My students have helped me keep my secret for years — I’m not really the best English teacher. It’s true. They correct my grammar as much as I correct theirs. I misspell words, even on the board! And, to be honest, I always have to look up the correct usage of lie and lay.
I mean I have the credentials and everything — a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English. I was even magna cum whatever both times. I love English. I love literature. I love words. I’m just not a big fan of rules. (All of my middle school and high school teachers would not be shocked by this.)
What I love about language, actually, is its fluidity, its malleability. I love the way meaning changes over time and according to circumstance. I love playing with language and trying out new words in new contexts.
One of my best memories of the classroom is my students teaching me the ‘in’ words of the moment. I like to pretend that I have swag and that I can use the words in the appropriate ways, but really I am just providing comic relief for my students who don’t really love the English language as much as I do. (Sigh.) I am quite sure I never got cakin’ right, but I tried to throw it into conversations whenever possible. Last year I had a group a students who were committed to saying ‘that’s dead‘ at least twenty times per class period. Now for those of you who are not as hip as I am, ‘that’s dead’ means “bad idea” or “I don’t like that” or “no, I disagree”. So, I would say, “The paper is due tomorrow.” My students would reply, “that’s dead.” See, now isn’t that fun?
When I taught at an inner city high school in St. Louis, my students one day spent ten minutes of class teaching me the etymology of the word bird. If I remember correctly bird means a female human. Old bird means my mother. I can’t seem to remember how to refer to a girlfriend, but that’s ok, that was 2005, the words have surely changed by now!
Last year, for the first time in my career, I taught a class of freshmen. I loved it. They were easily impressed, tried the things I asked them to, played along with my games, and encouraged my love of words. One day we were working on a grammar lesson (blech!), a particularly tough grammar lesson if I remember, and one of my students demonstrated that he understood. For whatever reason, I high-fived him and said, “Bam!” That was all it took. For the rest of the year, whenever anyone did something right, we had to have a “Bam!” What did I care? They were engaged, enthusiastic, and I got to high-five fourteen year olds!
Language is a reflection of personality, individuality. We are not all the same, especially in this country. We are all kinds of people. We can’t all mean the same thing just because we are using the same word. We negotiate meaning all day long. We have have to listen, to question, to communicate. We can’t assume that we understand just because we hear words that we recognize. We have to enter into dialogue. We have to get to know one another. We have to be flexible, malleable, fluid.
Ah, grasshopper, there is a lesson here for all of us, isn’t there? Let’s use our words. Let’s listen to each other, without judgment. Let’s try to understand where the other person is coming from. Someone who looks different or uses different words isn’t necessarily dangerous or less than me. He is just different. And isn’t it beautiful that God created so many different people? A world full of people just like me, using all the same words that I use, would be incredibly bland and boring.
So, I break a few rules. I try out words that I don’t really understand. I talk to people who are different than me. I make mistakes. I ask for forgiveness. Then I try again. Bam.
a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.