The Power of Words

I never would have pegged her as a kid who was fearful to talk. Right from the get-go, Harley seemed to thrive in class discussions. I relied on her so much that there were plenty of those moments when she was waving her hand to answer, but I would opt to wait until another hand was raised—just to get the rest of the class involved. She was a kid that always had the right answers, thought on a critical level, and simply made the rest of the class brighter by sounding off. I wouldn’t even call her a teacher’s pet. She wasn’t trying to brownnose me or anything; she was just being herself!

Harley’s time to shine came in 3rd quarter when my class divided up into literature circle groups. She was placed into the high-level group that read the Giver. The rest of her group was chalk full of kids that had potential to speak out in class but were balking at the opportunity for different reasons. When I wandered from group to group on Fridays when we met in literature circle groups, I loved meeting with that Giver group. Harley always brought up critical points for discussion, but she never dominated the group. She always allowed the other three kids to chime in, and it was beautiful seeing the rest of her group become bolder simply by following her model.

By the time 4th quarter came and I began writing each kid in all my classes a personal note to send them off into 8th grade, Harley’s note was quite easy to write. I praised her for being a role model student and for modeling to others how to participate regularly. It came to that last week of school when I began giving out three gifts to my students. The first gift was a letter they wrote during the first week of school to themselves. The second gift was a list of positive traits that their classmates had written about them. Finally, the last gift was a personalized note written to each student from me. Midway through the cluster of kids in my 5th hour came Harley’s name.

I begin each kid’s speech the same way. I list the traits the others had written about them and see if the class can guess who I was talking about. When Harley’s traits were read, they described her perfectly, and the rest of the class quickly identified her. I noticed something, however. When I nodded my head and smiled, saying it indeed was Harley, she looked shocked. Aghast. Completely taken aback. I proceeded on, telling the class how I would always remember this girl.

“I don’t know where class discussions would have been without this girl,” I began. The rest of the class nodded in agreement. Harley smiled warmly at me, turning a slight shade of pink in her cheeks.

I proceeded on. “The most amazing thing about Harley was seeing what she brought to the table during 3rd quarter in her Giver literature circle group. I will never forget her analysis and questions enlightening the likes of you … and you … and you,” I said, pausing on each kid in her group. Tears welled in my eyes as I told her how much she meant to our class, how hard it was to see her move on. As I wrapped up Harley’s tribute, I noticed something. Tears were spilling from her eyes like a waterfall.

My initial thought was that she was simply overwhelmed with the moment. I had no clue that the root of those tears came from something much deeper. Something I had no clue about until later that day when she bounced into my room beaming from ear to ear, holding a folded sheet of paper. It was odd, but I somehow knew what it was as she handed it to me.

“Thank you, Harley!” I smiled at her. She quickly escaped out the door. I didn’t have time to read it until the craziness of the day had passed. Cracking open her note was the icing on the cake of a perfect day. After thanking me for a great school year, she confessed to me that in her beginning of the year letter to herself she admitted her worst fear of the year would be talking in class. That was why she was taken aback! That was why those tears cascaded freely down her cheeks.

It is truly amazing how far a compliment will take someone. Paul certainly knows this when he writes to the Thessalonians, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5: 11). Here’s the thing about that scripture that resonates with me. Paul compliments them even though he knows they are already encouraging one another. How often do we as teachers forget to complement those students that are getting the job done? How often is our energy sucked away due to students that fall wayward? Never resist an opportunity to encourage. With every word of encouragement, you inject purpose and pride that can carry a kid to heights they had never dreamed of before. Speak life to those kids. Build them up!

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