Holly Combs is the Co-Dreamer of Dept. of Public Words & an Illiterate Rabble Rouser. She is presenting this year at TEDxIndianapolis. Although her big idea has yet to be announced, she shared a powerful story with us that we would like to share with you.
She told me I should learn to cut hair.
Not that hair-cutting is bad, by any means. But that wasn’t the kind of art I wanted to create. And she knew it.
And she didn’t even really want me to cut hair. She wanted to cut me down. To make my dreams match up with the labels I’d been given. To be . . . realistic.
For years in school, the voices of power had told me I was dumb, stupid, slow, delayed. I had heard it so many times, I always wanted to ask, do you think I’m deaf too? I heard you the first time. First time. No one, not even a five-year-old no one, forgets that kind of message.
It was a message repeated again and again and again. Even the top of my papers screamed it. No, no one wrote “stupid” on my papers. No one wrote anything. Other kids got the stickers. The pretty stickers with the positive messages. “Good job!” “A student!” “Super!” “Good work!”
I hated those stickers.
I got nothing. No “nice try” even.
And why not? I’d done good work. They had no idea how hard I tried.
But I didn’t need any sticker to tell me I had a superpower. I was able to observe the entire system in seconds. I saw my fellow classmates getting the stickers. And I knew what happened to the “slow” kids. So if all the power is in the message, what do you do? If you’re book smart, you study harder. If you’re super smart, you take that message and make it yours.
So that’s what I did. I took the words on their papers and wrote them on mine. Then I got the stickers.
“Well done!” Who’s the slow one? Me, or the teachers throughout my entire academic career who couldn’t see I was dyslexic, not dumb. I was different, not delayed. And I was super-powered—NOT stupid.
It’s OK though. Sometimes it just takes people a while to catch up. I understand. The system isn’t big enough to give everyone their own lane to run in.
But why not?
Maya Angelou said that people will forget what you said and what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.
The stickers people do (or don’t) place on you make you feel something.
Beautiful. Ugly. Good. Bad. First. Second. Graduate. Dropout. Winner. Loser.
They make you feel something. And then if you look at them long enough, they make you be something.
Or . . . you rip them the hell off.
I stood there, 13 years later. “You told me I should cut hair,” I said to that high school counselor. “But I knew I was meant for more than that.” I slid my book—the one I created with my husband after we had been running our own magazine and teaching art for years—onto her desk. “I’m a world changer. I’m an executive director of a nonprofit. I’m a mother of two and a wife of fourteen years. And you didn’t crush me that day.”
She didn’t crush me. But she sure did sting.
She didn’t crush me. But I bet she crushed somebody else.
Words matter. Messages matter. Stickers matter.
Make your message stick. But make sure it’s worth it. The first time.