edu180atl: chris swann 9.19.12
There is a poster in my classroom that reads, “Words hurt. Words heal. Words mean.” As an English teacher, I tend to treat written words as almost sacred objects. I constantly ask my students if they are using the best words to say what they want to say. I point out how poets are obsessed with words, how Hart Crane paged through an unabridged dictionary to find the right two-syllable word for a line of verse. (He finally stopped at “spindrift.”)
For all this professed power of words, I often fail to pay attention to my own. A few years ago, I rebuked a senior for plagiarizing and reported him for disciplinary action. Later that day, as I was getting ready to go home, the same senior knocked on my office door and asked if we could talk. Irritably I glanced at my watch and said, “Yeah, I’ve got five minutes. What do you need?” He closed the door behind him, fell into a chair, and began sobbing. He had come to ask me for help in facing his parents. That took guts. And in a teachable moment, I failed him.
Words are tools, and we are imperfect craftsmen. Even great poets like Tennyson write lines like “Form! form! Riflemen form!…Look to your butts, and take good aims!” But adults who work in schools have a unique influence on, and responsibility for, students. We should model a wiser and more deliberate use of words.
Words hurt. Words heal. Words mean.
About the author: Chris Swann—English department chair at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School—is a teacher, reader, writer, husband, and dad…not necessarily in that order.