By Fay Kranz Greene – TheJewishWoman.com / Chabad.org
The other day, I was telling my grandchildren about my younger years. For some reason, I started talking to them about my high school graduation and the yearbook that was given out to all of us. I told them that the yearbook editors were probably the smartest girls in the class, but that I was upset with them. I don’t even remember their names any more, but I will never forget what they wrote.
Every student was given a “tagline,” I think it’s called—something that sums them up in one sentence or maybe one word. I was new to the school, and they didn’t really know me. Do you want to hear what they assigned to me? I’m kind of embarrassed to tell you.
Fay Friedman … in 1962, I was 16 years old. Here is what they wrote about me: “She thinks she’s smart—don’t try to discourage her!!”
She thinks she’s smart—don’t try to discourage her.
It is now 60 years later, I’m already a great-grandmother, and I have a real memory issue. I can’t remember a lot of things, but those words are as clear to me today as they were all those years ago. I did think I was smart. I couldn’t do algebra or speak fluent Hebrew, but I got decent grades, I was a great speller, and I could write. And those words hurt me then and still hurt whenever I think about them.
Of course, I don’t think about them very often, and they don’t actually hurt any more. Yet the other day, they somehow came up in my mind. And I thought maybe I could share this story.
The Torah states that “one shall not aggrieve his fellow, and you shall fear your G‑d, for I am the L‑rd your G‑d” (Leviticus 25:17). Jewish law explains that this prohibition of onaat devarim includes purposely saying something that will hurt, frighten or embarrass someone.
Onaat devarim includes reminding someone who repented of his previous sins, telling someone that his troubles and misfortunes were caused by his sins or even speaking negatively to a convert about his prior life. This prohibition applies to all times and spaces.
I’m going to judge those editors favorably and say that they weren’t purposely trying to hurt or embarrass me. But if by some chance any of those editors are hearing this, please let me know how sorry you are—that you didn’t think before you wrote something that seemed to be clever at the time but still hurts 60 years later.
Maybe this story could help some yearbook editors who are already starting to put the books together. Maybe it could help them to realize that they are dealing with real human beings and not with some makeup-perfect photos in a book.
And maybe they will realize that what they say today about their fellow classmates will remain in their minds and thoughts for decades. When those young people will grab that yearbook and look for their page, they will be impatiently waiting to read what their peers have written. The editors can either make their day or break their day. It’s a choice.
I realize these editors are only teenagers themselves and are doing the best they can, but their teachers need to warn them in advance. We do not say hurtful things about anyone.
And perhaps more importantly, this tale is not only about editors but really all of us.
If you can’t find anything good to say, then make it up. The person will be so happy to read or hear it, and it might even encourage them to actually live up to those words.
“She thinks she’s smart—don’t try to discourage her.”
I wasn’t discouraged, but I was hurt. Just the fact that I still remember it today is the proof. Because as we all know words matter.