Seven-year-old Al only lasted twelve weeks in the classroom before his teacher grew tired of his self-centered attitude and incessant questions. If the teacher said he didn’t know the answer to the question Al would stare back at him and ask, “why?” This, coupled with the teacher’s observation that Al’s head was too big for his body, led him to the conclusion that the little boy was “addled” or confused. The teacher presented this finding to Al’s mother who promptly withdrew him from the school and began teaching him at home. As a pre-teen Al developed an insatiable appetite for the great literary classics after his father enticed him to master them with a reward of 10 cents per book. Al also read widely in the areas of World History and English literature, but most of the money he collected from his father subsidized his passion for chemistry.
The most notable achievement of this boy who had been labeled “addled” was that in his 84 years of life he acquired 1,093 patents – more than any other person in history. Al (or Thomas ‘Alva’ Edison, as he was called following his childhood) invented, among other things, the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera. He also improved the technology of the telephone and the telegraph.
One biographer states, “No one had more impact upon shaping the physical character of modern civilization than Thomas Edison…. Accordingly, he was the most influential figure of the millennium….”
Edison would add to that statement that no one had more impact upon shaping his own physical character than his mother, the person whom Edison said, “…was the making of me because she was the only person who truly understood me… and was so true, so sure of me, I felt I had someone to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”
As I reflect on Thomas Edison’s life story I find myself wondering what would have become of him if the entire world, his family included, had embraced the teacher’s hasty label. Would Edison have lived a life of insignificance? Would he have been defeated by this word?
Most of us don’t need to look past our own stories to see that negative labels or names can cut deeper and take longer to heal then the superficial wounds from sticks and stones. Many of us have also witnessed the power of a well-chosen word, one that can heal or spur us to greatness.
Anne, a friend of mine, was originally named ‘Stormy.’ Her parents named her siblings ‘Rebel’ and ‘Candy.’ Does it surprise any of us that each of them lived up to their names? Rebel was a defiant son, Candy was a sweet girl of little substance, and Stormy ran away from home at an early age to join a cult. Thankfully, Stormy overcame her past through the help of a kind neighbor. In celebration of her changed life she also changed her name.
I urge all of you, as I constantly remind myself as well, to “not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29). As a community of parents, teachers and students we can do great things, Edison-like things, if our every aim is to encourage each other.
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