ShePonders: Mean Words


“I recognize that third grade boys are bad mirrors for the self-esteem of a young girl. So I called in better mirrors to weed out the mean words meant to marginalize. I wanted her to be seen truly and, maybe more importantly, to see herself truly.”

She burst into my room, darted for the bed and held fast to my side. Then an explosion of tears scattered across her chocolate cheeks. Through the breath-robbing sobs she said, “They’re mean to me, Mom, so mean to me!

She looked me in the eyes and shouted, “I hate third grade! They’re so mean in third grade!”

And then came the soft spoken confession: for weeks, a group of boys taunted her on the playground at recess calling her “ugly,” making fun of her speech impediment and even teasing her for those lovely, long dreadlocks and dark skin.

And then my heart exploded. Tears stained my white cheeks and all I could do was hold her tight and shower her with incessant kisses. Because it’s hard to find words strong enough to counter such meanness meted out by third grade boys.

But once I caught my breath, once her breathing had slowed and she relaxed deeper into my arms, I told her that she is beautiful, smart and strong. This is our mantra, and as I repeated it again she started to whisper the words with me. But even our special mantra couldn’t erase the hurt I saw.

My daughter is nine years old. She’s the most fearless girl I know. Brave, strong and unflappable by our bicultural life, by her own hearing challenges and learning disabilities. She works hard, delights her teachers with her constant cheer and has become quite chatty in recent weeks. But when no one was looking, boys belittled her on the playground.

As I did all the things a vigilant mother does—investigate, talk to a witness (my son), connect with teachers and such—I learned this had been happening for weeks. My daughter tried to handle this herself for four weeks. My son said he noticed her coming in from recess crying, wiping away the tears so her teacher wouldn’t see, wouldn’t ask. See, that’s my girl, a high threshold for pain and a work ethic that kept her trying to fix this recess rumble. She mustered all the resilience she could find, until she could find no more and launched herself into my arms at long last.

The seeds of marginalization are planted this early, this young. How those boys see my daughter in her radiant blackness, dreads dancing to and fro as she runs past them. How they think they can mistreat someone with a hearing aid, someone who works hard to say every word. How they can so easily label her and then leave her out.

And while this happened day after day, the young witnesses stayed silent and the grown-ups didn’t see any of it unfold. So my daughter’s plight became an invisible one, and she was becoming less seen with each instance of belittling. This is how marginalization starts to happen—slow, quiet and almost unnoticed.

Until she had enough.

Until she came to the end of her own resources.

Until she decided to tell someone.

So I listened, comforted, then advocated. But I knew it wasn’t enough. Because planted in the soil of her heart was that seed of marginalization – the one that says you’re not our kind of pretty, you talk funny, you’re different from us, you’re not good enough to play with us. If I left it there, untouched, that little seed could grow roots in her soul, making her feel less than the strong, robust, vibrant girl she is. I wanted to act before those words were internalized, buried too deep to unearth.

But I also knew I could not pluck out that seed alone. I needed more hands to dig deep, turn the soil and cultivate something better in her spirit. So I called in all the women I know who love my daughter. I asked them to send cards, telling her how they see her. I wanted my girl to be known and seen. I wanted her to hold tangible reminders of how beautiful she is in her own hands—so she could remember when someone else might try to belittle her.

I recognize that third grade boys are bad mirrors for the self-esteem of a young girl. So I called in better mirrors to weed out the mean words meant to marginalize. I wanted her to be seen truly and, maybe more importantly, to see herself truly.

“Come forth, be seen,” says the prophet. Isaiah knew that liberation involves coming forward from the margins and regaining visibility in the community. Walter Brueggemann, preaching on Isaiah 49, says it this way, “The power of the gospel is to authorize all persons, all the marginated, to be fully present and visible in the public process of life.” I think this gospel goodness is meant even for our kids as they get their first taste of life on the margins of the playground. They need to come out and be seen.

Cards have already arrived. There’s one from me, of course, then one from her godmother in California, and some from neighbors down the road. She reads them aloud, beaming. She pulls out her special box of cards and blushes, smiles and twirls with girlish delight. Because, I believe, she’s seen by these women and that feels good all the way down to her toes. And being seen is an antidote to marginalization.

More cards are coming—from an auntie at Harvard Law, aunties in Vancouver, Kansas City, Los Angeles and Houston. More women ensuring my daughter is seen and any remaining hint of meanness rooted out. Oh, it does take a village!

Today I read something from Shane Claiborne, written in response to a question about non-violence, When a community responds to injustice together, there are a lot more options for the marginalized and abused.” I thought of my daughter, and the women rallying around her. They each are helping bring healing to hurt places in my daughter’s heart, reaching depths that I alone cannot reach. Our community joins us in response to mean words meant to marginalize, and they create new options for my daughter to talk about her experience, reclaim her sense of self and remember she’s loved as she is, in all her beauty.

Together we are fighting against injustice in its infancy. We refuse to let mean words marginalize the playground … or anywhere else our sons and daughters roam.
Image Credit: Kelley Nikondeha

Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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