I know Emika Smith through my Rescue work… but I’ve gotten to know her, the brave, introspective her who is unafraid to tell her truth and is empowered to step out and speak up, through her social media posts.
She posted something several weeks ago about her weight loss journey that just struck me. In the post, Emika shared, with candor and with strength, about the impact of people’s verbal feedback… how, even when their intentions aren’t harmful, their word choice can be hurtful.
Emika’s message struck me so profoundly that I asked her to write a guest post for my beloved blog… and I am honored that she said yes.
Emika Smith, the floor is yours…
Something they don’t tell you in college, specifically if you studying to become a teacher, is that most days you will not always teach the content of your specific degree. I currently have my Bachelors Degree in Music Education and right now I’m hustling for my Masters of Science in Music Education. I’m halfway through my 6th professional year. Not a brand new teacher, but also not a veteran teacher. Right smack in the middle. Maybe once I hit 10 years in the classroom I’ll deem myself a “veteran” but who knows. Every September feels like day 1, year 1 and I immediately forget everything I know about music.
What they don’t tell you in college is that you will be a parent, a friend, a psychologist, a nurse, a counselor, and a cheerleader. You will teach kindness, social skills, coping skills, emotional processing, and then, maybe a couple of rounds of Hot Cross Buns.
I recently had a situation in my classroom with a 4th grade class where I had to stop the music-making and switch gears. The kids were talking about who knows what. Frankly, my “teacher ears” were on. Meaning I’m not listening to everything the kids are saying, just keeping an ear open to anything inappropriate. And lo and behold one child goes “Oh Emily (not her real name) is so annoying!” Literally shouted the statement. And then there’s me, rolling my eyes in my head, Alright, here we go…“John (also not his real name) that may be your opinion but keep it to yourself, it’s unkind.”
We go back and forth a little and John goes “But Mrs. Smith, words don’t hurt.”
Stop. Music-making done for the day. Objective: Students will be able to be a good human being. I respond, “Words do hurt, John.”
I’m not going to give you a dialog of our discussion, but ultimately I (hopefully) gave the children a lesson in how although we are entitled to our opinions, it’s best to keep those that may be hurtful to ourselves.
What I’ve learned over the past 6 years is that it is literally my job, to pick and choose the words I say out loud to children with such caution, not only to make it clear what I’m trying to teach, but to make sure that every child leaves my lesson with knowledge and understanding. What I have recently learned (if you need a time line, maybe say the last 2 years) is that this skill, if you want to call it that, applies to every aspect of my life when it comes to communicating with others.
I was diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder back in 2016. Through trying to express and articulate my symptoms, feelings, emotions, reactions, and needs to various medical professionals and family members, I learned how important choosing words truly is. If I were to substitute one word for something else, it can mean a whole different thing. And in a case where my physical and mental health depend on my ability to communicate what I am feeling, it can mean a huge difference in care and progress. Thus, not only affecting me, but my family and those I interact with on a daily basis.
In February 2019 I made the decision to go ahead and get weight loss surgery. Multiple factors led me to this decision and I had the support of my husband and my family to gather up all of my courage to proceed with one of the biggest decisions of my life. In the months leading up to my surgery, scheduled for July 1, 2019, I slowly and discreetly let my administration, coworkers, and other family members know about my decision. I’m a relatively private person, but if someone asks me a question about something personal I usually let them know. Most of what I post on social media is pictures of my family or pets, and a funny meme. If I post something personal it’s usually for a good reason, I’m not out there advertising every little thing I do.
Summer came and went and I returned to work in August about 35 pounds lighter. There was a visible difference and it was noticed by everyone. We are a small school and we are all relatively close to each other. I enjoyed the compliments and enjoyed informing people of what I had done. I answered questions that were personal, but not invasive. Everyone was genuinely happy for me and it was extremely uplifting.
It’s now January 26, 2020 and I’ve dropped down to 71 pounds gone forever. I am in the single digits for pant sizes, no longer labeled as “obese” according to my BMI, and my overall health has improved drastically. I still get compliments from coworkers which is lovely and I like to think I accept them gracefully. Recently a school worker commented, “Oh Emika, you are just wasting away!” The week before she had used the word “disappearing.” Both statements were with a huge smile on her face and I didn’t detect any negativity behind her…*clears throat*…“compliment.”
Flashback to my 4th grade class and that statement from my student echoes in my head, “words don’t hurt.”
Today, those words did hurt. Wasting away? Do I look sick? Do I look unhealthy? Am I really “disappearing?”
I go home and look at my print out of my results from my last weigh-in at my surgeon’s office. My BMI is down, my cholesterol is normal, my muscle mass increased, my fat percentage has dropped significantly. No, I am not “wasting away” I am HEALTHY! And it occurred to me—I was wasting away when I was heavier and morbidly obese. I was wasting away when I was huffing and puffing going up and down the stairs at 28 years old. I was wasting away when my belly was too big for me to buckle my shoes for my best friend’s wedding and needed my husband’s help. I was wasting away when I couldn’t get up from sitting on the floor in my classroom. No one was concerned about my health back then…
In a time where we constantly write and post words online, and we establish electronic paper trails between us, our peers, and colleagues, our words and the language we use are permanently attached to us. They follow us forever. There is no more “he said, she said” because most of what we say is shared out online for the world to see; for people to screenshot and “share” before you get the chance to hit the “delete” button.
Every day I am amazed at what my students do, say, and accomplish. Many of them show the grace and maturity of an adult, when actual adults lack awareness and mindfulness. People are so quick to just say what they think without actually thinking about how their words may come across. I understand and appreciate the intent behind that woman’s words, however they still stung. I know she is genuinely happy for me and my success.
If we are friends, you know that I will say something if you say something that comes across a certain way, or that I will question your intended meaning. I had a moment like that with a friend earlier this week. If I love and care about you, I love and care about you hard. And that means I am also going to challenge you and make you think because the last thing I want for you is to be misunderstood and have negative consequences.
You can’t take words back. You can explain your words, but you can’t take them back. So before you say anything, just think about your intent. And as the old saying goes, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.”