Five Sisters by Paula DiLeo
How a young child, in a normally safe environment, can be affected by careless words that last a lifetime.
I was probably 9 or 10 years old, the oldest child of 5 girls. My father worked two jobs to support us and my mother was a homemaker. I recall a typical childhood with neighborhood friends and a sense of safety in that more innocent time. We enjoyed the freedom of riding our bikes in a group to a nearby park where we spent hours exploring and being kids. I recall my father as a very sweet man. We would see him briefly in the evenings and on weekends. Summer meant vacation and beach trips and lazy, long days to invent our own fun. Sometimes we would playact and put on musical plays; or collect fireflies in the evening and let them free in a wonderful display of blinking lights.
My mother was very disciplined and dominant in our family. My sisters and I learned very young that it was best not to express our own opinions because mom did not appreciate it. I recall a bit of spanking and a harsh tongue and glaring eyes—boy, she had piercing blue eyes. As a result, I became inwardly directed in my thinking and feelings. For me, safety was in silence. I loved to read and had an infatuation with horses that has remained all these years later. I was the oldest child and was blessed with my own room during my growing up years. I spent a lot of my time in my space, reading and being that quiet girl.
My greatest gift, and salvation one might say, was an ability to do well in school. We attended a parochial school and I managed to maintain really good grades and discovered that peace would reign at home if I continued doing well. The teachers at St. Brigid’s were strict and smart and seemed to care about the students. Every other year my class was taught by a nun, sister so and so. I can envision black and white habits and still hear jingling rosary beads. I suppose we did not see the sisters as people; they seemed to be in a hurry most of the time. A few of them were happy and smiling and even jolly and there were others who were stern and I found that a quiet, studious demeanor was the logical route to avoid punishment. My classmates, at times, would invite rulers on knuckles, feet in garbage cans and bodies in the closet. Intimidating, but effective discipline.
In opposite years, the instructors were lay persons, all women. Most are just a blur in memory but there is one that I do recall. She was my 4th grade teacher whose name is lost to time. I recall a stocky, short, dark haired woman. I was a good student, quiet, competitive, shy and bright. I understood concepts well and quickly and remember some boredom while waiting for others to catch up. Reading aloud was particularly challenging for me because I did not understand why some other kids might have trouble with words and pronunciation. Our classroom size was very large, usually 40 pupils or so. We were always packed into the class rooms and petite nuns would think nothing of standing on a desk to be seen and heard.
My favorite subjects were English and Handwriting. I did not care for Mathematics or Science. Sometimes, it felt like a lot of work to understand concepts or memorize seemingly unimportant information. Perhaps due to my home environment, my confidence as a young child relied very much on my grades. It was expected that my average half year grade would be an A, and I worked for that A. I felt that it made my father happy and proud of me. It probably did. I knew it kept my mother from focusing on me to deliver one of her tirades.
The incident I wish to reveal happened during Math class while we were learning how to reduce fractions. My fourth grade teacher was explaining the process and I clearly recall jumping ahead in my mind and visualizing the next step in that process. My hand shot up and I was excited to recite what I was thinking. Of course, she acknowledged me. So, I verbalized what I saw in my head. I remember feeling pleased with myself and I was excited to receive the kudos that I expected. I wish she had said that it was good thinking and let’s just see where this leads us. But she didn’t. Instead, she said something to the effect of “ Lauren, we all know that you are smart, but let me finish what I was explaining. She may have added, “...you can ask questions when I’m done.” I clearly recall her tone of voice. She sounded irritated and dismissive.
Whatever delight I was feeling about knowing the answer melted as I sank in my seat. I remember feeling shame and humiliation and I wished I could disappear. Now, almost 50 years later, I still wince at the memory and am able to feel that blow today. Her words were unexpected, harsh to my 9 year old self and damaging to my fragile self esteem. Since that day, I finished High School, moved across country, attended college, have three beautiful daughters of my own, attended professional school and have worked 25 years in medicine.
During many years of schooling I have carried those words and feelings with me. That particular teacher had no way of knowing my mother or her questionable behaviors. She didn’t know that my safe place was in school with books and my brain. One careless statement left a lasting effect—never again would I volunteer an original thought. Oh, I would think and use my ideas and share with a study partner, but in front of a classroom? Never. My security and confidence in that setting was forever affected by that one teacher, who probably forgot the incident by lunchtime that day so many years and memories ago. As I go back in time and re-run situations in my mind, I understand now that my feelings of shame have grown up and traveled with me.
Opportunities lost, friendships never formed, a marriage that didn’t survive—all may have resulted from my fear of speaking my mind, sharing ideas, or opening myself up and expressing a unique self. Start with a foundation of a mother’s criticism, add hurtful and wounding words from a respected teacher, and a personality develops that may be very different from the true self. Take away the affects of thoughtless words and you might uncover a very different me.
It is fascinating to me how words are arranged and how voice inflection and facial expression can alter and infuse those words with understanding or sarcasm. I wonder if it is possible to be aware before words are said whether they might damage or uplift another. And, once expressed, with awareness immediately following, is it possible to fix it? Once damage is done, can it be undone? How? Can words heal words? What would you say?
How do we teach children to recognize being hurt and talk about it with a trusted adult.? My parents never knew about my brush with humiliation or how it affected me. As a young child, my fear was probably that if I said anything, I would be admonished not to question a teacher or cause trouble. I know that I tucked that incident away and carried it with me into the future. If I had had some background or knowledge about what happened and how to deal with it better at that time, perhaps my life would be different. Perhaps someone would have understood and encouraged me to verbalize my feelings in a healthy way. I imagine what might be different if the wounding words were healed and understood. Maybe I would have used verbal language instead of words on paper to express myself in later years.
- What responsibility do teachers have to be aware of words and how they affect young students?
- How important is the look on your face when you say something?
- Who do you think would be a good person to talk to in a situation like this? What would you have done?
- Do you have someone you can talk to about anything; with no fear of criticism? If you do not have a trusted person to talk to, can you think of anyone you could approach? What if you said something that you knew was hurtful? What would you do? When?
Case Study written by Lauren Trainor.
Lauren was born and raised in New York and has been a resident of California for 30 years. She is a mother, grandmother, sister and physician. Her passions include the written word, two special boys, music and horses. A full moon and the ocean calm and inspire her.