It’s the summer after eighth grade, the glorious point in my life between graduating middle school and beginning high school. I have advanced to the Pioneers’ division at camp, and the highlight of the summer is the canoe trip down the Delaware River.
To prepare for the trip, we devoted several of our weekly activity slots to learning how to canoe. At our final practice session, we learned what to do if we fell out of our canoes. To prepare, I was supposed to “accidentally” fall out and have my partner sit on one end of the canoe while I pushed all my weight onto the opposite end in order to maneuver myself back into the canoe. Jumping out was easy, but despite my best efforts and the help of five lifeguards, I never succeeded in making it back into that canoe. Realizing that I lacked the necessary upper body strength, the lifeguards suggested that I give up and swim back to shore.
As I swam away, I overheard one of the lifeguards murmur to the other one, “I’m calling it now – she’s going to fall into the Delaware and call it quits on the spot.” It wasn’t easy to hear that. Maybe the lifeguards were right – maybe I couldn’t do it.
Eventually, the big day arrived. The combination of sunny skies and calm waters facilitated smooth sailing. When we approached the first set of rapids, we stopped paddling and let the water push us along. Our canoe was going and going – until it wasn’t. At a certain point, we realized that while the rest of the canoes were moving smoothly down the river, ours wasn’t; we were stuck on a chunk of boulders. A few minutes later, the rapids caused our canoe to tip over, we fell into the water, and I immediately wanted to give up.
I was humiliated. In psychology, a concept known as a self-fulfilling prophecy dictates that people will come to act in a certain way simply because others expect it of them. Floating in the cold water, I wondered if maybe, that gossipy lifeguard was right. Maybe I couldn’t do it. Maybe I should just quit.
And yet, somehow, I felt an impromptu need to get back into my canoe and cross the finish line. As challenging as it was, I picked myself up and did just that. I had something to prove. My partner and I managed to catch our canoe and quickly flip it over. We gathered up our soppy possessions and oars and helped each other climb back in. We were not the first group to reach the finish line, but we did eventually make it.
It’s been years since I fell out of my canoe on the Delaware River, but I haven’t forgotten the experience. That day, I learned that words can actually change the outcome of a situation. Now, I’m constantly mindful of the words I say, whether I am conversing with a friend, approaching a teacher or working with children as a counselor at the same camp I once attended. Nobody’s “ever after” deserves to be limited by someone else’s flippant comment.
In Parshat Shemot, when Moshe attempted to stop Datan and Aviram from quarreling, one of them retorted, “Who made you a man, a prince, and a judge over us? Do you plan to slay me as you have slain the Egyptian?” Moshe, worried that Pharaoh knew he had killed an Egyptian, nervously replied, “Indeed, the matter has become known!” In the very next pasuk, the Torah writes “Pharaoh heard of this incident, and he sought to slay Moshe.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that Moshe’s verbalization of his fear, an ostensibly extraneous detail, is actually precisely what caused Pharaoh to find out that Moshe had killed the Egyptian. The words Moshe unthinkingly spoke turned his fear into reality.
I understand now that what happened on the Delaware River wasn’t pathetic – it was a victory. I faced my fears and drowned them in cold, rapid water. By successfully climbing back into my canoe, I proved the lifeguard wrong. Her words nearly came to fruition, but I didn’t let them. That day, I learned that speaking positively leads to good outcomes and speaking negatively leads to bad outcomes, but above all, it is important to speak with the understanding that words truly matter.
Sara Khodadadian is a senior at Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls in Hewlett, N.Y. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.