The Power of a Kind Word

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” So said Mother Teresa, an Indian missionary known for her own world-changing goodness.  I know she was right, and yet I find myself struggling sometimes to get those kind words to travel the incredibly short distance between my brain and my mouth (which is confusing since some really dumb statements can make the same voyage lickety-split).

I think kind thoughts, but then I’m often too apprehensive and overly analytical to vocalize them.  If I tell him he’s wearing a gorgeous tie, will he think I’m flirting with him?  If I ask her if she’s lost weight, will she think I’m implying she needed to?  Even more often I’m just too forgetful–I intend to pass on a genuine compliment, I really do, but then something else distracts me, and it may be weeks later before the thought reoccurs.

I admire those people who can so easily and sincerely speak a kind word, especially since I have often been the recipient of their kindness and know first-hand its power.  In some cases, my day was greatly improved; in others, my entire life was forever enriched.

A few days ago I finally put the finishing touches on a week-long project of painting the basement.  I have never been a fan of physical labor; consequently, my wimpy little body was suffering the effects of repeatedly reaching, bending, squatting, and going up the ladder, down the ladder, and up the ladder again.  Even my thumbs hurt.  I took a long, scalding hot shower and swallowed more than the recommended dosage of Advil–and then I wanted to ever-so-gently ease into my recliner with ice packs, heating pads, and pillows (did I mention I am a wimp?), but I still had errands to run and groceries to buy, so instead I eased ever-so-gently into my car and headed to town.  In the end, I was glad I made that trip.

As I was hobbling into the grocery store, I was greeted by a very sweet lady who is the mother of one of my students (one of the few parents who isn’t a former student of mine).  She inquired about my summer, and then she asked if she had read correctly in the newspaper that I was 50 years old.  I told her that was correct, and she said, “I had no idea!  I thought you weren’t a day over 40–maybe even 38!”  I told her my oldest son had recently turned 26, so yes, I  really was that old, and she said, “Well, I just wanted to tell you that you look GREAT!”

I thanked her and told her she had just made my day–and she had.  It may have been such a small act of kindness to her, but considering how my body felt, her words were sweet elixir.  Suddenly my back straightened, and even my thumbs felt better.  Now, I realize I’ve just admitted to an abundance of vanity (if you’re nowhere near 50, you may not understand), but I will gladly accept being 50 every day–or at least for the next six months–if there is just one kind person out there who believes I don’t look a day over 40 (or even 38!).

Writing this blog has also brought many compliments my way.  I’ve been writing about my own thoughts and experiences, so it has been exciting to learn that my words have “struck a chord” with several of my readers.  I’ve received many positive comments from friends and colleagues and especially from former students who have not only remarked on my writing but have also shared memories of and expressed gratitude for my teaching.  None of them has had to respond to my writing, which has made hearing from them even more special, and their kind words have been both encouraging and empowering.

My life has been particularly enriched by a powerful letter I received from a former student a few months ago when I was at one of the lowest points of my professional career.  The day before one of my students had gotten very ill at school, so much so that we called an ambulance to transport him to an area hospital.  I was worried about him, especially when I found out later that night that he had been airlifted to a children’s hospital and was not doing well.  The next morning I tried to comfort some of his distraught friends and convince them that he would be okay; then I had the school nurse call the hospital to check his status, and a short time later she came to my office to tell me the prognosis was not good.  I should have been stronger, but when the nurse left my office, I closed the door and sobbed.  I tried to pray but felt powerless.  I picked up the phone to call my minister, but then I remembered he was preaching a difficult funeral that day, and I put the phone back down–I didn’t want to add to his burden.  I felt devastated and alone, but I knew I had to “get myself together”; I needed to dry my tears and put on a brave face for the sake of my students and teachers.  Since classes were in session and there shouldn’t be anyone in the halls, I decided to walk through the building a few times in an attempt to regain my composure.

When I got back to my office about ten minutes later, I noticed a pink envelope lying in the center of my desk.  The envelope was addressed to me and had a picture of a dove and a cross drawn on the front of it; on the back, the return address identified the sender as a former student currently living in Berkeley, California (a student I have not seen since he graduated years ago).  The envelope was postmarked six days prior.  I asked my secretary if she had retrieved the envelope from my mailbox in the teachers’ lounge and placed it on my desk; she had not.  I asked her if anyone else had been in my office, and she said no.

When I opened the envelope, I found a beautifully written letter from this former student, sending me Easter greetings and detailing the struggles he had been through in the years since high school–but also explaining how he had triumphed over those struggles.  At the top of the letter, he had handwritten this note:  “Mrs. Eubank, may you always be aware of the people you touch.”  At the bottom of the letter, he had included this scripture:  “I tell you truly: You will weep and mourn while the world rejoices; you will grieve for a time, but your grief will be turned to joy.” (St. John, 16:20)

Now, believe what you want, but I choose to believe that his letter appeared on my desk on that day–at that particular moment–with that particular message–for a reason.  At first it gave me chills, but then I was filled with an overwhelming calmness and the strength I had been searching for.  I had found my “brave face,” and a few hours later I was even able to add a smile to it when I heard from the hospital that my student was doing much better and should make a full recovery.

To this day I do not know how the letter came to be on my desk (instead of in my mailbox where it might have remained several days before I retrieved it).  I now carry the letter in my purse so that every time I see its pink envelope I am reminded of the power of the words inside.

Every other letter, note, or card that I have received from students over the years is kept in a scrapbook in my office; occasionally when I’m having a bad day, I pull out the scrapbook and re-read its contents.  It’s a tremendous ego booster, but it also reminds me that what I do really is important and that the bad days are so few in comparison to the good.  A few years ago, inspired by my scrapbook (and for once, spontaneous enough to kick apprehension out the window), I decided to write a long-overdue letter of thanks to one of my former teachers.  He was my eighth grade history teacher, a kind and gentle man who instilled in me a love for history–especially the Civil War era–that exists to this day.  I wanted to tell him how much his teaching had influenced me, and even though I had chosen a different subject to study, all those years ago he had inspired me to become an educator.

A few months later I received a very nice letter back from my teacher’s wife.  She told me how much joy the letter had brought him in his final hours; he had received it just two weeks before he died from cancer.

That was an opportunity I almost missed.  How many other opportunities have I let slip by because I have been too worried about what others might think?  Too many.  I have seen with my own eyes and felt with my own heart “the power of a kind word” spoken by others, and there is no legitimate reason why I can’t do a better job of spreading such kindness myself.

I will.

About icedteawithlemon

I have recently retired from a 30-year career in education in one of the best school districts in the world. I hope to spend my second life reading, writing, photographing, traveling, biking, cheering on my favorite baseball team (the St. Louis Cardinals), and soaking up glorious sunshine. In my spare time I enjoy playing with my pet tarantulas, trying out new flavors of chewing gum, and knitting socks for prison inmates. I'm almost positive that in a past life I was one of the Seven Dwarfs (most likely "Grumpy"), and in my next life I'm going to be either a taste tester for Hershey's or a model for Victoria's Secret's new line, "Bloomers for Boomers." I want to travel country back roads, singing Vanilla Ice songs at every karaoke bar and rating bathroom cleanliness at every truckstop. And someday I plan to own a private beach where skinny girls aren't allowed. I want to be a writer when I grow up. "Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."--Henry David Thoreau
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13 Responses to The Power of a Kind Word

  1. Polly says:

    This one gave me chills, Karen. Well done.

  2. megin says:

    You always make me cry!!! Either I am a cry baby or your words are just that deep and enriching, I’ll choose the ladder. PS…..You’ve always been my favorite teacher…and I think of you EVERY day when I have to edit spelling and grammatical errors on work papers!!! I just want to scream when I find silly irking errors on what are supposed to be professional documents!! (Now you can secretly laugh at all the errors I am sure YOU can find in this paragraph!!)

    • Megin, thank you so much! During my last three years in college, I worked as a secretary in the political science department. I loved the job–except for one pompous ass of a professor who was working on his thesis for his doctorate. He would bring me his handwritten pages to type, and his spelling and grammar were atrocious. I would correct his errors and give him back his typed copies. He would edit, revise, and add and then give me the papers back to re-type–and he would have “corrected” my corrections, changing all his spelling and grammatical errors back to his original version. It drove me crazy! The worst was “said”–he repeatedly spelled it “siad.” I finally complained to the department chair, and he told me the guy should be doing his own work anyway and not to make any corrections–just type it the way he wrote it. I graduated before he had his thesis review, but I always wondered how it went!

  3. Karen says:

    I loved this! About a year ago down at the ballpark, you shared some very kind words with me about Luke. They were very much appreciated. Thank you.

  4. Janet says:

    Karen, I’ve just found time to catch up on some of my favorite blogs, and this was the best. I love that you allow us to really see inside you sometimes. I’ve said before that I enjoy your precision, concision and elegance in writing, but when you add “heart” to that, it is so much better!

    • Thank you, Janet! I especially value your comments because I’ve read YOUR writing and know what a wonderful job you do! This was by far the hardest post for me to write, and it’s exciting to know how many people were affected by it.

  5. Pingback: The Power of a Kind Word (via Iced Tea with Lemon’s Blog) « scallag1's blog

  6. Usually I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this article really forced me to do so! Thanks, really nice article.

  7. I recently received this response to “The Power of a Kind Word” from the student whose letter is mentioned in the post. I had (belatedly) sent him a thank you card for his words as well as a copy of the blog.

    Yesterday, I was the grateful recipient of a card filled with kindness. I am the former student that wrote the kind word Mrs. E was referring to. Funny, her card came at a time I desperately needed it. I have battled with bipolar disorder—Manic-Depression—for years now. Like a person who lives with chronic-physical pain, I am reminded daily of what it is like to live with a mental illness. I was not even aware of Mrs. E’s blog prior to her sending me a copy of the essay written: The Power of a Kind Word.

    As Mrs. E began her words quoting Mother Teresa—now beatified and soon to be canonized—I will follow her lead and quote Mother’s words: “Nobody hates God more than the devil. The devil seeks not so much to destroy us, as to destroy the God in us.” I would imagine that those in my graduating class of 1992 saw me as an outspoken liberal, religious individual with a charismatic drive to “make it in life.” More specifically they believed my drive toward the fashion industry would bring me great success.

    My kindness has been tempered by knowing the destructive nature of envy and what it has taken to be released from hell. I recall the day when it was time to payout the contract I made with Judas Iscariot. I lived on the 30th floor of my posh building in Miami that exposed the beauty of Coral Gables and Miami Beach. My room was done in Versace. I had a prestigious job working for a fashion label that helped define the Prep-Americana style. The company had their eye on me to promote me to their corporate office, in New York City, as a buyer. I mingled with celebrities and socialites. I was given a lucrative modeling contract. I escorted on the side and was receiving money from clients that knew what it was like to be a millionaire. The greatest injustice I suffered from at that time was the rage over not being able to afford the Gucci shoes at the moment I WANTED them. It was all “never enough.” I was never enough! On this particular day I looked out my balcony window to see a storm moving in with a shade of violent grey I had never before beheld.

    With blood steadily streaming from my nose as a result of crystal-meth and ketamine I held in tight desperation the poems and short stories I had once written—talents enriched by having had Mrs. E as a teacher. Along with blood my tears came pouring out of my eyes. And all that came to mind was one question as I rocked back-and-forth on my knees: “How in the hell did I get here!?!” My ability to write had been hidden into parts of my heart I could no longer access. Yes, Judas Iscariot and I met that February to recognize the price of our bounties. How had I sold Jesus? I sold out a person He loved with detail and intimacy—ME!

    “Let us oft’ speak kind words to each other, at home or wherever we may be,” the song went that I learned as a child in my faith-of-origin. On my two-year mission for the LDS Church I was known as the “Kind Elder.” During my military service as an FMF Corpsman for a United States Marine Corps Tank Battalion, I was the one to represent kindness; my Marines knew I would be their figure of mercy and comfort during a time of war. During one lecture I had my Marines in tears. But, not that day in Miami. Kindness had become a commodity I used to manipulate to get what I wanted.

    I returned to San Diego with my life in ruins. It may seem like a paradox, yet the some of the kindest words ever given to me was by a close friend who was a Drill Instructor at the USMC Training Depot: “I have tried to be as gentle as possible in communicating with you. I realize I have to be blunt. You once used your kindness, your faith and sweetness to help and love others. Now you use your kindness to manipulate others. You are not the man I once knew.” As painful as the sentiments were, I knew he was right.

    In entering recovery I learned the words of one of my political gurus, Hillary Clinton, to be true. “It took a village.” I had to be shown kindness in many facets before I could uncover my true self. Kindness came in the form of recovery. Kindness came in the words in books, especially the books of left-based Catholic Theologian Sister Joan Chittister, and Marianne Williamson’s book, A Return to Love. Kindness came from New Testament writings like that of the Prodigal Son. Kindness came in remembering mentors and teachers in my past. Kindness came from diverse social groups. And kindness came when I converted to Catholicism—I felt like I was coming home!

    Today I pay that kindness forward. I volunteer and teach adults the course I went through to become a Roman Catholic at the same parish. I am a good friend and know what it is like to repair burnt bridges. I know integrity. I volunteer with the ACLU. I am also involved in progressive social-justice causes within the Catholic Church: pushing for women ordination, absolute equality and acceptance of gays, lesbians and transgendered Catholics, ecumenical dialogue, etc. Whether or not you as the reader agree with my beliefs, I do it because to me it represents kindness. I am in no way claiming to be the paramount figure of self-realization; I often lie, manipulate, withhold love and swim in self-pity.

    “But by the Grace of God go I!” Most of my friends in my “party” days have either committed suicide or died of drug-related causes. Doctors are baffled by the fact I am still alive. It is through such kind words as those spoken by St. Therese that I have found forgiveness. She stated that when she left this earth she wanted to help “those who lived like dogs die like angels—loved and wanted.” I affirm how touched and grateful I am by Mrs. Eubank’s letter. Yet, I must let it be known, that such occurrences happen all the time in my life now from so many diverse sources—it is now more the rule than the exception. During the Easter Vigil—when my students received their sacraments—I was touched by the large candle that lights a small candle, and from that small candle all candles are lit that the church may be found luminous.

    In closing I want to share a blessed experience. I consider St. Therese (a Carmelite nun who died on 30 September 1897 and canonized on 17 May 1927) to be my patron saint for whom I have great devotion. A friend of mine once had a hobby of dumpster-diving in thrift store dumpsters. The items he posses from his adventures are priceless. A couple of years ago he gave me a box he once found. The box is filled with letters, holy cards, photos and telegrams from a Catholic couple who died in the 1960’s. It is touching to read their love letters—spanning from when they first met till their death. The couple treated one another with unfailing kindness. Their children obviously gave little value to the life of their parents by throwing away the precious box. The couple—from letters found—kept in close contact with a Carmelite nun. The prized treasure in this box was a holy card given by the Carmelite to the couple. Inside the holy card is a ribbon touched by St. Therese. Just as Mrs. E knew that my card ended up on her desk by the Hands of Divine Intervention, I know the holy card ended up in my hands by the same Presence. I don’t own a purse, so I will be keeping Mrs. E’s card and blog where I keep that holy card.

    St. Therese was what the world would look at and see as an ordinary girl. She lived a brief life that was marked by chronic illness. Like many saints and many of us she did experience Divine apparitions. To see the pictures of her face from the casket, it is all too obvious that she knew where she was going—into the Hands of a kind and loving God. St. Therese is not only a canonized saint! She bears the title known to select saints: that of Doctor of the Church. Her writings have been canonized as kin to scripture. What makes this ordinary girl—Therese—so extraordinary is her writings. Those writings are predicated upon words of kindness…It seems kind words do make a difference.
    Copyright: Sebastian T. Xavier, San Diego, CA

  8. Pingback: Sticks and Stones and the Danger of Public Nudity | Iced Tea with Lemon's Blog

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