The Power Of Words

By Flora Richards Gustafson

Sad girl with group in backgroundLesson Plan Guide

“‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ Whoever wrote this either had the best self-esteem in the world or was completely void of any human emotion because he got it SO wrong.” This is how Sam started out his private, online journal entry one day after school. His peers gave him a hard time because he stood up for a classmate others were picking on… again.

“I don’t know why they have to be so mean all the time, and call Jerry names like ‘fag’ or ‘homo,’ and tell him everyone hates him. Whatever, it was maybe funny the first time, but now it’s old. It’s too much. They even text him these things, and I can tell it made him feel bad. When I stand up for him, they say, ‘Are you in love with a homo?’ I barely know the guy, but I don’t want our school to be in the news because it got so bad that Jerry shoots himself or something.

“I tried telling teachers and the school counselors. They seem to care, but nothing’s different. When other people or I try to help or say something, it seems to get worse. I don’t know what to do. I know I could take it, but I don’t know about him.…”

Words and teasing have more of an impact than you may think. It is common to hear about the impact words have on high school students today, as some have led to suicide or other acts of violence. However, there are things you can do to help.

Don’t Be That Person
Though articles always offer advice to those who have had unwelcome comments said to them at school, they rarely address those making the comments. However, if you do the teasing or are the bully, those self-help articles exist because of how words similar to the ones you use make others feel.

If you are not sure if you are that person, consider the following: Do you make comments about people, even if you are not trying to be mean, to make others laugh or for attention? Do you say them because you think you are funny, or do you just like the reaction you get from the other person? Do you feel pressure from your friends to have a big mouth? If you answered “yes” or “maybe” to any of these, you might be that person.

When a peer feels bad because of things people are saying to them at school, they may feel unsafe or scared, and miss school or get bad grades as a result.

Steve Wessler, who formed the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence, stated, “Students have the right to their own beliefs … and they have a right to express those beliefs. But students do not have the right to use degrading words to harass and frighten.”

Think before you speak to others: What you say carries power to harm or to do good. Do you want to be a person whose speech causes negative consequences in another?

Remember the Golden Rule
If you have ever logged into your social networking account to find that someone posted a less-than-flattering message to or about you, think about how that made you feel. Kind of irritated, right?

The good news is that you have the power to not make others feel this way.

Dylan Baker, a high school student in High Point, North Carolina (whose name has been changed to honor confidentiality), said, “Treat people the way you would like to be treated. I’m not saying to change who you are, but just think about what you say. [Those who are teased] are people just like you and I.”

Dana Williams, a former “Teaching Tolerance” editor and writer says teens can go beyond the Golden Rule by being honest, leading by example, and speaking out. She urges young people to “challenge racism, bigotry and stereotypes. … Do something to make a difference.”

Speak Up
Many harmful words are said because it seems like they are just what everyone else says. Wessler said that most students who use harmful language do not really think about what they are saying or have a particularly deep-seated bias toward particular groups. “Often, they’re just picking up on the messages they hear repeated again and again,” he said.

One of Dylan’s classmates, Tiffany Ramsay (whose name also has been changed), shared “It makes me cringe every time I hear someone say something is ‘gay.’ My guy friends are especially bad with that habit. The only reason they say this stuff in the first place is because it is the norm. If saying more positive words becomes the norm, everyone will stop.”

When your peers are teasing others, speak up. Wessler said the problem of insensitive and hurtful language would be reduced greatly if brave young people stood up more often for what they know is right. When they don’t, he said, “[Verbal abusers] think everybody thinks their prejudices are OK, because everybody remains silent.”

Your words have more power than you will ever know. The important thing to remember is that you should strive to make those words count for something you will not regret.

About the Author

Flora Richards Gustafson