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November 30, 2015
Life on Planet Kathy
Our Impressionable Minds
by Kathryn H. Kidd

As Fluffy and I were driving through Baltimore recently, we passed a billboard that made a big impression on me. It was a picture of Albert Einstein that I had never seen before, but it was not his hair or expression that made the impression. It was the caption next to the picture. Here is the billboard:

Einstein could afford to stick out his tongue at the world. He was Albert Einstein!

I had just assumed Einstein was always Einstein. Who knew he was a work in progress?

The billboard reminded me of a story I had just recently read, concerning another young student. The story went like this:

One day Thomas came home and gave a paper to his mother. He told her, “My teacher gave this paper to me and told me to only give it to my mother.”

His mother’s eyes were tearful 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 enough good teachers for training him. Please teach him yourself.”

Many years later, Thomas’s mother had died and he had become one of the greatest inventors of the century. One day he was looking through old family things that had belonged to his mother.

Suddenly he saw a folded paper in the corner of a drawer in a desk. He took it and opened it up. On the paper was written: “Your son is addled [mentally ill]. We won’t let him come to school any more.”

He cried for hours and then he wrote in his diary: “Thomas Alva Edison was an addled child that, by a hero mother, became the genius of the century.” (

Although the research I have done this week has told me the story is more legend than fact, the story wasn’t entirely false. Thomas Edison was dyslexic, as I was, and teachers back in those days did not know how to deal with dyslexic students. He only lasted a few weeks in public school before his mother, Nancy, pulled him out of school to teach him at home.

One on occasion Edison said the following about his mother:

She "was the making of me...  [because] she was always so true and so sure of me...  And always made me feel I had someone to live for and must not disappoint." (

Of course, people learn the lessons they are going to learn in life. I remember when I was in probably in about second or third grade, I desperately wanted to take ballet lessons. Half the little girls in the world back in those days wanted to be ballerinas, and the other half wanted to ride horses. I never wanted to ride horses. I thought they were sweating poop machines then, and I still think that’s what they are.

Anyway, I signed up for ballet lessons, which were held in the afternoons at the Catholic school. The Catholic school was scary enough, because everyone in New Orleans was either Catholic or Protestant, and depending on which flavor you were, you were always told the other group was on the fast track to hell. Just going to the Catholic school for my ballet classes was putting me squarely in the enemy camp.

After I’d taken ballet classes for only a few weeks, the teacher was looking for a student to demonstrate a technique in one of the classes and she called me up to the front of the class. She had me demonstrate the technique, but no — that wasn’t enough.

She then told the class, most of whom were older than I was (which meant that I had a healthy fear of them anyway), that I had a natural talent for the ballet. She said I was so good at ballet that I could be a professional ballerina, if I kept at it. And then she administered the kiss of death. She said, “It’s too bad she’s so ugly.”

I later saw a picture of myself at that age, and I wasn’t ugly at all. I later became ugly. The teacher’s words became a self-fulfilling prophecy. But at the time I was just a regular kid. I could have gone either way.

I left that class and never danced again — not ballet, not anything. I became an ugly non-dancer. Too bad I didn’t have Einstein’s natural self-confidence. Instead of sticking my tongue at the world, I shut myself up in my shell like a hermit crab.

It was only decades later that I realized it wasn’t entirely the teacher’s fault. I chose which words to believe. I could have chosen to believe I had a natural talent for the ballet. Instead I chose to believe I was ugly.

Too bad I never told my mother about my experience with the teacher. She may have given me just the pep talk I needed. Mothers are like that. But they aren’t mind readers, and I didn’t say a word, so the pep talk I so desperately needed was never given. Pity.

A word of caution to all you people out there who deal with children. You are opening doors to magical realms for the children whose lives you touch, or you are slamming those doors shut forever. Every casual word can inspire or place a mine in a minefield. You never know when you bury those mines when they’ll go off, or whose lives will be scarred forever in the process.

As the saying goes, “If you can’t say anything nice (or at least constructive or helpful), don’t say anything at all.”

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