I’ve always been fascinated by words. Words hold such power- enough to move even the bravest among us to tears. They can put a smile on your face and even make your entire day instantaneously better. Why do they affect us so much? They are, after all, made up of a few simple letters, strung together, one after the other, to form a way to communicate with one another in order to better our lives. More so, how does a single one, or rather two of them, in my specific case, cause such a guttural reaction- one which has struck a nerve and remained with me for so many years into my adulthood? I examine this experience in the story below. Read on, even laugh if you want, as I expose some of my personal past experiences, and most importantly, share with others, so we may all feel confident enough to talk about the power of words.
Have you ever heard a chia pet roar?
It sounds a lot like the proud bellowing of a lioness, all grown-up, standing tall. And to clarify, I’m the one who’s roaring, because I was Chia Pet. Back in grade school, it was my name.
Hey, Chia Pet!
Here comes Chia!
Ch, Ch, Ch Chia!
I was a cub who cowered in the shadow of others’ threatening growls. An ugly duckling, if you may, who, like others growing up in those difficult years of teenage-hood, was intensely affected by what others thought.
So I pause here to ask again, have you heard a chia pet roar? Listen carefully, because I’m roaring now.
A Look Back
I remember the child who called me the name- my first time. I remember the group of boys. Think about the significance of that statement- the fact that of the close to 40 years I’ve lived, that particular fact is still imprinted in my mind. It’s a rather interesting thing, this remembering thing. Looking back at those years, I don’t actually remember the majority of things that took place. Certainly not the day to day minutia. Maybe a teacher or two. Definitely not most exchanges I had with my peers. This one, however, stuck.
This phenomenon prompted me to do a search exploring the specific experiences that made it into our memory banks. Did they possess a certain quality or characteristic that singled them out among other experiences? I came up with a few studies and write-ups, and they immediately supported my hunch- that negative memories stayed with us longer. One such an article was featured in the New York Times, and it stated that “we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.”
My Chia Pet experience had indeed made the cut. It was negative enough to remain with me through the years- an ugly nickname I had picked up involuntarily at school, and just for being me. By nature of my looks, I inherited not only this ill-intentioned name, but also a lifetime of cringing at the mention of this otherwise adorable little fad. Here it is, by the way, the chia pet commercial, in case you weren’t fortunate enough to live through the 80’s and hear its catchy jingle.
Then I think back to the name-caller. A young man, whose friends always seemed to be around when he called out to me. All male. I wonder to myself how a youngster of rather advanced childhood years- hey, we’re not talking elementary school here- could bring himself to putting down a rather passive, shy classmate- and a girl at that. Even more, it fascinates me that the words he uttered, and those chuckles that they shared subsequently as a group, were nothing more to them than a fleeting moment of entertainment- a few minutes passed as others do at this age, in the blink of an eye.
But, while they forgot that very same instant, my own brain created a lasting memory, etched into its shell for years to come.
My Own Child
The fact that I was new to the school (see my immigrant-status below) didn’t help matters much for me. I joined ranks with others only in middle school, long after the hardened bond of childhood friendships solidified into alliances, and during the toughest years of growing up, when exclusion and insults were the ‘thing to do’. I’m reminded of those years as my own middle school-aged child lives through this stage. In fact, some days I need all the power I possess, conjured up from within me, to keep from intervening in an explosive protect-your-cub-style defense when it comes to his seemingly similar experiences, which I internalize second-hand. I feel the urge to do it, yes- but, in fact, I don’t.
It’s not my fight.
Children can be mean as hell. Some have inherently earned this in their genetic makeup, others- a majority, at that, if you ask this science-geek-turned-doc – have learned such behaviors at home, or rather, lacked the parental guidance to know any better. A great NY Times article was featured on this topic, back in 2006, and it stated exactly this. It was called BYU Study Shows Mean Children Are Raised by Mean Parents. Click on it to read.
I want my own children to learn to deal with mean spirited natures on their own- by dealing with their own experiences- much as I did. In order to learn, they must ‘take things as they’re dished out’- even really terrible dishes- and to grow strong as a result. I’ve imagined these encounters like those in the pages of a DC comic strip- where insults- the bad guys- literally thickening the skin, coating it with a protective layer that eventually pushes them away, reflected off into space. It would then be interesting to see if growth of this invisible layer of protection increased proportionately with the superhero’s bitterness toward others, possibly shaping future interactions or associations. For example, if Shane is the perpetrator- the so called ‘bully’ in the terms of today- the superhero may find himself with a bad taste in his mouth when he meets a new acquaintance named ‘Shane’. Or if the bully had a butterfly tattoo, it’s possible that interactions with butterflies would cause our superhero to cringe.
You may notice- and my head bows down as I point this fact out- that my own skin didn’t protect me from those name-calling years. It’s not fail-proof. Some absorption does occur, even if you build up that shell. It reminds me of the talk that I have with my patients on using certain medications. Take inhaled steroids, for example- sprayed into the nose, it mainly affects the desired organ, but there is always minimal systemic absorption. A little bit could still seep in- and that little bit may go a long way when it comes to words.
Interestingly enough, I don’t recall the name of the boy at the heart of this story, but I do remember the name that he called me. Vividly. So I guess that leaves me with a little positivity because I only get to cringe at one name, rather than two different ones.
My Response to a Name
I pushed through, much as the children of immigrant parents do (a study came out several years back, on the difference of studying by immigrant children, and was covered by the New York Times in this article– the interesting finding was that immigrant children study more, on average, than their non-immigrant counterparts) – by studying hard, keeping my head low, and ignoring the names. I don’t think I even once said anything back. And although I’d like to refer to is as bullying today, back then ‘bully’ wasn’t even a term that held meaning. You simply got made fun of, pushed around. It was part of the growing up process.
But I couldn’t shrug it off. They were relentless.
I was Chia Pet, and that was that.
At an age when what-people-are-saying matters more than anything, it counted and it hurt. I tried everything I could to change my look. Straightened my hair. Pulled it this way and that. Got a European cut during a trip abroad. Tried to become prettier. More accepted. But as I kept trying, I felt increasingly sad and introverted, because it didn’t work. I thought at the time that it was the worst thing that could happen to a girl.
But it did something great.
How It Made Me Stronger
Looking back at myself when I was in my ‘Chia Pet’ years and comparing it to the woman I am now, I see a stark contrast. I see a confident woman, who not only grew into my own skin, but also earned an impressive degree, not only as a medical doctor, but also as a mom. Those words were responsible for pushing me to become a bigger, better me. They drove me forward. They taught me compassion and just how far being kind goes. When you know exactly how it felt to be put down, you never want to do it to others.
And you know what? Today, I’m here to own it. To scream my name out from above the rooftops. To roar.
Yes, I am Chia Pet!
Today, I’m the same person I was more than 30 years ago. Just a bit more confident and strong.
Unlike others who may have peaked in their younger years, and always look back at the best years of their lives, my own best years are up ahead- now and tomorrow. In adulthood, attributes other than looks can lift a human and carry them far. I may have started out low, but now there is so much higher ground to cover.
This gal found a way to push past the cruelty of names- to use them as her stepping stones to rock it in this world.
To My Chia Pet Friends Everywhere
HEAR US ROAR!
In the spirit of those who are struggling with fitting in- the chia pets everywhere and anywhere- I want to hear your roars! Share your own story, photos and strong words!
Stand tall, be proud- remember that life is what you make of it. Show your child, as he or she deals with the often harsh social struggles of their younger years. Tell them there is so much more that lays ahead. So much more to come. Tell them that I was there along with them and that I survived. I even made it in the world. And that they will too!
Tell them about your own Chia Pet struggles. Tell them how you’ve won, too.