The boxes of my past were stacked one on top of the other. On a rainy day, I opened the oldest one first. Long ago, Mom laboriously glued my rudimentary pre-school and Kindergarten artwork into a huge scrapbook. I felt the rough texture of each finger-painted picture. Turning the pages, I followed my progression—messy scribbles, erase marks, lots of teacher’s red ink. Learning didn’t seem to come easy for me.
I noticed that when my teachers wrote something encouraging, better work seemed to follow. We all recall those special teachers—the ones who reach behind the failure, and see something worthy to hold onto. The red ink marks told a story. Yet, the bold letter grades shouted their disapproval of my answers—magnifying how wrong I felt about myself.
Not that there isn’t a place for red ink and grades, but the critical words written beneath those grades, or the ridicule in front of my classmates often hurt far more. As a youngster, I could already see that other kids were smarter than I. Learning new concepts seemed to take me twice as long. But I eventually learned—just not in time to score very well on those pesky annual achievement tests. Yes, Mom saved every one of those too. A bar graph visually labeled me below average year after year.
In fifth grade, the educational puzzle pieces fell in place. While I wasn’t a perfect student, I’d become a better one. Yet something had happened to my heart along the way. I’d become sensitive to criticism. Yes, criticism has its place, but sometimes in the hurry-up nature of classrooms (and boardrooms, family kitchens, and wherever else we are), critical words miss their intended mark, and hit the heart instead.
Learning how to deliver criticism isn’t easy. As I looked through the boxes of my school life, some teachers knew how to package criticism within encouraging words. And that encouragement led to motivation—which fueled my progress.
As I sealed the boxes again, I realized that whenever someone took the time to be compassionate towards me in my struggle, the criticism was more encouraging than it was critical.
When we take the time to first understand someone’s feelings, we often find that our compassion will take us further than our criticism ever will. And in the end, isn’t that what’s most important?