One bad thing

My family moved from upstate New York to Southern California in the middle of my first grade year. We didn’t know anything about the area so I attended the local public school with the rest of the neighborhood kids. The next year, my mom found a job teaching at a private school and my brother and I began to attend the same school. We were only able to attend the school because teaching there gave my mom a two-for-one discount.

I remember getting in the car at the end of the first day and collapsing in tears. My mom could not figure out what was wrong.

“Take me to Nordstorm!” I begged.

She could not understand what I was crying about. I was (and am still not) a girly girl. I hate shopping. I buy clothes only when I absolutely need them and get out of the store as quickly as possible.

“Take me to Nordstrom and buy me a dress!” I persisted.

“Why do you want to go to Nordstorm, honey? I don’t even shop there. I am not buying you anything from there.”

“Take me to Nordstrom and buy me a dress so the girls will like me.”

It has been over twenty years since that day, and I still remember exactly how it felt. I eventually found friends at that school. Friends that included a few of those girls that hurt me that first day, but mostly friends who accepted me for who I was, no matter what I was wearing.

I attended that school for six more years and went to the same church as most of the same kids as well. That day stuck with me. I have great memories of classroom activities and great memories of time at church activities like summer camp. But I also carried with me that feeling of never quite fitting in.

For high school, I went back into the public school system. Rather than attend the local public school, I enrolled in a nearby high school that was a magnet school for math and science. If you haven’t noticed, I am a bit of a nerd.

I worked my butt off at that school and did well in my classes, but I was competing against classmates who were getting perfect scores on the SATs and taking PE for credit instead of a grade (so it would not mess up their GPA). In one of my advanced placement classes my senior year, the instructor walked around the room as we worked on an assignment. I don’t remember why, but he was talking to us about the upcoming AP test. He recommended that I not take the test because he was sure I would not pass, and it would just be a waste of money.

Again, a single incident that took place over 13 years ago and it is still in my memory today. I didn’t take that AP test, but I get almost a perfect score on a similar subject in the SATs and I was in the honors section of that subject in college.

But still, if you ask me if I am any good at that area, I will tell you I am not. I truly believe I am not because of a single comment from one teacher over a decade ago.

A New York Times article confirmed that I am not the only person who struggles with this when they cited a study that found that “bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.

This past weekend, a close friend made an offhanded comment about her appreciation of the same subject area that the teacher critiqued. I am pretty sure I rolled my eyes at her as I looked away. I told her that I didn’t believe her. She repeated the compliment and I changed the subject.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that conversation the past few days. The researchers cited in the Times article found that it takes about five positive comments to counteract each negative comment we receive. I am struck by the absolute power of our words. And the way I figure it, I need about three more comments to change my mind.


  • So many examples of this from my own life. Surprise, surprise.

    The most damaging though? When I first got checked out for pelvic pain in 2003 and was told it was all in my head once the (male) GYN found out I was on an anti-depressant. I allowed myself to think that for the next six years. You know how that ended.

  • The power of life and death is in the tongue. And it’s so true. I believe my hate of math comes from being moved from advanced math to “slow” math in 4th grade because I wasn’t getting my multiplication takes as quickly as the other kids.
    It is so easy for an adult (or a kid) to make a comment & cause untold damage. And so comes a write from one of my favorite movies: My daddy always said childhood was the best time of your life. Momma always said childhood was what you spent the rest of your life recovering from.”

  • Oh boy! I won’t go into the negativity that I had growing up other than to say that my dad called me useless pretty much every day while my brother was the star of the family.

    I know how hard it is to overcome the negative feelings and because of my father, I have been in therapy for years trying to actively prove him wrong. Lol

    I am much better now at letting negative comments go. I don’t even listen to them. I have a brain filter that seems to shut down when I hear anything negative being said to me. I just don’t listen but the things I heard while growing up have stuck with me.

  • I feel this one all the way to my bones. I am way too sensitive to negativity and it takes way too long to get over it. Hmmm, I’m not alone. Thanks for posting this.

  • It reminds me of a quote from The Larry Sanders Show (said by Gary Shandling’s character):

    “I’m telling you, I have a real problem. Twenty people could say they liked me, Artie, and I am telling you I’d still be thinking seventeen of them are lying. Two of them probably have severe emotional problems and one of them is probably confusing me with Larry King. ”

    I laughed when he said it, but deep down it resonates. Why does the bad stick with us, and the good just rolls off of our backs?

  • Sara, I struggle with the same things, although, for
    the most part, I let go of a lot in my mid 30’s. Yeah, growing older has it’s advantages! Now I’m afraid I criticize my kids too much when I should be encouraging them by pointing out the good things.
    I just hope that they will remember the good comments and not get bogged down by the negative ones.

  • I totally agree.

    When I was in the 8th grade, I was in Pre-AP Algebra. I’m never quick to blame a teacher, but I blame her for all the years of feeling that I’m horrible in math. It’s a long story, and I should probably write a post about it. Maybe one day I will.

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