The tongue has the power of life and death. (NIV)
Words kill, words give life. (The Message)
And that’s true for you too, isn’t it? I know it is true for me. I can tell you story after story of how someone’s words gave me life, built me up, strengthened me. And I can tell you stories of how words have broken my heart.
They. Are. Powerful.
I know this because I’ve felt it over and over… But this one time in seventh grade left a defining mark on my heart. Words changed me forever.
That year, my social studies teacher was Mr. Samson. I sat between two boys and behind my best friend. I watched, one day, as one of the boys borrowed a tiny green piece of paper from my friend Jessica and began to make some sort of list. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew that list was about me. I couldn’t see it, but watching him write told me everything. I was equal parts worried and curious.
Class ended. Mark ripped the green paper into tiny squares, and as he walked out of the classroom he dropped them in the trashcan. After the classroom cleared, I slowly packed up, and with Mr. Samson’s eyes following my every move I knelt down and scooped up those tiny squares from the trash and shoved them into the left front pocket of my acid-wash jeans.
(The 90s, y’all. You missed some great jeans.)
I rushed out of the room. I never looked back. I didn’t want to acknowledge what my teacher and I both knew: I was going to regret digging in the trash.
I got home that afternoon, and after dinner I went upstairs to my room and spread those squares out across the carpeted floor. Like completing some type of evil puzzle, I mixed and matched pieces until the frayed edges met and the words began to come together. I taped the pieces as they lined up, and since the pieces were so small the paper started to feel laminated with Scotch Tape.
I began to read the text in that classic middle-school dude chicken-scratch handwriting. It was a list of every girl in our class with one word to describe them.
I zeroed in on my own name. And my line looked like this:
Annie = Flabby
It’s not even that this was necessarily untrue—I’ve been overweight a long time. But what hurt my feelings was that of all the words my friend could pick to describe me, THAT was the top one? Seriously? How about “funny” or “kind” or “silly” or “smart”? Those were true too. But “flabby” was the one he wanted to label me. And so it was.
I can still see it. In one instant, I can pull forward that mental image of that piece of paper; probably because I kept that paper until I finished high school. Tucked safely under a box of costume jewelry in the top drawer of my dresser, this ratty green piece of paper survived far longer than any of those middle school friendships or most of the information I learned in that social studies class. (Sorry, Mr. Samson.)
I don’t know why I kept it. Maybe it was just to be mean to myself, or maybe I just felt like I had earned it or that it was a prize for my sleuthing. Either way, it broke my heart every time I saw it, whether I pulled it out of the drawer or simply saw a corner peeking out from under the stacks.
In my book Perfectly Unique, I tell the story of how I once duct-taped myself in high school to try to fit into an outfit I wanted to wear. Because of the words others had said to me, like in this note—and, honestly, because of the words I had said to myself—I hated me and I acted out of that.
You see, words lead to actions. Words change things. It was words that wounded me. And words that healed me.
How have words hurt or healed you? Have those experiences affected how you speak love into the lives of others? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments section below, and I hope you will join me in a live chat on October 1st from 8-9 p.m. EST/ 5-6 p.m. PST.
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