Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 4:39 PM on Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Grandchild learns words have power to hurt, heal


McKibben Jackinsky

In the "everything-I-need-to-know" category, there are books written about the wisdom gleaned from such founts of wisdom as bathrooms, kindergarten classrooms, gardens and cats. Looking back at the columns I've written in the past 15 years, it appears a big chunk of my life's lessons goes under the "learned from grandkids" category.

Three-year-old Harper was the most recent to deliver a piece of wisdom that has set me to thinking about the words that come out of my mouth, as well as those that take shape as my fingers move across this computer keyboard. It's made all the more powerful because of how this wisdom was served: on Harper's tender little heart.

The way I heard the story from my daughter, Jennifer, it began unfolding when Harper had a serious costume malfunction one morning as they were about to leave home for preschool. The dress Harper was wearing suddenly struck her as unsatisfactory and she insisted on going back to her room to change. The second one didn't fit the bill either, nor did anything after that. Each change only seemed to add to Harper's frustrations.

Jennifer finally put her foot down. No more changing. Harper would go to school in what she was wearing.

What came next was a temper tantrum the likes of which Jennifer had never seen from her young daughter. Harper threw herself on the floor and proceeded to explode in a storm of kicking and screaming.

With great patience and care, Jennifer finally discovered a piece at a time what was driving her daughter's need to find the perfect outfit. The previous day Harper's two best friends said she wasn't beautiful. Her hurt feelings were compounded later in the day by something said by two other friends.

The result, as Harper so heartbreakingly put it: "They destroyed me."

Who knows why her friends said what they did or the context in which the comments were made. All I know is that because of someone's words, my granddaughter felt destroyed.

Contrary to the old saying, "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," words are so much more than sounds in the air or ink on the page. As a grandmother, I was ready to hop on the next plane and go knock some sense into the little jerks that had dared to say anything hurtful to Harper. As a writer, Harper's sense of being destroyed by her friends' words reminded me of the impact words can have.

When sharing my love of writing with students, I have likened it to having a big box filled with toys, words being the toys. Sometimes just a word, a specific arrangement of letters, produces a response. For instance, there are some foreign words that always make me smile simply because of how they sound. In Mexico, I could build a salad around "lechuga," lettuce. In Germany, on a snowy, wintry day it is fun to "schlittenfahren," go sledding or tobogganing. In Russia, on a hot summer day, you might want to drink a glass of "pivo," beer, pronounced peevo.

Words, by themselves or strung together with other words, have the power to make us feel a range of emotions. They can inspire us to do great works and perform acts of compassion. They can incite us to right wrongs and pursue justice. Next to my computer, I have a saying shared with me by my daughter, Emily, that is attributed to James Michener: "Writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotion."

Oh, the places we can journey fueled by nothing more than words.

As Harper discovered and I was so vividly reminded, however, all word-inspired journeys are not pleasant. Ben Franklin is quoted as saying, "A slip of the foot you may soon recover, but a slip of the tongue you never get over." During World War II, there was the phrase "a slip of the lip can sink a ship."

Words — our use or misuse of them — get us coming and going.

What was it that healed Harper's destroyed self? Words. Her mom's verbalized compassion. The talk they had with Harper's preschool teacher later in the day. The peacemaking that followed with her friends.

"Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around," reminds author and motivational speaker Leo F. Buscaglia.

Or, as Dumbledore said in the latest Harry Potter movie, "Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it."

It's all in how they're used. How they're strung together. How they swirl and swing and tangle with human emotions.

As Harper learned, words can destroy but, thankfully, they also can resurrect.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.