A BETTER DAY TOMORROW

IMG_4747

I hate the word but truly that’s what I am. At least about this. And since this essay is about words, let’s just do it, shall we? Just say it.

I’m a really awful prig. Thankfully not about everything. Really, I can even sit through most R rated movies like a big girl with hardly a raised eyebrow, good for me. But I am prig nonetheless. I am a word prig.

I’m not actually one of those tightly-wound grammarians self-righteously correcting complete strangers when they trip up on their tenses. My use of proper grammar, while decent, is what I would consider a work in progress.

But I am a lover of words. I love how they sound when spoken honestly and with conviction. I love the voices in my head when I read, which can sound like everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to Ella Fitzgerald to my mother, depending on what I’m reading. I love using them, choosing just the right one with the elegance and panache of Audrey Hepburn knotting a scarf around her neck. I love how certain words have a caress, others a rumble, and still more a resonance.

And like many lovers of words I am actually not a big talker. I think this is because choosing the right words takes time. Choosing the right word can be like trying to find just the right perfectly-shaped leaf on a windy fall day.

I’m a prig too, because I hate swearing, but not because I think swearing is a bad thing. People get mad, they have a right to get mad and they certainly have a right to express it. But that’s where things have gotten sticky. Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s call a word a word.

When I was a little kid at summer camp we loved to swear, we lived to swear. We could find a way to squeeze swear words into the most innocuous sentences imaginable. !@#$% pancakes for breakfast again? Is it !@#$% sunny today? Want to play !@##$% jacks with me? Over and over and over. Just saying things we weren’t supposed to say felt fantastic. Empowering. Pleasantly bad.

Everyone was doing it so everyone did. And then we stopped. We did not stop because we were evolving into polite little humans. We stopped because by the time we returned home the swear words had lost their fangs. Say @##$% enough times and it’s boring, it just loses it’s power to shock. There were so many more creative and interesting ways of doing that.

Constant swearing is like starting in a bag of stale jelly beans. They’re awful, they’re unsatisfying but you keep plowing through feeling that if you keep going you’ll be sated. Never works. You’re just left with an empty bag and a sickly-sweet coating in your mouth.

That obviously wasn’t the taste I wanted on my tongue when I had little kids at home. Or on my lips with the children I work with at school. But there was still the fear of knee-jerk swearing in front of them. And so I worked up some milder alternatives, training myself so these would be the first words I’d grab for in tense moments: “Phooey” “Dang” “Crumb” and so on. Said with appropriate fury or conviction, as is the case, they usually work just fine.

This is true except when I’m almost hit by some self-absorbed woman in an SUV, careening haphazardly out of the local gourmet store, with a latte in one hand, a cell phone in the other. I am totally off the wagon here, so to speak, and fling swear words out like useless cannon fodder. But it’s utterly frustrating. The swear words I’m spitting aren’t ugly so much as impotent. No matter the awful words I’m saying, I am not actually saying what I want to say. Not getting the reaction I want to get. That’s the worst. No wonder swearing matches so often escalate to chaos like teetery tower of Jenga.

Using exactly the right words, quietly and with dignity, can truly quash complete fury though. I’ve seen it.

Ages ago when I lived in Brooklyn I was heading into the subway station during rush hour. A woman was standing at the token booth, furiously screaming every vicious epithet imaginable at the clerk. It wasn’t clear what sparked her anger but she was completely letting loose. When she paused for breath the token clerk said calmly, “I’m sorry, madam. I hope you have a better day tomorrow.” End of conversation. Game, set, match.

We all yearn to be understood. I don’t want to carelessly use words as mindless weapons. If I do, then how is anyone going to truly believe me when I say that I care or that I love them?

Advertisements

THE RIGHT THING AT THE RIGHT TIME

College applications, rife with their convoluded secret codes of “EA” “ED” “Restricted EA” and so on have nothing on the real tension and drama of high school senior year: coming up with a cogent yearbook quote. After all, this mouthful of words is supposed to be not just the summation of who you are but a glimpse who you hope to be.

Here is mine:

“Men in history lose their centering in eternity when they grow anxious for the outcome of their deeds.” Huston Smith

Mmmm. But “anxious for the outcome” was exactly what I was. And so after a very interesting zig-zag through a number of years I became the very thing I never thought I’d be. I am a teacher. This was not a plan. Nor was it a calling, at least one I was aware of. But sometimes a path zigs in just the right direction, even if that isn’t the direction one was expecting. For someone who habitually kept eyes on the outcome, teaching anchors me firmly in the moment at hand.

I am witness to some remarkable things as the accidental teacher. Come with me and see some of what I see.

***

The kids are all together, waiting for the signal to send them shuffling off to class. They mostly roam as tiny, laughing packs, bouncing off each other like pinballs in an arcade game. But there are always one or two kids who stand apart and on their own, glued to the wall.

Finished with snacks and with nothing to do but circle the room, a group of cool boys lights upon one of these solitary kids. To grown up eyes they’re including him, how nice it is that they’re talking to him. But that’s not what’s happening at all. If you look closely you’ll see they’re not smiling but smirking. They’re not talking but taunting. You’ve got to admire their technique: it’s not what they’re saying but how they are saying it.  It’s a lot of “heeeeyyyy great shirt with all those stripes” or “Have you ever actually counted the freckles on your face?” Or “What is that thing that you’re reading?” It’s clear too that the solitary kid doesn’t want to talk to them. He looks uncomfortable. Panicky. Almost desperate. He tries to move away but they keep moving with him. Then they are all called to class and it’s over. But it happens the next day. And the next. It’s a game without an ending.

Until one day it’s different. The solitary kid comes into the room and finds the pack of boys before they find him. He doesn’t look for a safe corner—he actually walks right up to them. They are not expecting that. But there’s no drama. He says hi and offers some of his bag of gummy sharks. They take a few and then he just walks away. Completely off guard, the pack leaves him alone that day.

The kid makes a point of saying hello to that group of boys every day before going off by himself. Sometimes he offers candy, sometimes not. But now they leave him alone. Game over.

***

They were a great class and they had a great plan. Annie, one of the quietest girls in our room was having a birthday. The others decided they would surprise her by shouting “Happy Birthday” when she came through the classroom door, sing to her, ask her what she was going to do after school, make her the star for the day. Just before class started one of the girls ran into the room in a near panic. “We can’t do this,” she said. “I just saw Annie in the hallway and said ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. She looked really terrified. She’s so shy that if we  a big deal it will be too much for her.” Class went on as normal. Annie looked relieved.

***

He’s the kind of kid who walks into walls because he’s always so preoccupied about whatever it is he is thinking about. Even so he looks up and makes a point of saying hello to the same red-headed kid whenever he passes him in the hallway or sees him in the library. Never misses. One day, a guy grabs the kid and asks him why he bothers saying hello to this boy with the red hair. “You’re an idiot,” the guy says, “That red-headed kid won’t ever answer you. Don’t you know he’s autistic?” The kid responds, “Yeah, I know that. And I also know he’s a person.”

***

The classroom is not a fairyland and there are times when it’s hard for moments like these to rise above the chaos. But things like this do  happen all the time. The other kids are watching. They’re learning.

People wonder how teachers can bear to teach the same lessons for so many years. The answer, of course, is that we never do. Lessons are like paintings.   Paintings aren’t ever complete, are never static—they are always shifting with the responses of different people, creating and recreating something fascinating each time.

Teaching brings me right to the moment at hand. The kids I teach are not focusing on encapsulating their lives in a yearbook quote or contemplating their centering in eternity. They are just living and like so many of us,trying to do the right thing at the right time.