Nice. Kind. Sweet. By 5th grade I deeply hated those words, especially when they were ascribed to me.
I remember my 5th grade teacher would select 2 student’s names every week and we would all write down what we liked about them. She then collected those words and wrote them on a large piece of paper with our name in bold at the top, and hung the pages on the wall for all to read.
I always felt terribly for the kids with small lists, the kids no one liked or no one really knew well enough to say anything beyond “quiet” or “nice hair”. The popular kids usually had such long lists that the teacher had to squish the last few words together on the bottom of the page. The rest of us had small lists that barely extended to the 2nd line. You could practically hear crickets in the room as kids strained their brains to come up with adjectives for the quiet kids. Didn’t the teachers see? Didn’t they realize that their efforts to boost our self-esteem were actually making things worse? Didn’t they think we could tell which words the teachers added on their own to the shortest of lists, out of pity?
It was then that I realized how much I hated those words. My short list: nice, quiet, sweet, kind, pretty eyes. That was me. That was so me that over 20 kids couldn’t come up with any words other than those for me. And what did I see in those words? The louder unspoken words that weren’t written on the page but were thought by most in the class “nerd”, “unpopular”, “nothing special”.
It’s funny how those things stick with you throughout your life. Any time I go to meet up with someone I went to school with, I feel like that short-listed 5th grader again, my mind filling in the blanks for what that old friend must surely be thinking when she sees me.
I met an old friend for lunch today. We hadn’t seen each other since high school. We had shared one class together. I remembered her as a gentle-yet-spunky gal that I found instantly likeable. She was fun to talk to. She made you feel like what you said was important (and how rare a thing is that when you are in high school?).
She is an artist now; a real life, shows her works in galleries and in art magazines, artist. When we reconnected on facebook we chatted about her art and how I use art therapy in counseling. She had asked me to bring some of my art therapy work to our lunch for her to see. I almost didn’t; but I did. In true “me” fashion I began with a caveat about how my stuff wasn’t real art like her stuff and I knew that; but she graciously looked through it and asked me about it.
As our conversation continued a man in a wheelchair rolled up to our table and began touching my drawings. He said, “Yes” and he started paging through what I brought, adding another “Yes” to each page. My friend introduced us and asked him his name, to which he answered “No.” There was something in his eyes that pained him when he said this. He began to gesture largely with his hand and my friend spoke his words for him, “You can’t tell us your name.” “Yes.” He turned back to me and pointed at the art and said, “Yes” again, and then back at us. That was when I saw his right hand laying useless in his lap. His eyes were trying so hard to communicate what his mind wouldn’t allow him to. My friend said, “Yes, these are her drawings.” He looked at me and pointed at the page and then at me and said, “Yes.” He continued to pick up my pastels as a young girl of 10 or so came up behind him. “Hi Dad,” she said. Then as he continued to “Yes” through my pages she explained, “Dad loves paintings.” She joined him in looking at them, finding a couple of india ink experiments I did and his word changed to “Wow.” He looked at me and said, “Yes” again.
When all the pages were thoroughly examined and yes’d, he reached his hand out to my friend and she took it and he said, “yes” and she said, “nice to meet you”. He reached out his hand to me and I took it and he pointed to my art and to me and said “Yes.” His daughter wheeled him back over to his wife and their lunch. After he finished he came back over to “Yes” his goodbyes and grabbed our hands again. He pointed again at my closed art book and gave me a final “Yes” before leaving.
My friend and I were overwhelmed. We talked about how hard it would be to be trapped in a body that wouldn’t allow you to express the words you wanted. How glad we were to take the time to connect with this stranger when we could have looked on him as an intrusion. We talked about how few people bother to take the time to connect with each other any more.
“That wasn’t an accident,” she said. “No,” I agreed. I doubt that these words can even come close to expressing the power of those moments, the strength of the “Yes” from that man. “That was for you,” my friend said. “For your art.”
After we parted and drove our separate ways, I am left with that indelible experience. I started this blog last night, talking about the little words I hated since childhood. They weren’t bad words, they just weren’t “special.” But let me tell you this…there is nothing more special than a “yes” from a stranger. A stranger with a useless right hand and a brain that thinks everything but allows only “yes” and “no” and “wow” to escape. A stranger who took the time to come into our lives for a few moments, and change everything.
I wonder if he knows how well he still communicates. How much power he still has. I wish I could have told him.