The Power of Words

Updated: Jan 31

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (January 26, 2013)


‘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.


小學一年級時老師形容我為「無用、被動、遲鈍」的學生,可想而知我的媽媽和我當時有多絕望。


我在一年級的時候,有一位老師經常讚美坦率和積極進取的孩子,那時候的我既安靜又害羞,當然不在被讚美之列。不幸的是,我一年級時的老師並未能發掘我的與眾不同之處和潛能。


「她沒有希望了。」老師對媽媽說。六歲時,我便活在這三個負面形容詞之下。


兩年後,由於爸爸要調職至外地,我們便舉家移居到倫敦。媽媽費盡心神,希望為我找一間最好的學校──一間能培育和發掘我長處的學校。


我八歲時開始入讀倫敦的新學校。我對剛開學時的其中一課印象尤其深刻:那時在上音樂課,任教的老師叫桑德森老師。桑德森老師並沒有立即教授音樂,他向我們派發了一張工作紙,並叫我們填上自己的資料 ,我開始填寫工作紙。


名字:馬露明;年齡:八;興趣:芭蕾舞和中國舞;弱項:數學、體育;強項:(空白)


我不知道強項該寫甚麼!令我留下深刻印象的一年級老師說我沒有任何長處。記得當時,我手執鉛筆和工作紙,緊張地走到坐在鋼琴旁的桑德森老師面前說:「桑德森老師,對不起,我不知道自己的長處是甚麼。」


說實話,我不記得他說了哪三個正面的詞語來形容我。老師對我竟然會有「無用、被動、遲鈍」以外的評語,令我感到非常震驚。他告訴我,儘管他認識我的時間不長,但我擁有一些非比尋常的長處。


他的說話改變了我的生命。


從那天起,我開始相信我可以去得更高更遠。我開始在學校變得活躍,加入運動隊並開始在舞台上表演,就好像蛻變成另一個女孩一樣。


從那次經歷中,我明白到話語的力量有多大。我的第一位老師以話語粉碎了我,而桑德森老師則憑藉他的話語點亮了我的生命。


多年來我分享自己的故事,亦很不幸地遇過無數和我擁有同樣經歷的人。倘若人知道話語的力量,就不會有這樣的事情發生了。


很多時候,家長和其他成年人都不明白話語的力量有多大。當我在地鐵或商場聽到有父母說自己的孩子「無用」或「比豬更蠢」,又或說出「如果你繼續這樣,我便會留下你在這商場。」這些威脅的話時,真的感到非常痛心。他們不知道這些說話會一直留在孩子心中數天、數月、數年,甚至可能影響孩子的一生。


我並不是說我們應該不分孩子行為好壞地讚美孩子,這並不能解決問題。孩子若犯錯,我們應該明確指出,而不是令他們感到沮喪。


近日我和一班八至九歲的學生上課,在學習關於感恩的課題時一位男孩開始調皮起來。這位男孩向我反眼,甚至嘲笑。我不滿他的行為,因此在課後把他拉到一旁和他談一談。我問他對自己在堂上的行為有甚麼想法。這位男孩不願多說,於是我平靜地告訴他那天的行為是不尊重和無禮的。我對他說我不滿他的行為,並相信他可以做得更好。小男孩雙眼淚水滿盈地向我道歉,說下次會盡力,自此再沒有引起問題。


瞭解話語的力量並不意味不指出壞行為,而是懂得以說話提升人的自信,也不是粉碎他們的自信心。你永遠不會知道身邊的人會記住你說過的哪一句話,因此希望各位慎言,因為你的說話有可能影響別人的一生。


2013年1月26日



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