Words are powerful. We are told this from a very early age, but how do we really learn it, how do we really know?
Although we lived quite near my elementary school, I rode the bus there and back. When I was very young it was before the Supreme Court decided to firmly separate church and state by prohibiting school-endorsed prayer (Engle v. Vitale, 1962). So every Wednesday afternoon Catholic children were allowed “release time,” during which, under the supervision of brothers from the local Catholic college (Marist College), they walked to another building in the village where they received religious instruction. The rest of the class remained behind at the school where we did busy work or played, or rested, but received no instruction of any kind, lest the Catholic children get behind.
When I was in the second grade in 1958, it was decades before May 2, 2011 when Pope Benedict XVI exonerated the Jews from killing Jesus Christ. So one of those Wednesdays, when the Catholic children went to “release time,” they were taught that the Jews killed Christ. When they returned from their instruction time that afternoon there was just time enough to board the buses and go home. My bus pulled out, and everything seemed as usual. (Now as you may know from my previous articles, I am Jewish, and at that time, my sister and I were the only Jewish children in the whole school, in fact, in the entire school district.)
The first child got off at her stop. Then the second exited the bus at hers. As we neared my stop I rose and began to walk to the front of the bus. Immediately, a chant began: “Christ killer, Christ killer, you killed Christ!” Kids started hitting me; children I thought were my friends, including my best friend, were screaming those lines at me; I still see their angry faces. Spitballs flew at me. It felt as if this went on for hours, but in reality it was only three or four minutes. But for a small child, that can be an eternity. I ran, crying, off the bus and into my mother’s waiting arms. The bus didn’t move after I got off, and my mother boarded it. She spoke to the driver as she attempted to ascertain what had occurred, and then she spoke to the children. My mother was very involved in the local area, and one of the things she volunteered to do was be the Girl Scout and Brownie leader. I know there were several Brownies from our troop on the bus that afternoon. I don’t know what she said, but knowing my mother it was powerful, and when the bus finally pulled out, it was silent inside.
Unbeknownst to me until many years later, the next day my mother had a conference with my school principal. Then she had a talk with the brother at Marist College who was in charge of release time education, and the topic of who killed Christ never came up again between me and my peers. I’m sure the children apologized (My mother would have seen to that.). I just don’t remember it.
Roll forward about forty-six years, and my son is in the seventh grade and tells me that there is a swastika carved into the table where he is assigned to sit at lunch. He is the only Jewish child in his school. He’s mystified; I’m upset. I’m that second grader back on the bus, but now I’m angry and want to fight. So, taking a play from my mother’s handbook, without his knowledge, the next morning I go in and talk to the vice-principal. I also go to see the superintendent.
The vice-principal quietly takes my son and a piece of sandpaper and has him watch as she sands the carving out of existence, and explains how they won’t stand for that sort of thing, how that is the way they deal with it, quash it out of existence. The superintendent announces to all school principals in the district that they are required to have a multicultural club in each and every school from that day forward. They tell me that if they could have found out who did it, the child would have been punished severely. I am satisfied with their response, but still angry at the amount of prejudice that remains out there, and wonder how far we have really come in all these years.
I am a firm believer in the power of words. When teaching small children at the age when the natural response to anger is to hit, we tell them “use your words, not your fists.” We repeat it until they learn it. Language can hurt beyond measure; words can also heal. The choice is yours.
– Emily Horn Kelley
Emily was raised by extremely liberal parents in the lush and gorgeous Hudson Valley of New York where she was always in sight of inspiring mountains. Her formal education took her travelling all over the world at a youngish age and instilled in her a great love of different cultures and diversities, both tangible and philosophical. She has enjoyed more than one profession, including that of being a chef, and has cooked for presidents and governors alike. She has lived in Alabama since 1989, though she longs for a cooler climate. Presently she resides in Sheffield, with her beloved husband, Tim, and two very old cats, and near her now-grown, delightful son, Dylan.