Adults are familiar with the work of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, but in our efforts to heal our wounded world, our children need to hear his message. Fortunately, Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams have come together to write “Desmond and the Very Mean Word” about the hurt that words can cause and the power of forgiveness.The first powerful moment of this book came in the form of an introductory letter from Tutu to the child reading his book. In his book, he speaks to children urging them to consider what it would be like if someone told you that a group of people was better than another group just because they had some physical feature, which they had no control over.
The story itself is simple. Young Desmond is excited about his new bike and wants to show it to Father Trevor. On his way, however, he encounters a gang of boys. He doesn’t want to stop for fear that they will steal his bike. But as he rides through, one boy shouts out a very mean word. What that word is doesn’t matter, it just cuts Desmond to the core.
Desmond wants to get back at the boys. Father Trevor explains why that won’t solve anything – “You will get them back, and then they will get you back, and soon our whole world will be filled with nothing but ‘getting back.'”(ain’t that the truth!)
Desmond tries to get past it, but can’t, a wonderful reminder that he is a kid. When he sees the boys again, he shouts the meanest word he can think of at them. At first he feels proud for getting back at them, but then he realizes that the mean word has “left a bitter taste in his mouth.”
Desmond realizes that while he has figured out a way to hurt the boys, hurting them actually hurts him too. This is a lesson many children’s books have tried to get across, most notably, How Full is Your Bucket.
What finally frees Desmond is his ability to apologize for his own ugly words and to forgive the red-haired boy for his. In that moment, “Desmond felt a little stronger and a little braver and stood up a little taller.”
When we were children we were taught the mantra that sticks and stone may break your bones but words could never hurt you. In reality, words leave a much more lasting impact on us. It is far easier to hold on to the one negative comment than to remember ten positive ones. What Tutu learned as a child, and hopes to impart to children everywhere, is that we can only raise ourselves up and hope to raise up others by promoting a world of kind words and deeds. Hate speech has never gotten us anywhere, but love, love has the power to heal. As we enter 2017, I hope that we can all learn a little something about kindness and love to all.