more fluent than before and her self-esteem has sky rocketed.
Beyond the power to make a person look smart or dumb, words have the power to wound.
When I was a little girl my mom constantly told me to always be careful about what I said because a simple word can hurt a person’s feelings. At the time, I didn’t think that words could hurt anybody’s feelings but I was about to learn it the hard way.
Fifth grade was a very tough year for me. I was the Asian girl in my class that wore thick glasses and didn’t have any friends. I remember Jason, the blonde blue eyed boy that everyone loved; he would always call me stupid and ugly during recess and students would laugh with him. I always came home sad and lonely. I felt broken inside, I dreaded going to school every morning until Rachel came along.
It was show-and-tell and I remember our school principle coming and with a pretty blonde green eyed girl and told us she was going to be in our class and her name was Rachel. I remember how pretty she looked; everyone wanted to be her friend. One day during recess, when Jason was having his usual laugh at me Rachel came up to him and said “Shut up!, you’re the stupid and ugly one” and came up to me and smiled and said “ I think you’re pretty and smart”.
I look back on that incident and I remember how broken I felt even at such a young age and a simple “I think you’re pretty” changed my life. In this life, all we have are words. They’ve changed my mother’s life and my life. All we can do is use them carefully.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.