Janet Sheridan: Words matter

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Janet Sheridan

As I navigated a sidewalk crowded with Nevada Day revelers, I saw a former student of mine standing along the parade route with her family.

When in fourth grade, Anna had smiled shyly from behind shaggy bangs, learned adequately with some extra help and created intricate works of art she sometimes slipped onto my desk, whispering, “I made this for you.”

Now in ninth grade, she looked like the teenager she was: makeup awkwardly applied to cover a spotty complexion, clothing approved by her peers, and an air of mingled boredom and embarrassment at being in the company of her family.

As I approached, her eyes lit with recognition. The smile she gave me was the same, though it seemed more guarded.

Before I could speak, her mother intervened: “Mrs. Bohart, right? I remember you. You once taught this dumb, dodo daughter of mine. I tell you, she’s still hopeless.”

Before I could speak, Anna disappeared into the crowd.

Words are powerful. And often we don’t understand the harm they can inflict.

Several years ago I entered the middle school just as the bell rang to end of the first day of school. I moved to the wall, waited for the crowded hall to clear and watched the students leave.

Surrounded by chattering groups, a large, ungainly boy, obviously wearing new school clothes, walked alone. A girl’s voice rose above noise of the departing students, cutting and quick: “Hey, Moose Boy, where’d you get your new shirt? Thrift store?”

The boy’s face burned red and he stumbled as he pushed through the door.

I knew how he felt.

My mother once explained to me that we weren’t poor, we just didn’t have much money for things we didn’t need. Unfortunately, she and I defined need differently, and sometimes I felt poor, particularly when others treated me as if I were.

On occasion, movies were shown on Friday afternoons at Lake Shore Elementary. We’d file into the cafeteria and sit cross-legged on the floor to watch the adventures of Pinocchio or the antics of Abbot and Costello.

We enjoyed the movies, but the best part of the afternoon occurred when the principal, changing the reel on the projector, ran it backward for a few minutes, causing an uproar of hilarity.

We each had to pay twenty-five cents to see the movie, which was usually not a problem.

But one winter Dad had been laid off, and though he managed to find a job at Rigtrup’s chicken factory, we were on an extra-tight budget. In March, when Bob, Carolyn, and I asked for money for a school movie, Mom explained she didn’t have any quarters to give us.

So the next day, when my classmates lined up to go to the cafeteria, I remained in my seat. I don’t remember feeling concerned about my situation—until the teacher asked with impatience, “What do you think you’re doing, Janet?”

“I don’t have any money. Mom says we can’t afford the movie this time.”

Maybe Mrs. Peterson had no idea what to do with me, or perhaps her feet hurt. She strode across the room, displeasure rippling across her face, yanked her purse from the closet, grabbed a quarter and slammed it on her desk.

“Here. Take this and get in line. Hurry up. I can’t believe your family is that penniless.”

I wish I’d refused her angry charity. I didn’t.

Instead, I avoided looking at my classmates and sat quietly through a movie I didn’t see.

I don’t know how Bob and Carolyn fared when they confessed they were without movie money. We never talked about it, and I never mentioned my embarrassment to my mother.

But I learned an important lesson from Mrs. Peterson. We must choose our words carefully and be ever thoughtful about the impact they have.

We can speak words that understand and support or that hurt and discourage.

We have a choice.

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