Listen To Our Words

Little kids are constantly told “Use your words!” in an effort to convince them to communicate effectively with their peers and others. I was told to use my words many, many times as I’m sure you were too.

Picture this: Kids are screaming, babies are screeching, and teachers are frantic. It’s chaos in Best Friends Preschool. Some babies have escaped from their pens, and the teachers are trying as hard as they can to get them back. I am sitting in the corner of the room, wanting to show someone the art project I made, but no one is listening to me. Something had to be done. Someone needed to see my art project. I had to think fast. The only smart decision? I drag a chair into the center of the room, climb on top and shout, “LISTEN TO MY WORDS!”

Since the beginning  (or at least since before I can remember, which is a good enough beginning for me) I have had a love of words. My parents used to tell babysitters that if I start to cry, all you have to do is open up a book and start reading. I would immediately hush and become absorbed in the words, even before I knew what they meant.

I was an early talker. One day when I was a little girl of about two years old, I had been sitting in the backseat in my dad's VW camper all day doing errands. My two old year-old self was beat. It's exhausting being a toddler. We were finally pulling into our garage at home when I said to no one in particular "Sometimes I get so tired riding around in my car seat.”

This is where it gets tricky. It may sound as though I’m bragging, and that’s not what I mean to do. Here’s my point. Most people confuse early talking with being smart. Cute? Definitely. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re smarter than kids who talk or whose vocabulary widens later. I was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I went to daycare with mostly Pueblo Native American and Chicano kids who didn't talk as much as I did. I grew up hearing "Nomi, you are such a smart kid." The other kids who I played with didn't. I think talking got conflated with my being white. Tracking started at a young age.

On the first day of kindergarten, my mom had things to do in the school. Each time she passed my classroom door, she noticed my hand waving in the air, confident I knew the answer to whatever the teacher was asking, even before she asked it. My mom say’s, “You were like  ‘I got this! I know, I know, I know!’” Remember, I’d been told since I was two that I was “smart.”

By the time I was in second grade, I had moved from answering the teachers questions to questioning the teachers authority. We were given “picture prompts”, which were drawings of scenes that we had to respond to in writing. One particular day, one of the scenes was a picture of children in the olden days in a sleigh, surrounded by snow. At the time, I was living in California. I had never seen snow, much less a sleigh. It was the umpteenth prompt I had been given that year. After staring at it for some time, I wrote “Face it, I have nothing to say.” My parents hung it on the refrigerator with pride in their authority challenging second-grader.

In “The Woman Warrior” by Maxine Hong Kingston, the author says “The teacher who had already told me everyday how to read ‘I’ and ‘here’ put me in the low corner under the stairs again, where the noisy boys usually sat.” Because the author didn’t talk, or wouldn’t, instead of being encouraged, she was grouped with other kids who weren’t doing well. None of them were encouraged to excel. Often when that happens those kids are not given help because the teacher is focusing on the “smart” kids. People associate talking with being smart.

In the younger grades, I noticed more of a range in my vocabulary than other kids’. I usually knew the vocabulary words we got assigned before we got assigned them and used words my friends didn’t know. As I got older the edge I had on others diminished until it was hardly noticeable. But what mattered is I had a head start. Teachers granted me intelligence they didn’t grant others. They gave me a huge advantage.

It matters what we tell kids. If we tell them they’re smart from the very beginning, they will believe it. They live up to the expectations set for them. It is important not to tell young kids that someone else is smarter than them just because they know more words, talk more, or talked first. I want all young children to be told they are smart, have something important to say, and deserve to have their words listened to when they stand on a chair in the middle of a pre-school room and demand it.

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