They are some of our most powerful possessions.
I’ve always taken to them well—I was an accurate elementary school speller, taking pride in receiving 100% on spelling tests. I have an uncanny ability to memorize song lyrics and thought I’d be perfect on the now defunct “Singing Bee” (fantastic premise, terrible show). My husband has always said the cure for cancer might have been in my brain if the space weren’t so full of song lyrics.
I liked words so much, I majored in them during college, and learned new words to new languages.
Every day we project our voices and carry our words in various tones accompanied by facial expressions that convey our messages in so many different ways. Say something with sincerity and a smile, and you might just make someone’s day. On the contrary, mumble and frown and look away, and just the opposite happens. Even worse, perhaps, may be not saying anything at all. Ignore someone else’s words, and the message is one of complete disinterest and dismissal.
Sometimes, we use our words and we just aren’t quite sure what the impact will be. Fall on deaf ears? Imprinted on the heart? Somewhere in between?
As a yoga teacher, I say words that may or may not have impact. “Breathe,” I’ll say. “Let go,” I’ll repeat. But really, these are just reminders to do the things we all know we should do. I don’t know that my words provide any kind of new message, as much as they become the little voice that directs the mind where it wants to be.
As a middle school teacher, I say words all day long. “Don’t forget to do your homework,” is always in one ear and out the other. “There’s candy at the end of this activity,” gets all attention focused on what my next words will be.
I carry these words, all day long, and deliver them to so many people, my voice falling silent or echoing loudly.
I had an eighth grade student several years ago, Miranda. Not many young girls with that name, so she is easy to remember. Perhaps she holds a sweeter spot in my heart because she struggled with so many things while she was a student in my class. Junior High is rough—I would not repeat it for any amount of fame and fortune—and for today’s kids, I’d say it’s even tougher.
So in many ways, Miranda reminded me of, well, me.
We spent some mornings…and lunches…and after school minutes chatting about all that ailed her: friends and parents and fitting in and dealing with difficult things, like why it’s not okay to hurt ourselves but why it is okay to explore what makes us happy. She and I, we attempted to figure out the best ways to navigate through the age of 14.
I know I shared so many words with her, words that I had always hoped lit some sort of fire; words that just maybe could have been the ones that imprinted on her heart.
Two years ago Miranda was killed in a car accident.
On the first day back from a long holiday break a few weeks ago, in my school mailbox was a letter from a student I never had. Her name brought no immediate recognition, but she introduced herself as Miranda’s best friend.
I began to read the letter as I walked back to my classroom, felt the tears stinging my eyes, and quickly returned it to its envelope.
I entered my room and closed the door. “Breathe,” I said.
I continued to read her words.
“You have taught me a life lesson that I will never forget,” the young girl wrote, “and it was something that you told [Miranda]. And that was that you deserve the best no matter what, don’t settle for something that isn’t the best…Whether you know it or not, you changed her life, and I am so thankful that you were there for her, and me.”
These words I carry—that we all carry within us—the ones we choose to say in any old regular way, in any old conversation, these are the words that plant seeds in hearts.
And when we don’t even know it, they go off, and they grow into something more beautiful than we could ever have possibly imagined or intended, when we let them fall into someone’s ears, with a direct line to the heart.
I did that. That’s my beauty. These words I carry.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: elephant archives