A Storm of Words Can Bruise

 

This is a true story.

Back in the 1980s, when I was teaching at a private school in New York, a former pupil of mine, a young woman who had graduated the year before, came to see me in between classes while I was sitting alone at my classroom desk. It had only been a year since I’d seen her, but I knew, immediately, that much about her had changed in that year. She was more poised, more confident, and, though I can’t be sure of this, but I hope it’s true—she seemed happier. Here’s what she said to me:

“Ms. V,” (I was Mrs. Volonakis then) “I’ve been thinking about this since I graduated. I owe you an apology for the way I behaved in your class. I was a brat and a baby, and you didn’t deserve it. You showed me nothing but patience and kindness.”

I answered her with this: “While it’s sweet of you to come tell me this, and very nice to hear, I never held a grudge against you. You were a seventeen-year-old girl. I wouldn’t want to be held responsible or carry the burden for the rest of my life, for what I did, thought and said when I was seventeen. In your case, that’s doubly true, because you came all this way to tell me this. You’re not the same as you were then. Most of us aren’t.”

But this was quite a few years before Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and so on. Back then, written words could be destroyed. So many film and novel plots revolve around a lost letter, a stolen letter, a hidden letter. How would Shakespeare have written Romeo and Juliet if Friar Laurence had been able to text Romeo: “We’re at the tomb. Here’s the plan.”

Had my seventeen-year-old pupil had a Facebook page, I know I would have been on it. She would have written on that page the things she used to say out loud, hoping that I would hear. “I hate school. Volonakis is a bitch.”

I always pretended not to hear, because even then I knew she didn’t mean it. But it would have been out there, on Instagram, following her forever. Instagram is what the name implies: An instant message to the entire world. And that’s not even the worst of what people write on Instagram, or other social media outlets that they later regret, that they may later no longer believe. This is true of everyone, not just seventeen-year-olds.

I bring this up because the easiest way to malign a person is to check their tweets from a million years ago. Things that were said in haste, in anger, in youth, to be funny, to impress, to sound powerful and in control, to be heard when we feel unheard, or because we are hurt, will come back to haunt us. We can’t take it back, and it will be used against us, unfairly perhaps, but there it is—staring us in the face on Twitter, on Facebook, on Instagram—and now, how can we explain it away?

Another instance from that same time in my life, it was I, not one of my students, who was out of line. I was in a terrible mood that day, and something he said irked me. We had a back and forth, that even as it was happening, even as the words were coming out of my mouth, I knew they weren’t productive, and that I was forcing a sixteen-year-old boy to stand his ground when he clearly didn’t want to, because the whole exchange was taking place in front of all his friends, and I was embarrassing him. Believe me, if you’d been there, you would see how stupidly I’d handled it, and it still makes me cringe when I think about it. This took place right before school was out for the year. I fretted over that exchange all summer—how I had lost my cool, how I had humiliated a child, someone who was depending on me to be the adult.

The first day I saw him again, I apologized to him, in front of the whole class, and we were square. But later, he came to me and said, “You know, you really didn’t have to do that. I’d forgotten about it already.”

Right. But I hadn’t. And if it had been written on my social media accounts, he wouldn’t have forgotten about it, and it would have affected his perception of me, my colleagues’ perception of me, the parents of my pupils’ perception of me, and so on.

Our words have power, and now, our words cannot disappear. They are forwarded, retweeted, screen shot. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak. It means that we need to think before we do. And with the instantaneous nature of social media, your life, or someone else’s, can be adversely affected forever.

Maybe because I’m a writer I’m more keenly away of this, and even so, sometimes I still screw it up: Think first, write second. Edit the crap out of what you’ve written, then and only then, hit send.

 

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