I am dusting off this post from August 2014 in celebration of the 1000 English teachers I’m reading with now — June 2019.
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 almost 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.
(I know, I know — obviously.)
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.
When I went to grad school I transitioned from the language of Barney the Dinosaur to the discourse of academia. When I moved from Michigan to Missouri, I switched from pop to soda. I love learning new terms as they emerge, and I especially love trying the language of my students.
One of my favorite parts of teaching is when my students teach me the ‘in’ words of the moment. I like to pretend that I have swag and that I can use their words in appropriate ways, but really I am just providing comic relief for my students who don’t really love language as much as I do. (Sigh.) I once 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, it was 2005, the words have surely changed by now!
In 2013, 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 particularly tough grammar lesson, and one of my students demonstrated that he understood. I excitedly 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!”
Language is a reflection of personality, of 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. When I say ‘conservative’, I might simply mean ‘guarded’; you might take it to mean a political viewpoint. For me, ‘fresh’ means ‘new”; to some it means ‘stylish’. ‘We negotiate meaning all day long. We have to listen and 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 assumption and without judgment. Let’s try to understand where the other person is coming from. When we aren’t sure, let’s ask for clarification. Someone who uses words differently than I do isn’t necessarily dangerous or less than me. (S)he is just different. And aren’t we glad for the difference? A world full of people just like me, using all the same words that I use, meaning exactly what I mean, would be incredibly dull.
So I learn from my students, and I break a few rules. I try out words that I don’t really understand, and I talk to people who are different than me.
I make mistakes. I ask for forgiveness. Then I try again.
let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance”Proverbs 1:5