I Am Woman, Hear Me Write

The power of one voice

2016 South Canyon Elementary reunion. That’s Becky Canesse, center back row.
2016 South Canyon Elementary reunion. That’s Becky Canesse, center back row. Provided photo

One day as a small child, Thomas Edison came home from school and gave a piece of paper to his mother. He said to her, “Mom, my teacher gave this paper to me and told me only you are to read it. What does it say?” Her eyes welled with tears as she read the letter out loud to her child: “Your son is a genius. This school is too small for him and doesn’t have good enough teachers to train him. Please teach him yourself.”

Many years after Edison’s mother had died, he became one of the greatest inventors of the century. One day, he was going through a closet, and he found the folded letter that his old teacher wrote his mother that day. He opened it. The message written on the letter was: “Your son is mentally deficient. We cannot let him attend our school anymore. He is expelled.” Edison became emotional reading it, and then wrote in his diary: “Thomas A. Edison was a mentally deficient child whose mother turned him into the genius of the century.”

A positive word of encouragement can help change anyone’s destiny.

After reading this post from Wordables last week, it reminded me of a horrible teacher I had in the sixth grade at Lincoln Elementary. She was a new teacher, and within weeks, nearly half the students’ parents transferred their children to another neighboring school.

One day at work, my dad overheard a conversation between a customer and her daughter. He heard the little girl tell her mother about the abusive teacher. She described deep concern about the way the teacher treated her friend Becky. He came home and told my mom this child’s story. Mom told him she knew there were problems with the teacher because other moms were talking about it. Since I never mentioned anything, she didn’t realize that I had been subjected to any of the abuse. After meeting with the teacher and principal, they joined the exodus and had me transferred as well.

My mom asked me why I didn’t tell her, and to this day I can’t explain why.

My mom asked me why I didn’t tell her, and to this day I can’t explain why. I had good parents, and we had plenty of conversations about how our day went when we had breakfast and dinner together every day. I never really thought about this over the years until this summer, when I attended my high school reunion for the first time.

We took pictures of the graduating high school class, and then they assembled the different elementary school students for those smaller group shots. One of my South Canyon Elementary school friends remembered the day I arrived after being transferred from Lincoln and was sharing those memories with me. I described the reasons for the transfer and the profound impact that decision had on my childhood development, education and future. To my surprise, none of these students or their teacher ever knew what I had been through. All this time I thought they knew because they were so extraordinarily kind to me. The teacher made me feel so welcome and so loved on that first day and every day, and I developed friendships in these classmates that have endured to this day.

Friends, parents, school leaders and neighbors: Pay attention to the conversations around you.

Friends, parents, school leaders and neighbors: Pay attention to the conversations around you. Find ways to help children express themselves, and then listen. If you become aware of anything that is harmful to children, speak up and take action. One voice has the power to change someone’s destiny. Courageous action and love can change the world.

I am so grateful for my little sixth-grade friend Mary, who shared her heartfelt concerns with her mother that day when my father overheard them. Her empathy and her little voice set my life on a safer and more positive journey.

On my desk sits a plaque with the following message: “The United Nations Office of Church Women United Inc. presents its Human Rights Award to Becky Canesse for your leadership service as a mentor and social activist in human rights and human development, an advocate for peace and justice with no boundaries of political system, country, cultural background or religion.”

For my journal, I will write with gratitude how both the good and bad experiences, along with loving friends and family, have helped shape my understanding and passion for the causes of human rights, freedom, justice and peace.

Becky Canesse, chief executive officer of Just for Girls, can be reached at bcg@myjfg.org.

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