I wrote my first mean note when I was in 4th grade.
I remember it like it was yesterday. Me and a group of girls were giving this sweet boy in our grade a hard time at recess. We had heard some things about him (you know, juicy 4th grade gossip) and decided it would be funny to continue the torture and pass notes about him in class talking about how “weird” he was. Geeze, kids can be so cruel. I still remember when I wrote the note how I felt empowered and cool that I was a part of the conversation. That I was just following suit and that by writing and passing this note, I was “in” and I had made it. I was a part of the cool kids clan.
I penciled out some horrible things about this boy and folded the note carefully, making sure it was the ideal size to slip over to my friend when the teacher turned her back.
I waited for the perfect moment.
The teacher turned.
I went for the handoff. Arm stretched low across the aisle in between desks, per usual.
(I like to picture this happening in slow motion as I play it back in my mind.)
….the teacher looked over her shoulder mid sentence and saw me. She looked straight at me and her eyes instantly traveled down to my hand.
Caught. My life was over. My parents were going to kill me.
Ok, that’s dramatic, but I remember how horrified I was when she took the note from me, when she opened it up and scanned over it with her eyes. I literally saw her eyes crinkle at the corners in disappointment and the corners of her mouth turned down as she realized what I wrote and who it was about. My heart sank.
After class, she asked me to stay and as the kids strolled out of the classroom I could feel my face starting to get hot, the tears burning in my eyes. This was what embarrassment felt like. This was how it felt to be called out. That was one of the longest minutes of my life, waiting for everyone to leave so that it was just me and her. Mano y mano.
Guys, 4th grade teachers are scary when they’re mad.
She stared hard at me for a second and asked, “Amber, what made you write a note like this?” I honestly could not give her a legitimate answer. Was it to feel cool, to be a part of something, to join this terrible dialogue about a kid whose story I really didn’t know…and do it all behind his back?
“Gossip: idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others; the act of gossipping is also known as dishing or tattling.” (Thanks Wikipedia.) This topic has been on my heart and mind for the past few months. You think that these sorts of seemingly elementary and immature things die with other school age tendencies, but let me tell you friends, gossip only gets louder and stronger as you get older. I can’t put my finger on why, but perhaps it goes hand in hands with things like: jealousy, boredom, status, the need for inclusion, the inability and unwillingness to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes or understand their story.
I wish I could say that after my 4th grade conundrum I shaped up and never gossiped or hurt someone with my words again, but we all know that would be a flat out lie. Gosh, I can pinpoint the exact time last week when I was talking about something that I “needed to know about” to itch that scratch of being in the know and getting the DL on a situation. Ugh.
As author Shauna Niequest points out, the most dangerous part about this issue is that sometimes what we gossip about can be an actual truth. The problem is that this truth wasn’t told to the person involved.
“When you speak negatively about someone, you begin to think more negatively about that person, and so does the person you were talking to. Gossip infects everyone involved – it creates false alliances, false trust: you and I get it, he doesn’t. We’re on the inside, giggling just a little about that guy over there. Words are power. You can them use them to sharpen, to inspire, to call Christlikeness, or you can use them to make yourself feel safe and included.”
Then obviously theres the other side of the coin, where what we are gossiping about has only gotten grander and juicer as the story has been told from person to person. Suddenly, we’ve created this entire falsehood of what we think we know is “truth” about a person and situation. Because of this, we put up false walls, barriers, preconceived notions, or attitudes towards a person or situation we may not even really know about.
So, how can we get past that hump and put a kibosh on the urge to share something juicy to another person? Accountability. Not in the sense that we need to be a jerk about it when the opportunity arises, but in the sense that we remind each other that we are talking about real people with real lives with real issues and problems. That we may not know their whole story or where they are at. There’s been a handful of times over the past few months where I’ve had people say to me “…and this will be the last time we speak of it” or “… you know, we just really don’t know where they are at now or what the whole story is,” or “let’s not join in on that, let’s be better than that.” Wow – straight truth spoken to me. I needed that in those moments.
I’m thankful for those people that love me enough to tell me those hard things – to push me to be better.
I believe we can all do it. We just need to help each other do so. Let’s lift each other up.