I’d like to begin with a question. Do you know/ have you been told/ or do you remember the first word or one of the first words you said when you were a toddler just beginning to speak?
One of the most common words small children learn early and use often is the word no. No is a small but powerful word. Maybe some of you have a younger brother or sister or cousin who says No! a lot? Or maybe you have memories of saying that word frequently when you were small, accompanied perhaps by a bit of thrashing about on the floor, or stomping your feet. Or maybe it is a word you find yourselves saying or thinking often now too.
Two of the books I read this summer, Tell Me More and Year of Yes got me thinking about that word no, and another word we will think about in a minute. In Kelly Corrigan’s Tell Me More, there is an entire chapter devoted to the things she knows she needs to say no to. And let me be clear, no is a word we need to be able to say. We should say no to things that don’t feel safe, or kind, or honest. Things that don’t bring out the best in us. Things that make others feel badly. Some are simple things- and it doesn’t take us any time at all to decide to say it. Others are more complicated… especially when you want to say no and others want you to say yes, or when you wonder what someone else might think of you if you say no.
Sometimes our reasons for saying no are not all that great. Sometimes it feels easier but maybe isn’t the answer we know we should give, or we just don’t want to deal with someone or something.
When I was in fifth grade, my class took an overnight field trip. And the trip was to a wilderness area where everyone engaged in lots of outdoor activities. When I was in fifth grade I was not outdoorsy, I was not athletic, I was not coordinated, and I was not courageous. And at some point during that overnight trip, there was an activity I wanted to avoid. Whatever the activity, I do remember that it was made clear to us that we didn’t have to do it. We could opt out and be observers. But I didn’t want to admit that in front of other people. I was in fifth grade. I cared a lot about what other people might be thinking about me. I worried. And so I pretended I had a headache and I went to the nurse’s station. And she let me rest on a cot. I’m pretty sure she knew what was going on. I didn’t want to say no and stand out. Later, I found out that others did say no. Later I realized that nobody made a big deal about who said no.
So back to that other word that my summer reading got me thinking about. That word is Yes. Today I’d like for us to spend a little time thinking about the word yes.
The chapter in Tell Me More that follows the one on no is only two pages long. And that chapter is a short list of all the things the author knows she will always say yes to. And I thought to myself when I read that list, wow- do I know, can I name the the things I want to make sure I always say yes to?
Let me give you some examples of the kinds of things I will always try to say yes to… a student who needs my help, impromptu requests from my daughters to meet for coffee or a meal, creme brulee- which should probably be on my no list but will never make it there- a visit with my mom, a friend who asks for my ear, a request from your teacher Mrs. Reed for a conversation, time with my cousin Tim, cooking and hosting Thanksgiving dinner for family and friends. I’m still thinking about my list. any of my yeses are things that help me to be the person I want to be. But that hasn’t always been the case. Learning to say yes is a journey I am still on.
When I was a little bit older than you, I joined a school as the only new student. I was the only new girl in a class of 60 girls, many of whom had been together since Lower School. I was scared. It was rough. On the first day I remember one girl coming up to me and saying, “Your mom and my mom went to school together and my mom told me to say hi to you.” And that was all she said, and then she walked away, and I was back to square one. I knew nobody. Those first few weeks were so hard. But then another girl joined our class. By this point, I’d begun to find my group. I had a few new, fragile friendships. And suddenly now I wasn’t the new girl. And there was a day not long after she came, and I am not proud of this, when she looked at me and asked me to hang out with her that weekend, and I said no. I made up some really flimsy excuse. And even when I was saying no part of me knew I could, maybe even should be saying yes. Later, she told me how I had made her feel when I said no. She told me that she thought I would be the one person she could count on. I said no, because it was easier than risking my newly found place in my friend group. And almost 40 years later this memory still makes me cringe.
It’s not so much about the word yes as it is about the possibilities that word may create for each of us. Saying yes might take us out of our comfort zones- in a way that makes us feel uneasy at first- but can ultimately be a really beneficial thing. Saying yes also has the power to make someone else feel welcome, cared for, heard, respected. Saying yes sometimes just might make each of us a better person, make this school a better school, and make our community a stronger community..
So… Can you think of something you could try to say yes to that might benefit both you and someone else?
-Can I talk to you?
-Is it ok if I sit there?
-Should I speak up right now?
-Would you like company?
-Could we hang out this weekend?
-Will you help me with something?
-And… I am thinking back to Ms. Harper’s chapel last week which I didn’t get to see but luckily I got to read her notes… Can I begin again?
I’m going to tell you one thing I have never ever said yes to and I am still trying to decide if I want to… and that is riding a roller coaster. Today I turn 54 and not once have I said yes to a roller coaster ride. Yet. Sometimes saying yes is about courage and just trying something new. As I said, I am still learning.
This year I hope we all pause when we are asked a question that can be answered with two of the shortest words in our language, two of earliest words we learn to say- yes, or no. I hope we know when to say no and can be brave about that. And I hope we learn when we can say yes- yes to learning and caring, growing and engaging.