I got my first pair of glasses when I was nine years old. At the time, I’d started an early puberty and was one of the first girls in my fourth grade class to wear a bra, which was a constant source of embarrassment as several boys in my class mercilessly teased me or ran their fingers down my spine as they walked by my desk. Mockery was nothing new at our school and there were plenty of other kids who endured name-calling and bullying. Now in addition to being teased about my height or for having budding breasts, I was called “Katie Four-Eyes” and a host of other insults that only elementary kids can invent. Getting ready for school in the morning was often an exercise in finding the right clothes to hide my body. But I couldn’t hide my glasses, so I tried to make myself look as small as possible to avoid being singled out.
One sunny afternoon I waited outside Glendale-Feilbach school, leaning against the brick wall. For some reason my mother was picking up my sisters and me so we didn’t have to ride the bus. A few other kids milled around and a couple of teachers stood by, keeping an eye on all of us. The principal, Mrs. DeProspero, walked by and smiled at me. Then she very gently cradled my face in her hands and said, “Katie Ingersoll, you look so pretty in those new glasses.”
I beamed, not knowing what to say beyond a quiet, “Thank you.”
As she walked away, her thoughtful words washed away ever insult I’d endured. From then on, when someone teased me about wearing glasses, I was able to effortlessly brush it off, knowing that if a wise and wonderful adult thought I looked nice, it didn’t matter if some kid thought otherwise. To this day, I’ve never forgotten her kindness.
I’ve stayed in touch with many of my former first graders and they will often reminisce about something I said or did in the classroom when they were very young. Most of the time I have no recollection of the kind words I shared or a gentle admonition that redirected their behavior and encouraged them to make better choices. But they remember, and that’s what’s important.
Our words have weight and consequences. They can either harm or heal and there’s not often an in-between. The other day I was reading a meditation to my yoga students from a wonderful book by Judith Lasater, A Year of Living Your Yoga: Daily Practices to Shape Your Life. She writes: Nothing can be true if it is also harmful. Remember today that your words leave a residue. Choose them carefully so you can speak the truth with sweetness.
Steve, my significant other, will remind himself to “pull a Thumper”, in that if he can’t say something nice, he shouldn’t say anything at all. That’s an adage my mother used to say whenever I was being mean to my older sister. When we were young, Cynthia knew exactly how to push my buttons and the only way I knew to defend myself was to yell hurtful things back at her. We got into an ugly pattern of insults that spilled over when we were in high school, and I can recall a couple of times when she said something that humiliated me in front of my friends. After that, in private I verbally thrashed her, but in public I kept my mouth shut. When we became adults the criticism was more passive-aggressive until I finally chose to stop the cycle.
As a writer, it’s often difficult to express the full range of what I’m feeling, particularly with non-fiction. It’s a fine line to walk, this place of being both honest and discrete, and it’s not my business to hammer home a belief that might be in conflict with someone else’s. As Judith Lasater also suggests, Ask yourself, Can I honor my beliefs and yet understand they are not a true reflection of reality? Whatever I might believe about another person or their circumstances, everyone is fighting a battle I know nothing about.
In every moment I can choose kindness toward another or myself, yet the challenge is to discern how to manifest it. Sometimes it’s by being honest, other times by not saying everything I’m thinking. Sometimes it’s by dropping my judgmental attitude, other times through using good judgment. Even though it’s often the most difficult thing to do, kindness opens the door to healing, if not for the other person, than for ourselves.
I’ve recently recognized ways in which I can still be passive-aggressive, not just with words, but with my behavior. Today I found myself niggled by an opportunity to make a point by not doing something for another person. No one saw me in the moment, but my omission would eventually be discovered as a silent screw you. In a split second I made a different choice and did it anyway. It may be interpreted as a favor, but in truth, I did it for myself to practice rising above meanness and acting with integrity instead.
I’m not pleased with the fact that I can still be petty, but I’m also not happy that I chose thoughtfulness instead. It’s not a matter of pride, it’s a matter of principle. A while ago I made the decision to align my actions with grace, peace, and truth. I don’t always do it well, but lately it’s gotten a lot easier. Maybe it’s because I’ve healed pieces of myself that have been broken since I was little. Or maybe it’s because I’m in a relationship that challenges me to become a better person. Probably it’s because I’ve finally learned how to see the world as it is, not as I would like it to be. Now I choose kindness because I finally understand what Warsan Shire meant when he wrote these incredible words…
Later that night I held an atlas in my lap,
Ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered,
“Where does it hurt?”
It answered, “Everywhere…everywhere…everywhere.”