There are certain things I’d never call myself. Beautiful, for example, is one. Extensively educated, at least in the formal sense of the word, is another. Lord knows I’ve learned a gracious plenty, but the really important lessons rarely happened in the classroom.
Life starts telling us who we are early on. As little ones, we’re blank slates, eager for the information. And we don’t know better than to swallow whole what adults tell us about ourselves.
When I was three years old, one of my dad’s friends, who I only knew as Cuz, called me “muscles.”
Even at that young age, it felt like a bad thing. I didn’t want muscles. I wanted blonde curls and blue eyes like my cousin Joanie. But there I was, a sturdy little girl with black ringlets and hazel eyes. A kid who in summer turned brown as a biscuit in ten minutes flat.
On the playground at school, the nuns would cluck disapprovingly as we lined up to go back inside. “Cecelia’s voice carries. You can hear her above all the other children.”
I remember, at around ten, being at my Nanny’s house in the summer. Old lady North, who lived the next street over, would come across the alley and in the back door for coffee. I dreaded that woman.
“Myers,” she’d say to my grandmother while studying me, “I think this child is an Indian.” Then she’d reach out and take hold of my upper arm. “She’s brown as an Indian,” she’d say. Nanny didn’t argue. She just passed the half and half, lit another Chesterfield, and changed the subject.
As innocuous as they may have been at the time, those descriptions from the grownups in my childhood delivered the bad news to my sense of self. They informed me about who I was.
And the fact that after so many years I can still go back to those moments, see those people, observe them observing me, tells me just how impactful the comments were.
It’s taken decades. But eventually and deliberately I let go of my tendency to be defined by what was said long ago. In fact, those statements serve me well now. They’ve made me pay attention.
When I talk to children, I’m purposeful with what I say to them about who they are. Because the words adults use have staying power; they will frame – for a while, or forever – how those kids feel about themselves.
And when they think back, I want to have contributed tender words about their own beautiful truths.