Some words have more staying power than others. Stupid is one of those words.
The American school system—public, private or Christian—is not for everyone. It nurtures some and mangles others. Within the first two days of class everyone knows who is on the fast track and who is on the slow one, who is going to breeze through with A’s and B’s and who is not. What we don’t see is that some students walk into school every day with an imaginary sign hanging around their necks that says stupid in gaudy neon letters. These students might not have heard “stupid” from anyone, but they are certain that everyone sees the sign and agrees with it.
Feeling Like an Outsider
Imagine that every day there are mandatory baseball tryouts and you never hit more than a foul tip. Every day you fail. You can’t even get a ball to dribble past the pitcher’s mound.
Imagine that every day there is a beauty pageant. The same girls win, and you get dismissive looks from the judges. Every day.
Imagine that every day you have to sit through math or reading (or whatever class puts your weaknesses on display). Maybe you don’t understand the whole “remainder thing” in division, or you can’t see how the words on a page link together. Yet, you have to sit through it. Every day.
“Stupid” and its shame comes at students in two ways. Most likely it comes from words spoken by fellow students. But it can even come from teachers, in which case it stays with you for of a couple decades. Or it can be the assumed, unspoken consensus that defines thirteen years of your school life, which also rarely loses potency over time.
Interrupting the Shame of Stupid
What can we do? Two simple things. First, we look for the good, the spiritually good. This should be the delight of every friend and family member. We have an up-close view of the person so we are able to see ways they are like their Father. Examples include, compassion, spiritual interests and responsiveness, humility, care for others, selflessness, confession and repentance. Consider this guideline: you must see the good before you can talk about the bad.
Second, we look for gifts and strengths. We are more interested in strengths than weaknesses. When someone’s weaknesses are especially difficult to bear, we do our best to identify those weaknesses and, perhaps, remediate them when possible, but we always have strengths in view (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12).
Strengths can include reading, writing, arithmetic, visual processing, drawing, auditory processing, memory (and there are many different kinds of memory), visual ordering, aesthetic sensibilities, understanding the world of other people, physical coordination, sequencing abilities, imagination, musical understanding, a sense of rhythm, seeing in three-dimensions, and so on. Our goal is to be able to list a few dozen per child (or friend, spouse, employee).
Yet even that carefulness and love will not shield students from feeling like shamed outsiders. When they do, compassion is the order of the day, each day—every day. Then, from that starting point, we can listen and enjoy how Scripture makes everything right. We can enjoy how, in the kingdom of God, the outsiders are the insiders and the insiders are the outcasts. Things are not always the way they seem. Jesus interrupts the shame of “stupid.”