For almost 40 years, Margaret had lived with the memory of one soul-scarring day in the 1-room schoolhouse she attended. From the first day Margaret came to class, she and Ms. Garner, her bitter and harsh teacher, didn’t get along. Over the years, the animosity between them only worsened until one fateful day when she was nine years old, Margaret’s life was forever changed.
That day, Margaret frantically raced into her classroom after recess, late again. Ms. Garner was furious. “Margaret!” she shouted, “we have been waiting for you! Get up here to the front of the class, right now!” Margaret walked slowly to the teacher’s desk, was told to face the class, and then the nightmare began.
Ms. Garner ranted, “Boys and girls, Margaret has been a bad girl. I have tried to help her to be responsible. But, apparently, she doesn’t want to learn. So we must teach her a lesson. We must force her to face what a selfish person she has become. I want each of you to come to the front of the room, take a piece of chalk, and write something bad about Margaret on the blackboard. Maybe this experience will motivate her to become a better person!“
Margaret stood frozen next to Ms. Garner. 1 by 1, the students began a silent procession to the blackboard. 1 by 1, the students wrote their life-smoothering words, slowly extinguishing the light in Margaret’s soul. “Margaret is stupid! Margaret is selfish! Margaret is fat! Margaret is a dummy!” On and on they went, until 25 terrible scribblings of Margaret’s “badness” screamed from the blackboard.
The venomous sentences taunted Margaret in what felt like the longest day of her life. After walking home with each word written in her soul, she crawled into her bed, claiming sickness, and tried to cry the pain away, but the pain never left, and 40 years later, she slumped in the waiting room of a psychologist’s office, still cringing to the shadow of those 25 sentences. To her horror, Margaret had slowly become what the students had written.
After 2 years of weekly counseling, she finally felt she was ready to move on. Before she was done, on her last day of counseling, the counselor asked her to close her eyes and retell the story with graphic details. Tell exactly what everybody looked like, what everybody wrote, and how you felt. So she slowly, through tears, went through the story one more time for the counselor.
When she finished, the counselor told Margaret that she forgot one person. She immediately replied, “I certainly did not. I have lived with that for 40 years. I know every detail by heart.”
No, there’s one person still left. He’s walking to the chalkboard, picking up the eraser. He is erasing every sentence that the students wrote. They are gone! Do you recognize him yet? It’s Jesus. Look now he’s writing on the board sentences, “Margaret is loved. Margaret is beautiful. Margaret is strong.” She started to cry, but the tears turned into a smile, then laughter, then tears of joy. She was finally free.
- from Michael Yaconelli’s Messy Spirituality
A few things I take away from this story:
- Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will definitely hurt me (probably worse than sticks or stones ever can because the impact of words last much longer than sticks and stones).
- Jesus has the ability to free people from the deepest of wounds.
- There is a reason why the teacher was a “Ms.” and not a “Mrs.”