Sunday, I listened to the neighborhood children playing, reminiscing about when I was so young and playing was serious work. In particular, I heard two boys talking.
"I never knew that! I am stupid!" He spit out that last word with venom.
I was shocked. How often had that child been called stupid that he so quickly offered it as an explanation?
His friend's voice was soothing. "You know it now."
"I am stoooooooopid!"
Now the friend was astonished. "You are stupid?"
"Oh, I am soooo stupid!"
"I am stupid all the time," the friend countered. "Stupid, stupid, stupid."
For five minutes, they went on changing the word in singsong voices, two sweet little boys who were spending their time playing peacefully and teaching each other. But you know what neither of them did, not even once? Call the other one "stupid". Instead, the slightly older boy went out of his way to make his friend feel better about his initial ignorance, and made himself his buddy's equal in all ways. Together, they reclaimed the word "stupid," taking away the sting until it was nothing, until the venom was gone and they could no longer even remember the judgment they were mocking.
It reminded me of another time, back when I was a teenager. At the local swimming pool, a little boy told me it was dangerous for him to go out of the shallow end since he was still learning to swim. I told him he was smart. His face broke out in an enormous grin and he rushed off. Five minutes later, he was tapping on my elbow with a burning question. "I'm smart?" "Yes, you are," I reassured him. He took a breath in excitedly, like he had just been given a new bicycle, and again rushed off.
I thought then, as I thought now, what are the adults in these children's lives teaching with their words? Why would a child be convinced he was stupid? Why would a child be surprised to be considered smart?