The Power of Words

This morning I am a little overwhelmed by the power of words.  Simple arrangements of consonants and vowels that together form sound and meaning.  You would think I would love words; I am an English teacher.  I have spent countless hours of my life reading and writing words.  I do love them.  They not only help me communicate with others, express my inner self, and earn a living — they are so much fun!  You may be aware of my embarrassing Words With Friends habit, or the fact that I love to complete a crossword in one sitting, or that I am abnormally amused by wordplay such as puns, innuendo, and hyperbole. One of my greatest joys as a teacher is playing with words to teach students about their own language and how they use it — how do you think I learned how to code switch?

However, even though I love words — they overwhelm me.  How can these simple clusters of sounds have such power?

I watched a video on Friday during my training that interviewed a young boy who was painfully aware of the power of words.  Because of his learning difficulties, he was placed in a special education classroom.  In that room he got the resources he needed; outside of that classroom he was assailed with damaging words: “Hey, retard!” “You’re so weird!”  “You’re dumb!”

On Saturday I learned about a young man who was verbally attacked in his graduate program.  His classmates quietly uttered sexual taunts.  They never touched him — but their words forced him out of the program.

We’ve all heard these stories.  Persecutors attacking victims with their words.

But, guys, my words are powerful, too!  If you’ve met me in person you know that I use a lot of words.  A quick google search will tell you that the average woman uses 13,000-20,000 words per day.  I am sure I do. I love to talk. Over the years I have tried to learn a little restraint and give others an opportunity to share the air space.  I may have made a little progress, but I doubt it.  I can talk.

Quantity is not really the problem though, is it? No. It’s word choice.  It’s what we say. That’s part one.  Part two is the meaning that others attach to what we say.  That means that before I speak I should consider what mean and then consider my audience — what will they hear. That’s a lot of pressure.  I mean, how am I supposed to fit in my 13,000-20,000 words each day if I pause each time I think about opening my mouth. Exactly.

On Saturday evening, after we met with dear friends for dinner, I was lying in bed thinking about some of the words I used.  One phrase stuck out in my mind.  I was thinking to myself, “I know what I meant by that, but I should have added one more sentence to clarify. They may have totally misunderstood my meaning.” Been there?

If I had a dollar for every time I had to rewind the tape of my words to insert an explanation…

It’s no coincidence that at this time in my life I have taken a job where my words are so important.  I, at 49 years of age, still need to learn this lesson — my words are powerful.  The students I will meet, starting this Wednesday, have been beaten and bruised by words.  I may never know how much.  They have been mocked at school, questioned by their teachers, evaluated by their parents, and berated by themselves.  They are bloody. My words must be salve.

When a student reads “bind” for “kind”, I will say, “Great job with that “d” sound at the end of the word! When you say ‘bind’ what do you picture for the first letter?”  When she says “b”, I will say, “awesome!” I will celebrate each correct consonant and each correct vowel.  I will applaud every remembered detail. I will try to help my students recover from the trauma of being assailed by and excluded from the world of words.

And, boys and girls, how do you picture that God would want me to carry this lesson — that my words must be salve — into the rest of my life? Do you picture me telling my husband that I appreciate him going to work every day? Do you picture me thanking my daughter for running the dishwasher or for cooking a fabulous dinner? Can you imagine me reassuring a friend or comforting a loved one — all with my words? That is what I picture.  I picture my words as a healing balm that can cover a stinging wound.  I picture them as gauze that will stop the bleeding and allow some time for healing.

And really, the only way I know to make that happen — to make sure that kindness comes out of mouth — is to do a heart check — a continual, day-by-day heart check.  I know that if I am angry, angry words are going to come out of my mouth.  If I am hurt, defensive jabs are going to burst forth. “…for out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45)  In fact, if we are hurting on the inside and we try to say things that are nice, or calming, or comforting, our listeners can often sense that our words are not genuine.  They may hear us and think to themselves, “what a fake!”

Do you see why I am so overwhelmed? How can I take all this into account?  How can I continually check my heart, consider my listeners, and evaluate my message?

I only have one answer — by the grace of God.  And that is how I am going to step into today.  I am going to ask God to purify my heart, filter my message, and when all else fails, cover the ears of my listeners.  Forty-nine years have taught me I can’t do this on my own.

Proverbs 16:24

Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to soul and healing to the bones.

More Life Lessons – Celebrate

I’m three days into my training to be a clinician at Lindamood-Bell and let me tell you, this English teacher is learning about language. It’s linguistics, really — the rules of the English language and how you teach them to struggling readers.  On Monday I held up vowel flash cards for my partner who was making the phonemic sounds and then took my turn doing the same.  We learned about consonants, vowels, diphthongs, and the beloved schwa. Now I know that way back in the eighties I sat in class with Professor Campbell and learned all the basic rules of linguistics.  In fact, during my master’s work, I had two classes in linguistics with Dr. Stalker where we did all this and more — studying the rules of sentence construction and the ways that different people groups vary from the norm.  But somehow knowing that these rules, when taught to a struggling reader, might unlock the door to decoding and then to comprehension, makes it all just a little more meaningful.

I believe it was my fourth grade teacher who clapped out the syllables for me.  “My name is Kris/tin.  I have two syllables in my name.”  I have used that strategy with poetry students when I teach them meter, but I have never considered the fact that each syllable has a vowel or that the arrangement of consonants and vowels — whether a syllable is ‘open’ or ‘closed’ has an impact on the way that we pronounce the sound of the vowel. I’ve never had to!  Reading and language have always come easily to me.  I must have thousands of sight words.  I very rarely have to sound a word out or look it up in a dictionary.  I don’t have to think about how to decode; it’s natural for me.

But it isn’t natural for the students I will be working with.  Some of them are years behind in school.  We’ve looked at case after case over the last few days — many of these students are very bright, they just have never had success with reading.  Some of them have already been through several other reading interventions, both in and out of school.  They, and their parents, have had enough.  They are ready to give up.  They are almost ready to admit that they will never know how to read and comprehend. In my imagination they come dragging into our office, believing that their worst fears are going to be confirmed.  They are beaten down, exhausted, and hopeless.  I would be, too!

So for the last three days I have not only learned about language — phonology and orthography. I have also learned how to be a cheerleader. From the moment that a family enters the door, the focus is on success and celebration.  Even the FOUR HOURS of testing is designed to be fun.  From the room where I was training yesterday I could hear a student and a teacher in the next room laughing and celebrating — during a battery of tests!!  The students are celebrated for showing up, for trying — even when they get it wrong, for hanging in there, and eventually, for reading!

My fellow trainee and I have even been celebrated.  We are training via teleconference.  When we are brave enough to un-mute our microphone and speak up in the conference, we get a prize — candy or a little toy to use in our tutoring.  When we practice with one another we give positive reinforcement with every response, even when it is followed with a correction.  We use words like great job, fantastic, amazing, you got it! Not once have I heard a trainer say no, but, not exactly, or not quite. The focus is on celebrating what the student did get right and guiding him to see what he needs to correct.  It’s pure genius.

It’s also a life lesson for me.  I have been pretty critical of myself and others over the years.  I have focused on my flaws — my errors– instead of celebrating my strengths and successes.  I’m pretty sure I have done this for the others in my life as well.  I’ve probably told you more than I should what I think you are doing wrong instead of what I notice you are doing well.  I’m sorry about that.

So today, let’s focus on the strengths.  I am excited about another opportunity to learn!  I have a very supportive husband and family!  I have a forgiving, redeeming God who daily says to me, “I see your strengths. I gave them to you. I love you.”

Psalm 139:14

[We] praise you because [we are] fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful, [we] know that full well.