“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Though I didn’t know exactly what to call it at the time, this was the very first affirmation. My Nana, Mrs. Ruby, taught it to me one afternoon when she’d picked me up from school and on the drive home discovered I was upset because Winston had called me “go head fo’ head.” I never thought my forehead was any larger than anyone else’s, but his pointing it out made me look closely. And, yep, it was round. “Don’t pay him no mind, Nik. Just let it roll off like water on the feathers of a duck’s back,” Nana said.
“What in the hell does that even mean!? Ducks?! I’m getting killed out here and you’re talking about DUCKS?!”, I thought as I walked to my bedroom at the end of the hall. While her come-back was good, it didn’t have that certain sting to it I needed. I wanted my entire fifth grade class to burst into a chorus of “Ohhhhh’s” and laugh so hard Mr. Seigal would have to ask us all to settle down. “Next time, I’ll just say, ‘ya mammy'”, I thought as I unlaced my black Chuck Taylor’s, tired from basketball practice. Over the weekend I reminded myself not to let anyone’s “cracks” annoy me and I was prepared to square off and win against anyone who wanted to play the dozens. On Monday morning, with my hair pulled back in a banana-clip ponytail and wearing my favorite “WHAM!” tee-shirt , I was locked, loaded and ready to fire back.
Predictably enough, Winston held his insult until recess and waited for me to pass the large oak tree where he and his crew gathered, just next to the see-saw. “Go heaaad, fo’ heaaad,” he hollered all nice and smooth just as I walked by. Predictably, his entourage giggled. Unpredictably, I turned around, walked back over and said, “My head may be big, but you oughta be ashamed to have buttery, yellow teeth like that!”
Oh, boy! Everyone within earshot howled! Walking away calmly with a smirk, finally I was vindicated, and I sat on the black, rubber swing. I watched the tattle-tales run like carrier-pigeons to other groups to share what I’d said, and they laughed, too. I got him.
And I discovered that I was good at it.
By eighth grade I had created a name for myself. I was a good kid, often “teacher’s pet,” honor roll student and an athlete. But if you stepped across the line, heads would roll. Quick-witted with a sharp vocabulary developed from being an avid reader, I could assess my opponent’s slightest idiosyncrasy and magnify it in a verbal sparring match until the entire cafeteria would be coughing and holding their stomachs.That was, at least, until I got called out of class over the P.A. system to go to the guidance counselor’s office.
The walk across Parkway Middle School’s courtyard was blurry. What on earth were they calling me for? I replayed each day in my mind, but kept coming up with nothing. But, when I opened the manilla-colored painted door, there sat Monica, slumped in the soft, blue chair, with broken Kleenex pieces around her red, puffy eyes.
“Hi, Nikki, sit with us, please,” Mrs. Bair asked as I closed the door behind me. “Monica has something she wants to tell you.” Monica lifted her head, caught a quick, reassuring glance from Mrs. Bair and looked back at me. “You hurt my feelings when you said my shoes looked like they’d been in a blender.” “WHAT?!” I think to myself. “You were trying to crack on me too, and… ” “And, I’m sorry for making jokes about you, too. I don’t wanna play anymore,” she says interrupting my mental cross-examination, taking another tissue from the box.
Right then, I learned that mean words hurt. I knew at minimum they could annoy, but that single, galvanizing moment taught me that words hurled through the air at the speed of sound, once connected, can cause pain. Like bullets from a gun, tongues pulling the trigger, words can injure, or even worse, murder. Don’t think so? Ask the countless number of people who sabotage their dreams because of a “you’ll never amount to anything” bullet that still fires in their subconscious.
I apologized to Monica that day in Mrs. Bair’s office, and agreed that we’d no longer “crack” on each other. I still enjoy and good joke and am of the opinion that Bernie Mac is a comedic genius. As for Winston, he’s probably someplace still thinking of his come-back.
For now though, I choose to use my powers for good.
One of the historical women that I admire is Daisy Bates. She believed so much so in the power of words and education, that she dared to challenge the day’s cultural norm by publishing the state of Arkansas’ Supreme Court desegregation violations in the Arkansas State Press – a newspaper that she and her husband owned and operated.