Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Power of Language

Words have power.

Consider which you would rather be known as: famous or notorious. Both mean approximately the same thing: being widely known for a trait, a skill, or a characteristic. Most of us would prefer famous to notorious though my grandmother would probably have told you that her preference depended upon who was offering the descriptor. That was not my first acquaintance with the power of language though.

My mother's family was known for their ability to tell great stories and conversation was a form of entertainment. The easiest way to start a brouhaha was to try to tell a story for which some other member of the family was known. You would be given an immediate invitation to repent: "Nobody tells that story like Bob does." Failure to repent would result in specific instructions to "get your own story."

Even before I was exposed to the family's stories, my fourth grade teacher (Miss Eva Saxon) really focused my attention on the power of words. One of my previous teachers had described me as "chatty." Miss Eva saw me as having "strong verbal skills which we need to channel to her advantage." Decades later, when I taught, I tried to emulate her focus on the positive. In the younger grades, when a parent would apologize for their child talking too much in class (a description they shared with me from previous teachers), I would tell them how important a child's oral language was as a foundation for learning to read.

Miss Eva was one of three maiden sisters who taught in our district. One had already retired and the other taught me in high school. All three sisters were known for their no nonsense demeanor and their wardrobes. They wore business suits in rather drab colors with a single splash of color.

Miss Annabelle (the algebra teacher) always wore a very colorful blouse or it may have been just a dickey. We never knew which because she never removed her jacket. The oldest of the sisters wore a business suit and a bright scarf the only time I ever saw her (in the grocery store). Miss Eva had a plethora of colorful handkerchiefs, one of which she pinned with a cameo on her left shoulder when she entered the school building and removed when she left.  The one time I saw her outside of school was in the grocery store and I didn't recognize her without the handkerchief.

She also taught me how to use the words "acceptable" and "appropriate" in the classroom. When we broke a rule, she would quietly say, "That's really not acceptable behavior at school." If our behavior didn't break a rule but did disrupt class, she would sweetly say, "That's not appropriate here or now." The way she said it was enough to make the devil himself repent. Neither of the sisters I knew ever raised their voices. I followed that lead in my classrooms as well.

My junior year of high school, I had two great language masters as teachers. Miss Ethel Thompson taught English literature. The summer before she taught me, she had broken both hips but she insisted upon teaching that last year to match her mother's and her sister's record of 60 years of teaching. Her dresses came almost to the floor and her shoes were clunky, chunky two inch heels. Her walk was very stilted with tiny little steps. Only years later did I realize why.

Every day she met us at the door and welcomed us in. She would then shuffle over to the straight backed wooden chair by her desk. Our class assignment was on the board when we entered as was our homework assignment for the next day. She would sit in her chair, back ramrod straight, both feet firmly on the floor, hands clasped gracefully in her lap. As soon as she did that, everyone sat absolutely still and every mouth closed. She would take out her grade book, look around the room, noting who was there and who was not. Not a word was spoken. She would look up at the class, seeming to make eye contact with each of us.

Then, without a book in hand, she would say softly, "Let us begin" and she would conduct the entire class sans book quoting whole chapters it seemed. No one dared make a move or a sound for fear of losing some pearl of knowledge from her lips. Well.....not really. It wasn't so much the pearls of knowledge we feared to lose.

There was a legend that a few years before, a class clown had not been quiet during her class. After several glances of reproof, she had stood up and carried her chair to the hallway, closing the door behind her. She returned to the class five minutes before the end of class and  replaced the homework assignment with "Prepare for an exam over chapters 3-5. "

When the class erupted in protest, she held up one spindly little hand, smiled sweetly, and said, "I know you are already prepared since you did not require instruction today. Good day." She walked to the door, opened it, and dismissed class.

Clyde went to her that afternoon, after having been harassed by his classmates for most of the day,
and begged her not to give the test. She firmly held her ground. She gave the test and no one knew until they got their final grade that it had not counted. But, none of us wanted to take any chances.

The second great language master was Miss Sandra Worthington who taught speech and drama and coached the debate team. She looked like a fashion model: tall, slim, skin like porcelain, and always elegantly dressed. She also wore the tallest heels of the day. Her Introduction to Public Speaking class was a requirement of ninth grade English. She taught us diction, enunciation, and pronunciation.

Diction, according to her, was the "elegant choice of just the right word or phrase." Enunciation was the "proper execution of each sound" in the word and pronunciation was the combination of enunciation and proper accent in the word. As Henny Youngman might have said if he had known her, "She could tell you to go to the privy and make it sound like such an elegant place to go." The combination of the three, according to her, would result in eloquence.

Besides being a stickler for details, she also expected hard work of the debate team and drama casts and crews. We did not get Christmas holidays off  if we were members of the team, cast, or crew. Instead, the debate team met weekly to turn in assignments and receive new ones. The drama casts and crews had three rehearsals a week. None of us did much dating during the season. I was very grateful my senior year when she allowed me to take a four day trip to Virginia with my father and his wife to visit my grandparents and brother. Never mind that she gave me double assignments.

In addition to the hardships, she kept a sharp eye for talent. No matter how meager one's natural attributes might be, she always made time to discuss our "strengths and needs." We never had weaknesses. We just "needed some work." Because of her, my scholarships to college were delivered to me in January before I filed my application to the college in August.

In each of these instances, I learned the power of language. Words can break a spirit or foster a dream but, either way, the power of language is exhibited. These three teachers healed my broken spirit and made me believe I could do anything I set my mind to and I have.

1 comment:

  1. How very wonderful that you share these dedicated educators here on your Blog...It makes me wonder if there are any of these teachers left...The ones who really took their jobs seriously and truly cared for their students.
    I have very pleasant memories of my wonderful teachers and I loved my school years.
    Keep these wonderful memories coming.....You are a Blessing to me.