‘Useless. Passive. Slow.’ These were the words that were used to describe me by my First Grade teacher. You can imagine how crushed my mum was and how hopeless I felt.
When I was in First Grade, I had a teacher who really celebrated children who were outspoken, aggressive and quick with their words and actions. At that age, I was none of those things. I was the quiet, shy girl who would only speak when asked to (which wasn’t a bad thing according to Chinese culture) and was more of a deep thinker, rather than a quick thinker (I would ask mum about the complexities of relationships and marriage at age 4, rather than be the first to answer a question in class). Unfortunately, my First Grade teacher wasn’t able to see how I was different and had possible strengths.
One time after I fell down in PE class, I asked to sit out to rest. Apparently that made me useless. During class reading time, I didn’t put up my hand to answer questions. Apparently that made me passive. During Math classes, I would take a longer time than others to complete arithmetic questions. Apparently that made me slow. When my mum went to meet this teacher, she used those 3 words to describe me. My mother was obviously devastated and asked what she could to do help me.
“Nothing. It’s hopeless” was the response she got. So at aged 6, I was under the impression that those 3 negative words described me. Being a first-time parent, my mum didn’t quite know how to help me but tried her best in encouraging me and helping me in the subjects that I was weak at.
Fast-forward 2 years later, my dad got a job transfer and our whole family moved to London. My mother had spent time and effort in finding the best school she could for me. She wanted to find a school that could nurture and develop me to be the best I could be.
At 8 years old, I started at my new school in London. It was a small girls day school in London and it was so different from what I had been used to. I was the only Chinese girl in the whole school, the classes were extremely small and our school was in what seemed like an old mansion. Going into this new environment was slightly nerve-wracking for me but I also anticipated the change of environment.
I remember one of my first lessons so vividly, like it just happened yesterday. I was in my music class and the teacher for that class was called Mr. Sanderson. The music room was in the attic of the building and so it felt very cozy and warm as the ceilings were slanted low and the room was smaller than other classrooms. In one corner of the room was a black baby grand piano and along the walls were cabinets full of music books and percussion instruments. Instead of learning music straight away, Mr. Sanderson passed out a worksheet to each of us. It was a worksheet that we were to fill in and it was all about us. It asked about our name, hobbies, strengths, weaknesses, dreams and so on. Everyone took their worksheet and spread out across the room with their pencils in hand, ready to scribble away. I chose a spot near the window and started filling the worksheet in.
Name: Christine Ma; Age: 8, Hobbies: Ballet and Chinese dance, Weaknesses: Math, Sport; Strengths: (blank)
I didn’t know what to write for my strengths! According to my First Grade teacher who had such a lasting impression on me, I didn’t have any strengths. I remember nervously walking up to Mr. Sanderson who was sitting by the piano, with my pencil and worksheet in hand. I said “Mr. Sanderson, I’m so sorry but I can’t finish this worksheet. I don’t know what my strengths are”.
To be honest, I can’t remember the 3 positive words he used to describe me with. I think I was in a state of shock that a teacher thought of me as being anything other than ‘useless, passive and slow’. But he told me that even though he hadn’t known me for a long time, he thought I had some wonderful strengths.
His words changed my life.
From that day on, I started to believe that I could be more and do more. I started thriving in school. I started to join sports teams. I started to perform on stage. It was like I was a different girl.
And from that experience, I have learnt the power of words. My first teacher crushed me with her words. And Mr. Sanderson gave me life with his.
As I’ve shared my story with people over the years, I have sadly had countless numbers of people share similar stories with me. Whether it’s adults telling me that their parents said negative words to them, parents telling me their children struggled in school because of unsupportive teachers or children themselves telling me about the ways they have been hurt by words. If only people would know the power of words.
Oftentimes, parents and other adults don’t recognise the power of their words. It breaks my heart when I hear parents on the MTR or in shopping malls calling their children ‘useless’, saying they’re ‘more stupid than a pig’ or threatening them with words like ‘if you continue that, I’m going to leave you in this mall all by yourself’. They don’t realise that the words they say could stick in the child’s mind for days, months or years and could affect them for a lifetime.
This is not to say that I think we should constantly be praising children no matter what their behaviour. That isn’t the solution either. Children should be told if they’ve done something wrongly but let’s address the issue and not demoralize the person.
Recently, I was teaching a class of 8-9 year olds. We were learning about the topic of being thankful and this one boy started acting up. He’s usually a great student but during that particular class, he started rolling his eyes at me and making snide comments. I disapproved of his behaviour so I pulled him aside after class to have a talk with him. Instead of saying that he’s a disrespectful, rude and disobedient student, I asked him what he thought of his behaviour during class. He was reluctant to say much. I calmly told him that I really like having him in my class but that day, his actions were disrespectful and rude. I told him that I disapprove of those behaviours and I am confident that he is capable of better behaviour. As his eyes welled up with tears, he apologized and said he would try his best next time. I haven’t had a problem with him since.
Knowing the power of words doesn’t mean we don’t call out bad behaviour but it means that we know how to use our words in a way that builds people up, as oppose to break them down. You never know which words of yours will be remembered by the people around you so choose your words carefully – they could make a lifetime of a difference.
Founder and Principal
JEMS Learning House