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Limiting Prophecies

Hello dear readers,

My wonderful friend Jocelyn posed an interesting question on Facebook yesterday:

“What did someone tell you about yourself in elementary school that you still believe?”

Her own answer broke my heart: “You can’t sing. Just mouth the words.” She has believed it to this day, and will not sing in public, even though she has the nicest speaking voice I have ever heard.

This got me thinking. How many people say cruel things to children, never dreaming that these misguided comments will shape their entire lives?

The thing I was told, over and over again, was that I did not work up to my full potential. Like Jocelyn and her singing, I still feel this is true today. I will go through periods of incredible achievement–in kickboxing, in my writing, in my job, in my other job–that are followed by an inevitable slump. I can’t seem to maintain that standard of excellence forever, and perhaps that’s normal. Maybe if I concentrated on one thing at a time–being the best kickboxer I can be, or being the best writer I can be, I’d achieve a level of success that I never dreamed possible. However, that doesn’t seem realistic. No one gets to focus on just one thing in their lives, and if they did, I suspect they’d be quite bored.

I didn’t work up to my full potential in school because I was bored. A lot of my teachers were terrible, both as instructors and human beings. Some got fired for physically or verbally abusing us; others because they hadn’t taught us a thing in months. In response, I retreated into an imaginary world and did what interested me. I wrote plays in math class because my Grade Four teacher should have retired years before, hated children if they dared to speak, and had no interest in teaching the multiplication tables. Boredom can be blamed for a lot of my inertia today, too. Boredom and fatigue. I find it difficult to stay the course.

Jocelyn’s Facebook post got me thinking, though. Do we fit the labels given us as children, or, once those labels are forced upon us, do they become our new reality?

What were you told about yourself in elementary school that you still believe today?

Thank you to Jocelyn for the inspiration for today’s post.

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  1. Cathy

    I was an introverted kid and got labeled as extremely shy. Along with that, some impatient teachers treated me as if I was slow and stupid just because I wasn’t quick to answer or join in. I still have trouble with that label today and in the workplace where extroverts are valued, I feel that people dismiss me sometimes if I’m too quiet. Now I am not quite as shy as back then. I like to joke around sometimes just to shake them up a little. It always throws them right off and they look at me as if I have two heads.

  2. Kim

    My daughter is like that. She’d rather be doing her own thing in school than anything the teacher asks her to do. Drawing, daydreaming whatever. I don’t think this is a bad thing and I know it is a sign of hyper-intelligence but I do try and impress on her that school is important and she must do the work. (And no doubt it is behaviour she is learning from me…. the last few years my life has been about only doing things I like and avoiding things I don’t).

    As for what people said to me in childhood, the one that stands out the most, and it was probably around Junior High, not elementary, came out of the mouth of a jealous bully who was masquerading herself as my best friend who told me, “She didn’t say hi to you because she doesn’t like you.” And to this day everytime I walk past someone I know who doesn’t say hello back, I think about that. (And of course the lack of greeting is about being pre-occupied and distracted not about like or dislike.)

  3. Javier

    What a super-loaded post and comment. On the one hand it is now common knowledge that schools (and teachers) need to understand that each pupil is different and encourage him/her to learn and explore based on that wonderful individuality. Labeling is bad and hopefully now is not widely used at school.

    But on the other hand, we run the risk of avoiding failure or not facing the truth: I enjoyed last night initial conversation between Will Schuster and Sue Sylvester in “Glee” regarding admission rules for their respective clubs: If anyone is welcome regardless of ability or effort… Are we sending the right message?

    I am with Sue: not everybody can do everything. Life is never fair. Work your heart out, if you really want to achieve something and excel at whatever you choose to do.

    Finally we have the issue that school and family go hand-in-hand. What parents teach and show their children is more important than school during the initial years (High School is another ball of wax). What I was told by my parents was simple: if someone says that you can’t do it or that you are not going to make it, prove them wrong. Work harder than anyone else and if after giving your all you still fail, learn from that. You can’t always win, but you can always try very hard.
    Great topic!

  4. Elspeth Cross

    My seventh grade teacher told me my name was stupid and she wasn’t going to call me by it. (I was going by my nickname, and she changed it to yet another variation of my given name.) I don’t remember this, but my friends say that I didn’t respond to her all year in the class if she called on my by ‘her’ name. To this day, I will not let myself be called what she called me. Yes, some things stick.

  5. Story Teller

    Wow, thanks for your comments, everyone! I’d like to welcome Cathy and Javier to the blog as first-time commentors.

    @ Cathy – “shy” is a dirty word in our society, and I’m not sure why. I didn’t experience shyness until I moved to a new city, and at first I didn’t recognize it for what it was. It was a horrible feeling, and very uncomfortable, but I hope it gave me new empathy. Good for you for breaking out of your label, but there is nothing wrong with being an introvert, either. If people can’t appreciate your nature, it’s their loss, not yours. Imagine what life would be like if everyone was a loud mouth – eek!

    @ Kim – I can sympathize with your daughter. What I did was work harder in Grade 11 and 12, the years that would show up on my transcript and therefore ‘count’. Until then, school was pretty useless. I did okay, but I certainly didn’t work up to my full potential – not even close. (Unless I had a teacher who inspired me. I’d walk over hot coals for them.)

    And boo! to your cruel friend. I can see how a comment like that would haunt you. Some people don’t say hi because they didn’t hear you, were preoccupied, or are just plain rude.

    @ Javier – wow, you said a mouthful. I hope the school environment has improved a lot since I was a part of it. (I also grew up in a northern community that drew the short straw when it came to teachers.) I agree with your sentiment that everyone should do their best – in my case, it becomes an issue of choosing what aspects of my life I want to be the best at. The easy answer is “all of them”, but that’s not possible. And I agree that giving everyone the same rights–those that work hard and those that don’t–doesn’t make sense, either.

    @ Elspeth. Ouch! That seems needlessly cruel. What would make a teacher think she had any right to change your name? I’m glad you ignored her.

  6. Chris

    The sad thing is that it’s not just children who are subject to cruel, hurtful comments. Why, I myself have been told that I can’t sing, and that I should just… not sing. Ever. And that people would leave the room if I continued. Can you believe that?

  7. Story Teller


    Perhaps it’s not your singing voice, so much as your choice of song. I wonder how many women would want to hear that “Vagina” song sung incessantly, for instance? 🙂

    For those of you who aren’t familiar, here’s just a sample of the wonderful lyrics:

    Love is for girls and gays.
    If you want to be with me it goes 1 of 2 ways.
    Either you have sex with me
    Or you have sex with me

    I wanna have sex with your vagina!
    What time is it? Vagina

    Can anyone guess why a woman wouldn’t want to hear this repeatedly, or anytime?

  8. Chris

    What a loathesome song! I can’t believe any guy would expect to retain his testicles after inflicting that upon the fairer sex. Alas, no, I was speaking of other, more beautiful songs. Songs from Les Mis, songs from Across the Universe… gloriously stirring songs, touching, heartfelt ballads… that sort of thing. I’m glad it breaks your heart the way it breaks mine when people are criticized for their singing voices. 🙂

  9. Kim

    That’s kinda like the Friend’s episode where Ross sings baby Emma “the inappropriate song” (which if I recall correctly was “I like big butts and I cannot lie….”)

    Given you know the lyrics by heart, you’ve heard this song often, No?

    But Chris does bring up a very important point here. Sometimes adults say hurtful things to other adults as well that stick with us. I’m still trying to lose the countless mind numbing criticisms dished at me by my ex husband, for one.

    And to “the Vagina song singer…” if you want it more often… you always always always need to be an adult about it. Romantic, and HOT is good. Childish is absolutely a huge turn off. And if you wanna know why… see my previous paragraph.

  10. Story Teller

    @ Kim – God no! I had to look the lyrics up. I certainly do NOT know them by heart.

    And yes, adults do say hurtful things to each other, absolutely. The point of the post was whether what we hear as children shapes our personalities and expectations of ourselves for good. What we’re told as adults can certainly hurt our feelings, but our personalities are for the most part set. It’s very difficult to change after a certain point.

    Chris was getting in a playful dig at me, because I have threatened to leave the room (or physically harm him) when he sings that particular song.

  11. Jocé

    Hey Holli, I’m just catching up with your blog, it’s been a busy week. Well, I’m honoured that my yesterday’s FB post became inspiration for this discussion. Isn’t it fascinating that so many of us have such negative memories from our early schooldays? I believe (and hope this is true)that young people today are given much more respect in school and encouraged to believe in themselves. But I have read about studies being done on groups of kids – which prove negative branding at an impressionable age does lead to that type of self-fulfilling prophesy of “I’m just no good at so-and-so…” Hmm.
    Enjoyed today’s comments, most entertaining, and fascinating where these things lead 🙂 LOL. Cheers. J

  12. Story Teller

    Welcome back! It is fascinating, and sad, but I can’t say I’m surprised. When I think back to some of the stupid things teachers said to myself and my friends, I just shake my head. I hope that has changed today. And I hope you sing!

    Thanks for posting. It’s always wonderful to have you here. And thanks for the inspiration!


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