We all know people who have inspired, motivated and helped us to where we are today.
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This includes parents, siblings and the extended family who showered us with positive comments, even though I always stood by suspiciously, wondering if their words were just too over the top to be true. There was however another person who’s words made a huge impact on my life. You see, words have an incredible power to destroy or rebuild a person.
Let’s backtrack to my life 43 years ago.
The year is 1971.
The teacher at my primary school made an announcement aimed at me one day (I was aged 4 at the time) “You will never make anything of yourself” she said with nonchalance, whilst I sat listening to her words, not really comprehending the enormity of what she had just said.
None of the kids in the class remembered a thing she taught that day (or that year for that matter) other than the ill advised words she aimed at me. But boy did the kids in the class remind me of what she said repeatedly, which of course they loved chanting in the playground.
The next day my father stormed into the school office to complain about this teachers comment, but it was too late, the damage was done. During the next few years in primary school, if I answered any maths questions incorrectly (maths was my weakest subject), one of the teachers would drag me out of the class, by pulling at my ear and taking me to the lower form classes.
The teacher would then inform the other students of my mistakes, whilst I stood at the front of the class feeling a sense of shame that only comes from knowing you have failed at something huge, yet confused at the fuss created at failing a maths equation. This practice happened repeatedly throughout primary school.
Is it any wonder that by the time I reached high school at 13, this became my nirvana?
In my teens, high school was essentially a convent school (apparently haunted) and run by a group of Irish nuns. The concept of this seemed unbelievable to me at the time. As a Jewish girl sent to convent school, I entered adolescence with a thick mixture of two very different religions, yet our family didn’t have a choice. When you live in an area which spans two and a half square miles, and there are no other high schools, it’s take it or leave it, and we couldn’t afford to leave it.
The inspired moment came from a pretty unlikely source, Sister Anne, one of the Irish nuns who taught English.
In this unfamiliar arena of holy communions, confessions and the lords prayer, as opposed to the traditions that my community held, I was jolted to wake up and smell the coffee, or rather, the pungent smells that came from the convent after burning the elements in preparation for the communions.
Sister Anne’s thick Irish accent was in stark contrast to our loud and exaggerated Spanish accents which permeated the air. I wondered what Sister Anne and all the other Irish nuns made of hormonal adolescent girls displaying an erratic mix of passionate Spanish blood with the traditional British essence of structure and politeness.
At high school I was tenacious, impulsive, the class clown and lived for my dance and drama classes. In addition to this, I had a number of boyfriends and busy social life thrown in. I was in the center of the friendship circles and totally belonged.
There was only one problem and it was huge.
Taking into account my early years of being manhandled and given a number of colorful put downs by teachers, I had no faith or belief whatsoever in my academic ability and spent my time playing around in class, holding no aspirations for advancing academically.
The concept of further studies or attending university was completely foreign to me, and one that I had not allowed to even filter through. In my mind, academics and achievement was a position reserved for a very exclusive VIP circle and one which certainly did not include me.
I couldn’t imagine taking multiple exams and had no desire to reach for anything other than perhaps a dance, beauty or hairdressing course. I secretly aspired to become a dancer, yet this was forbidden from the offset, as my parents decided it would never provide a secure enough living.
There was an exception, Sister Ann’s English class. The only class I dared to take an interest in.
Even though my spoken English was poor, I had no struggle whatsoever putting my stories onto paper, where I allowed my mind, my imagination and creativity to run riot in an effortless and spontaneous fashion. On paper I could be free to create the beginning and dream ending I chose with the free flow of an artist creating a portrait.
The language issue was only a problem when I spoke, not when I wrote.
You see, other than dancing, my only other saving grace was reading English books.
I was never happier than settling down to read a new book, and loved the smell and feel of the paper as I turned the pages. I remember running out after school on Fridays to our local ‘Curiosity Shop’ which was a down and out tiny bookshop selling English second hand books.
I would buy a few books, then fit the reading thirstily over the weekend between parties and socials and devour the books one by one whilst I snuggled up on the sofa. The books transported me to a world that I could only be part of whilst they were in my care. I could be the VIP in this world in a way I couldn’t be in the school academic circle.
So how did Sister Anne, the nun with the Irish accent change my life?
She woke me up to what i was capable of.
Sister Anne, sat me down sternly one day when I had been particularly raucous in the classroom and told me that she would have to call my parents for a serious discussion, which of course filled me with deep shame and embarrassment. Snapshot moments of my past failures in primary school came back to haunt me.
She looked at me sternly, pointed her short fingernails at me, I could only think of what they would look like manicured and varnished in a deep red color which was so in vogue at the time.
In her thick Irish accent she said “Meechele (her Irish pronunciation, changed the spelling of my name) you’re wasting your life, do you always want to be the class clown? Is that really what you want?”
And the next statement was the winning formula.
“I want you to take the advanced English exams, because I know you can do it, I know you can do well. You’re a clever girl, I want you to start working hard, I want you to start aiming high because you are so capable”.
Sister Anne’s words rang in my ears, as no one in the teaching profession had ever mentioned the word ‘capable’ in relation to me.
My parents had implied I was capable, but I figured that parents have to say that, even if you’re as thick as two planks.
But here’s the deal, it wasn’t just the words that Sister Anne had aimed and fired at me with the precision of a well tuned arrow. It was the manner it had been delivered, with care and love.
She could see my potential before I had even woken up to it.
Here was a teacher who could actually do what it says on the tin. Teach, inspire and empower. This was a foreign concept to me coming from a Primary School where teachers tore your self esteem to shreds like vultures tearing hungrily into a carcass.
Imagine that, a teacher who can actually teach something of value.
What changed from hereon?
From that day on, I stopped behaving like the class clown, focusing on my studies. By the end of the year, I had began to received the top marks, a concept that would have been completely inconceivable a year earlier. I had always been capable, I just needed someone to tell me I was, it was as simple as that.
You see, words are incredibly powerful and can make or break a person. Not only the actual words, but the intention behind them.
Many years later, after I qualified as a Psychotherapist, my first job was project managing therapy services to children in primary schools. It was almost as if I had gone back in time to give kids the type of positive and empowering atmosphere in primary school that I hadn’t had the chance to experience.
For many years I listened, empathized, empowered and nurtured children who came from so many diverse backgrounds. Many of them refugees from war torn countries, displaced and confused in a melee of 120 languages which spanned so many cultures from all over the world.
Along the way, I felt like I had Sister Anne by my side, looking at me with her side-ward glance.
It is the simple act of showing humanity and sharing humility with another person by waking them up to what you see in them, in the hope that they will start seeing it within themselves.
I have listened to the words of children over the years pleading for attention, security, understanding and love. Their backgrounds spanned the socio economic sector. Wealthy, poor, neglected, abandoned, fostered, adopted or abused.
If we deduct religion, culture and language, and we take it down to its very core, I believe there is one thing we all yearn for.
This is Love, it is as simple as that.
When the Beatles sang ‘All you need is love’, they were spot on.
The beauty of what Sister Anne, the Irish nun taught me, was that having a love for another human being spans across every sector of humanity.
She had her strong Catholic belief, whilst as a Jewish Teen, I had my strong beliefs and traditions. We were able to dissolve what could have divided us, and discovered a connection that inspired me enough to empower and believe in the potential of others.
The reality is that we can all be a hero in someone’s life, transform someones mundane existence by showing a quality that money can’t buy. There is a Sister Anne in each and every one of us, and it only takes a moment connect with someone who is at the periphery of your vision. That person could be a friend, neighbor, colleague, elderly lady living in isolation, or child desperately seeking attention.
Reach out and be that hero.
I can only imagine the lovely Sister Anne is no longer alive, but the picture of her radiant face as she stood back in the class with her glasses sliding slowly down her nose, whilst observing my progress, will stay with me for ever. This is the look I proudly give my Coaching clients as I watch them transform into a better version of themselves.