“Daddy, why did you tell me I can do anything I want to in life, and then tell me I can’t?”
Whoa. This jarring question smacked me across the face Saturday evening as I kissed Reagan good-night. “What do you mean, sweetie? You CAN do anything you want to.” This is a belief I have tried to instill in my girls since day one. Why would she ever think otherwise?
“Well, the other night I said I wanted to be an inventor AND a professional soccer player AND run a business AND write books AND be a spy. You laughed at me and said I probably can’t do all of them, but I can be really good at some of them.”
Ah, she hadn’t understood me. I chuckled knowingly. “Well, Reagy, that’s true. That’s too much stuff for you to do – you can’t be great at all of those things. You’ll eventually pick what you want to do, and I KNOW you’ll be super awesome at it!”
“But daddy, that’s not what you said to me. You told me I can do ANYTHING. Those are the things I want to do! All of them! Are you saying I can’t do them?”
My mouth moved, but no sounds came out…
Her eyes welled with tears. “I thought you believed in me?!?! But you don’t even think that I can do the things I want to do with my life! You don’t really believe I can do anything I want to!”
How had this happened? I spoke a few poorly chosen words, thinking I was being a help by indoctrinating my daughter in the reality of adulthood. Instead, I had unwittingly weakened the foundation upon which I have tried to raise her…
If you’re inclined to say I’m being a little dramatic, I was also so inclined… after all, there is a good chance she won’t accomplish ALL of those things. I was just being truthful, trying to show my daughter the ways of the world. But there’s something about the hopes and dreams of a child… it seems a crime to have crushed those hopes so casually with just a few simple words. I mean, I don’t KNOW that she can’t do all of those things. Why did I steal away her belief in herself?
I went downstairs and sat in my chair for a bit, thinking about those swollen, tear-rimmed eyes. Was it so bad to teach her to be realistic? I mean, yes, I taught her she can do ANYTHING, but we all know there are limits to ANYTHING. Had I done my special little girl a disservice by teaching her a pipe dream, or by crushing that very same dream? I mean, she will get over it, right?
As I am apt to do, I took a stroll amidst my own memories to see if I could find an answer.
During my senior year of high school, my focus was entirely on becoming a teacher. It was my singular goal – what I wanted more than anything. I had been blessed with some fantastic teachers through the years – from Miss Wilson in 2nd and 4th grade, to Miss Hiner in 5th grade, Mr. Nichols in 8th grade, and Mrs. Seiler in 10th – 12th grade. All of these wonderful educators made a profound impact on my life. I KNEW in my heart that I would follow in their footsteps – making an impact in the lives of young people and changing the world one student at a time. My dreams revolved around a high school classroom.
One day, during a visit to my friend’s house, his mother asked me, “So what are you going to college for next year?”
The answer came swift and confident. “I’m going to be an English and Social Studies teacher.”
She chuckled knowingly. “HAHA well I hope you are ready to be UNEMPLOYED!!!”
Now to her, those were just nine throwaway words amongst the thousands she spoke that day, a service meant to force an idealistic youth to open his eyes to the reality of a cruel job market.
To me, those words changed everything.
I still remember the feeling inside of me when she said it. That feeling of the bottom dropping out combined with a punch directly in the face. Was it true? Was my future career not a viable choice? Was I destined to be unemployed? Had I, in my ignorance of the real world, chosen the wrong path?
She planted a great big seed of doubt in my soul with her simple negative statement – and that seed took root and came to define the next 14 years of my life. Now, I am not saying she is entirely to blame for my choices, and for decade and a half I spent vainly pursuing a career that I had no passion for. But her careless words were the genesis. I fed the seed with my doubts, and nurtured it with my insecurities until a deep fear sprang forth far too powerful for me to overcome. How could I ever think being a teacher would be a good idea? What a foolish child! So I switched paths, always looking wistfully back at the crossroads until it faded from view and my new life consumed me.
Of course, as most of you know, a new path opened for me later in life. After 14 years, I was finally able to rip my fears out by the roots and forge ahead on this new/old path. This new journey fulfills everything I wanted to be before the power of poorly chosen words changed who I was to become. But I have to be honest and admit that the pain is still real in ways I didn’t realize. I’m sitting here typing this in my classroom four hours after school let out… and it feels just like it’s 1995 and I am in that kitchen and she just said those words again. The sting… the deep ache… even the doubts… I couldn’t help but sit here with tears welling, heart heavy with countless hours lost, of countless lives untouched.
The thing is, I know just how lucky I am. I know it took an unbelievably fortuitous sequence of events to land this dream job, and I know that I beat the odds that she predicted all those years ago. But her words still hold sway over me. They still have me sitting here in doubt. 9. Throwaway. Words.
As a teacher, I have tried to be the exact opposite; to offer encouragement and help in finding strengths. I recently had a student from last year visit me and tell me my words had changed his life for the better. What words? I simply had told him that I deeply admired his dogged determination, and that attribute more than anything would take him far in life. He said it had changed how he approached everything he did. Simple words, casually spoken between teacher and student. What power we hold in our words each and every day.
Which brings me back to my Reagan, my buddy. I had unintentionally played the role of nemesis in my own daughter’s life. Casual words not meant to hurt, but rather to help a young girl be realistic. Casual words that rocked the very foundation I had tried to help her build her life upon. Words that brought tears to her eyes, as words still bring tears to mine. Words that I am apparently more careful with when speaking to students than I am with my own family.
Can my daughter do anything? Truly anything? Yes, I believe she can. Does she believe that? Maybe not now… my carelessness may have planted a seed of doubt. What can I do? Help her to pull that weed before it takes root – help her with words of love, and encouragement, and unfettered belief that my Reagan CAN accomplish anything, ANYTHING she sets her mind to. Will it work? It has to. Too many loosely spoken words have destroyed too many beautiful possibilities in this world.
That night, I stood looking down at my precious daughter as she slept. I lingered a few extra moments, picturing her kicking the game winning goal in World Cup action. Then, as she ran off the field, she veered into the crowd, using her personally designed grappling hook to capture the bad guy attempting to escape under the bleachers. I couldn’t help but smile as I imagined her grinning as she jotted down her adventure in her story journal, and then cut a business deal on her spy phone, all while using the trussed up villain as a bench…
Yeah, my buddy can do ANYTHING. I know it.
I need to choose my words more carefully.