Once I got past the outraged mother bear, even in the midst of it, I kept thinking, Our words matter. How many careless words have fallen from me unheeded? And how many people have gone on to hurt because of it?
I arrived home yesterday to discover something was not right. One son was going about his afternoon like usual. But the other was snappish. Then suddenly he disappeared. I found him curled into bed with the lights off and covers up to his ears…at 4:45.
I checked his forehead. No fever. But his shoulders were rounded in on themselves and his chin was tucked low. With a gentle voice and a sense of concern, I avoided asking him what was wrong. Instead I told him I’d check in on him again before dinner, before practice in case he felt up to either. I rubbed his back and left the door ajar so he knew he didn’t have to be alone.
A little while later he appeared at the top of the stairs and trudged down to the dining room table. Two things happened that just don’t happen with him. He sobbed shoulder heaving sobs. And he asked for help.
Gradually, I eased the story out of him.
Just before last period study hall he was walking into his homeroom. Two of his teachers stood in the doorway. One was listing off students’ names to the other. “…Especially that one. They can’t even think…” That one–was my son. He heard the exchange as he, and his friends, his classmates walked by these two adults charged with helping them to learn. Whatever words were spoken, what he heard was They’re stupid.
What I told him was He IS smart. He CAN think. He’s a PROBLEM SOLVER. He’s LOYAL to his friends. Those are all true.
What I thought was No person should be putting others down–though we do. No adult should be belittling a child. And for damn sure, no teacher should be speaking badly of her students–especially not where the child or others could overhear. But she did.
I wondered if she had any idea what an impact she had on my son. I wondered if she would ever realize how that impact spiraled out to the family, because big hurts always do. I wondered how many other kids and families had their evenings upended last night…or all the other nights.
Then I stopped thinking about her and turned my attention back to my son. I’m so proud of the way he recovered enough to get to his last practice before the tournament and to finish the three pages of homework for her class. I’m proud of the way that when someone put him down he didn’t respond in kind. I’m grateful that he was able to reach through his hurt and anger to ask for help, when usually that causes him to push us away. I cherished the hug he gave me before bed last night when he thanked me for being there.
I wish I could protect my boys from all the meanness and hurts they will encounter in the world. But I know my job is to help them believe that they are strong enough to face them, sometimes alone, but sometimes with the support of those who love them. For that I try to leave them with the words that will serve them in difficult moments.
I love you. I’m proud of you. I’m glad you’re my little boy…even though you’re bigger than me.