Words Can Hurt

By Linda Watkins
Adjunct Associate Professor

“I can’t”…. “I can’t do it,” she said with tears in her eyes. It was now a month into the class and she has finally come to office hours.  In the next few weeks, we worked on study skills and problem solving.  Each time we sat down to work she repeated the same comment.  ” I can’t…”

Most of our time was spent changing her view of what she was capable. It was frustrating that before we would even talk about how to answer a question she would already be shaking her head and saying, “I can’t”.   She wanted to be a nurse, but her high school teacher had told her she couldn’t do the coursework for Chemistry and Biology.  It has taken her years to gain the courage to take Chemistry. In an attempt to change her mindset, every time she said “I can’t,” she would have to repeat she could do it and that she loved Chemistry.  By the end of the semester, she would laugh and say, “Yes, I can do it, but I still don’t love Chemistry”.

A month ago, she was passing in the hallway, came to an abrupt stop and with a hug said “Thank you.” I looked at her blankly; I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years, and I had no clue why she was thanking me.  The thank-you was for teaching her to believe in herself.  She used the techniques I taught her and my belief in her to get through Anatomy/Physiology, doing well enough to become a tutor for the class.  From a student that would not talk in class, who constantly doubted herself, she had become a very self-possessed young lady.

Words can build or words can tear down. Her high school teacher was probably trying to give her realistic goals and did not understand the negative impact of his words. I was just trying to help her pass Chemistry.  I did not realize that the time I took to help her would change her life so much.  She reminded me to be careful how I express myself to other students.  She is not the only student who has come through my classes that, for one reason or another, struggles to complete the coursework.  It’s just that she had the courage to ask for help while others do not.  Talking to her and finding out the impact I had, shows me I need to take more time encouraging those students to get help.