How often do you see young people doing something so outrageous or inappropriate you wonder, Where are the parents? I thought about saying something to the tween girl with the “Pimp Queen” tee-shirt, but the group of boys dropping f-bombs all over the place? Uh uh. I kept going.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised when I approached the counter a Maryland seafood carry-out when the teen at the register spewed out the menu offerings in a flutter of cracked verbs and broken endings, offering a bad attitude on the side. “Can you repeat that?” I said. Looking perturbed, she again recited the menu for grilled seafood platters, this time spitting it out more rapid-fire. I think she rolled her neck at me.
As I moved back to wait for my order, I noticed her slumped shoulders, the impatient blather, the loose hair ends flying around her head. The frumpled clothes. And yet, I also saw a softness. There was a young lady behind all the posturing.
Why hasn’t somebody taught her better?
Just as it’s fashionable now to Pay It Forward and to commit Unintentional Acts of Kindness, Speaking Life is one of those actions that can do good whether it’s planned or a spur of the moment opportunity. In her self-published “Make Your Mouth a Ministry,” Deborah Leaner gives exercises to show the tremendous good (and bad) our words can do; what she and others call ‘Speaking Life:’ an unexpected compliment, encouraging words, advice given in love.
How many remember that coach or teacher or auntie who said something that still echoes in your heart? “You is kind. You is smart. You is important,” Aibileen spoke those words to her little white charge in “The Help.” I can’t figure out why nobody thought to let her Speak Life to the little black children who served as the movie’s scenery. But that discussion is for another time.
I love Leaner’s powerful example of how she would Speak Life if she saw a teenage-boy shoplifting. A Baptist minister who relies on the Holy Spirit to guide her life and her mouth, Leaner said she would tap the young stranger on the shoulder as she walked by. I’m expecting greater things for you than this.
Those words would stay with the would-be shoplifter for a long time. And Learner’s example is the kind of Old School involvement among our village of children and families that used to be common. Can we bring it back by being positive when we encounter others who need a word, can we bring it back by Speaking Life?
As it turned out, I was the only one left in the Central Avenue seafood shop when my order came up. I paid for it, wondering what hardships this young girl might be facing. I hesitated, but I asked her to lean over the counter. “You are so pretty…,” I began in a whisper. With that, she beamed, straightening her back so that I could see she was quite tall. “Can you do me a favor?” I continued. “I want you to speak more slowly so people can understand you, and I want you to smile more.”
I continued: “Your blouse needs tucking in, too, and—I hesitated on this one—get your hair together. Just brush it back with your hands.” I guess it was my motherly tone or that at least she’d been taught to respect her elders, but she did these things, explaining that she didn’t like working on Sundays.
Immediately, a different girl stood at the counter. She seemed a little more confident, less angry and less contemptuous of the customers who came in behind me. For few minutes, anyway, she smiled prettily. In a strong, clear voice, she asked, “Who’s next?”