Photo illustration by Jake Weir/B&W Staff

Edit desk: Just say ‘no’

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Erica Dougherty

Every parent dreams of hearing their child’s first word. Aside from becoming a story that parents will tell approximately 100 times throughout their child’s life, a baby’s first word marks their entrance into the world of civilization.

With a single maneuver of the tongue, an infant permanently abandons the squawks and roars of the less-evolved species for a lifetime of whispered conversations, energetic debates and tearful tirades.

In short, a first word is the moment in which an infant becomes a person.

Since a first word defines the beginning of a life, it must be chosen carefully. Some babies select “Mama” or “Dada” to establish love for their doting (and exhausted) caregivers — others choose at random, and a select few even decide to burble terms that display an early personality trait. 

My brother, whose lifelong affinity for sports was foretold by his initial exclamation of “ball,” is a prime example of this phenomenon. I, however, took Robert Frost’s “path less traveled by” and elected to use my first word to voice my stance on life.

“No.”

No.

Two letters, one syllable. “No” is syntactically simple, comes with its own facial expressions and is so universal that its spelling remains constant across several different languages. Most importantly, it gives the speaker the power to refuse.

So, as a stubborn, independence-craving child, I said “no” quite a bit.

I said no when my mom tried to feed me green beans. I said no when someone gave me anything pink as a present. I said no when my dad told me that my shoes were already tight enough. I even said no when no one else was talking.

As a child, “no” is the easiest word to say and the hardest word to hear.

As an adult, nothing about “no” is easy.

When I came to college, I quickly discovered that “no” was an infinitely more complex word than I had initially thought. You could use it and were, in fact, encouraged to do so by the multicolored graphics on the restroom installments. What the common cartoons failed to tell me was that using “no” came with a string of unspoken consequences.

You could say no to going to class, but then you would fail. You could refuse to work out, but then you would gain weight. You could even deny your roommate’s demands, but then they would threaten to spit in your toothpaste if you didn’t comply.

For me, the hardest thing to say no to involves the Lehigh social scene. I did not want to drink, smoke, wear revealing clothes, hook up or spend hours in a cramped, dirty basement. These activities made me feel uncomfortable, scared and out of place.

So, I said no. And it sucked.

Since no one I knew stayed in on a Friday night, I did not have any of my friends around during my free time. Instead, I became the “mom friend,” who took care of them when they stumbled home and vomited at 3 a.m. I had nothing to say when they told stories of their wild nights or mentioned people that I had never met.

Saying no was too hard, so I stopped saying it.

After a particularly rowdy party during my sophomore year, I put on a playlist of my favorite Broadway albums to decompress. As I was cleaning spilled grain off of my leg, Aida’s “Easy as Life” started to play. About three minutes in, I froze.

“The hardest things we’ve done are easy.”

Hearing that line, I finally understood “no.”

Choosing to say no is a hard decision to make, and it doesn’t get easier as you age. However, just like when you were a child, “no” is still an easy word to say. It’s OK to fear the consequences that come with saying no, but understand that consequence is just another word for outcome, and outcomes can be positive.

I said no to following the social scene for good that night, and it was one of the best decisions that I have ever made. Take the risk, speak the syllable and just say no.

I promise that it’s easy.

Erica Dougherty is an associate sports editor for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected]

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1 Comment

  1. Robert F Davenport Jr on

    Thanks for your essay and for helping those in need. Could it be that as you grew you understood that the “no” of things that you didn’t want became a “yes” to the things that you do want.

    As I tell my youngest daughter, whom I believe survived infancy because of her innate stubbornness, stubbornness is a gift that deserves to be used well. You have done so.

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