I was recently having a conversation with a friend who has enjoyed great professional success recently. She surprised me by saying she was going to send copies of the final publication to two former teachers, but for very different reasons.
One of those teachers called her “stupid” in front of the entire class after she made a mistake in that class. It still visibly upsets her when she discusses it. She is one of the toughest, smartest, strongest people I know, but she is still, to some degree, trying to prove that she isn’t “stupid.” We are 32 years old and that insult has stuck with her all this time.
Every personal accomplishment is some vindication for her, but nothing seems to remove the sting of that hateful label, applied by someone she was taught to respect and admire.
The other teacher she wants to know about her success is one who encouraged her, someone who told her that she would make it and she was capable of doing anything she wanted. In the aftermath of the “stupid” comment, she did her best to soothe the hurt and erase that venomous word.
The second teacher was careful with her words, she encouraged strengths in her students and tried to help them overcome their weaknesses.
I know, because the same teacher who encouraged her is partially responsible for me becoming a writer. She is the first person who put it in my head that I might be able to make a living with my writing. After all, if the woman who introduced me to the incredible world of literature like “The Secret Garden” and “To Kill A Mockingbird” thought I could be a writer, maybe I could.
She challenged me at every turn as my fourth grade teacher, pushing me to read more and expand my horizons. She also taught me to form logical arguments by hosting mock debates, as well as a million other “out of the box” activities. She always seemed to know exactly how to keep us engaged and trick us into learning, even when we didn’t want to.
A few years later, she followed us to junior high school, where she was our English teacher. It was then that she read “To Kill a Mockingbird” aloud to our class each day after our lessons. To this day, when I read the book, her voice is narrating it.
She emphasized the importance of word choice and how powerful the right words can be. We also saw her live that, being careful with what she said and how she said it.
Think back on your life — what do you remember? I remember a handful of compliments but I can remember the insults and criticisms vividly.
Children are especially sensitive to these words, particularly when they come from an adult who they admire. A teacher or parent dishing out harsh or demeaning criticism could leave a scar that never totally heals. By the same token, a teacher, parent or mentor’s praise and belief in a child could be the reason they bloom.
Criticism is a necessary part of life, but unless it is constructive and helps the person do better, it is just hurtful.
After our conversation, I looked our old teacher up on Facebook and was astounded to see that her current place of employment is listed at Fultondale High School. That’s when I decided to write this column, knowing she might actually read it.
So, Kathy Davidson, if you see this, thank you. I know you touched many more lives that just ours, but please know that you empowered and supported two girls who needed it and your words are still with us today. Looking back on my entire education, there is no one I think of more warmly or with more respect.
For everyone else who reads this — please think about what you say. As Mrs. Davidson knew so well, words are powerful things and you never know how much what you say will stick with someone, especially a child or teenager who looks up to you.