I have never met a person whose greatest need was anything other than real, unconditional love. You can find it in a simple act of kindness toward someone who needs help. There is no mistaking love. You feel it in your heart. It is the common fiber of life, the flame that heals our soul, energizes our spirit and supplies passion to our lives. It is our connection to God and to each other.
-Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Swiss-born psychiatrist and author.
When Eliza Doolittle launches into her musical tirade against Freddy Eynsford-Hill in Alan Jay Lerner’s and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady, the audience is treated to one of the great moments in the musical theater. Eliza sings of her irritation with Freddy, her new suitor, in the following lyrics:
Words! Words! Words!
I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Eliza follows her tirade with a plea to be shown Freddy’s feelings via actions instead of just his talking about how he feels about her. “Show me,” sings Eliza. Her song is a great song and a show-stopper, but consider for a moment about how crucial words have been in our lives. Many will recall that old adage from our childhood days: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words [or names] will never hurt me.” Whoever coined that phrase was never bullied. That saying might have been thought to be a useful thing to teach children who were being bullied, but the problem is that the expression is not true.
Words do matter. Words do have power. Words do hurt. Words are forceful tools and have a profound effect on each of us. Words of praise can make us feel cheerful and words of love can fill us with compassionate sentiments. Words of unkind criticism can make us feel depressed and words of harsh anger can make us feel despondent. Mean-spirited words have more power to damage one’s soul than any stick or stone. Some comedians have made careers out of insulting people. In the full glare of stage lights, they say what most other people only think or at best say only in whispers. Such insulting words demonstrate the dark side of language – the power of words to wound. Such words tear down a person.
How damaging it is for a child to be told that she will never amount to anything. Similarly, how disparaging it is for an employee to be told that he is expendable. At one time or another, all of us have been hurt by words that cut us like a knife and as a result we have either lived up to or down to the expectations of such words.
The incalculable influence of words is movingly presented by Mary Ann Bird, who first shared her moving story in her memoir entitled The Whisper Test.
Mary Ann Bird grew up knowing that she was “different,” and she hated being “different.” Mary Ann was “different” because she was born with a cleft palate, a disfigured face, a crooked nose, lopsided teeth, and deafness in one ear. When she started to attend school, her classmates constantly teased her and made it clear to her how she looked to them: a little girl with misshapen features and somewhat garbled speech. She could not even blow up a balloon without holding her nose, and when she bent to drink from a water fountain, the water spilled out of her nose.
When her schoolmates asked, “What happened to your lip?” Mary Ann would tell them that she had fallen as a baby and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born with her disfigured physical appearance. By the age of seven, Mary Ann was convinced that no one outside of her own family could ever love her or even like her.
It was then that Mary Ann entered Mrs. Leonard’s second grade class and Mary Ann’s life was to change forever.
Mrs. Leonard was round and pretty and fragrant, with chubby arms and shiny brown hair and warm dark eyes that smiled even on the rare occasions when her mouth did not. Everyone adored Mrs. Leonard. But no one came to love Mrs. Leonard more than did Mary Ann Bird. And for a very special reason, as we shall see.
The time came for the school’s annual “whisper tests.” Mary Ann was barely able to hear anything out of one ear, and was not about to reveal yet another problem that would single her out further as being “different.” And so she cheated.
She had learned to watch the other children and raised her hand when they did during group testing. The “whisper test” however, required a different kind of deception: Each child would go to the door of the classroom, turn sideways, cover one ear with a hand, and the teacher would whisper something from her desk, which the child would then repeat. Then the same thing was done for the other ear. Mary Ann discovered in kindergarten that no one checked to see how tightly the untested ear was being covered, so she merely pretended to block her ear.
As usual, Mary Ann was last, but all through the testing, she wondered what Mrs. Leonard would whisper to her. She knew from previous years that Mrs. Leonard whispered such things as “The sky is blue” or “Do you have new shoes?”
Mary Ann’s turn finally came. She turned her almost deaf ear to Mrs. Leonard, plugging up the other solidly with her hand, and then gently backed her hand off enough to be able to hear. She waited and then heard the words from Mrs. Leonard’s mouth – seven words that forever transformed Mary Ann Bird’s life. Mrs. Leonard whispered softly, “I wish you were my little girl.” That seemingly small encounter changed Mary Ann’s life forever. Words do matter! A small act of kindness can make a significant difference! Sometimes all it takes is seven little softly-whispered words!
Physically, nothing really changed for Mary Ann Bird. She still had her cleft palate, her disfigured face, her crooked nose, her lopsided teeth, and her deafness in one ear. She was still the object of her classmates’ painful ridicule. But everything changed inside for Mary Ann Bird. She began to see that her classmates’ judgments were neither the only words about her nor the final words. She started to understand herself as loved and lovable and dared to envision a future not constrained by her circumstances, but a future that could transcend them.
And so the little girl who thought of herself as a reject and a loser, as someone outside, as unacceptable, found out that someone wanted her, and it changed her life. It should not surprise you to learn that when Mary Ann Bird grew up she became a teacher, following in the footsteps of the person who had set her free.
If love has a face what will it look like? We can make a fairly accurate educated guess as to how Mary Ann Bird would answer that question – love will look like Mrs. Leonard whispering those seven life-changing words. Mrs. Leonard may have been short and plump, but Mrs. Leonard was beautiful. Her radiant personality spoke of an acceptance and of a realization that the inner qualities of a person are what really matter.
That encounter with love, given form and substance for that moment in Mrs. Leonard, that encounter with love and compassion, altered how Mary Ann Bird saw herself and how she saw the world. I can only guess, but in my heart-of-hearts, I suspect that Mrs. Leonard’s less than perfect physique only increased her compassion toward the imperfections of others. The world has all the beauty queens it needs. We sure could use a lot more Mrs. Leonards!