As I file through words for the fify-third time, attempting to choose the one that encompasses everything I most believe, I keep coming back to the word word itself. The ideas behind words are powerful, but it’s words that allow such power to not just exist but to transfer, travel, transcend. And then I consider the order of the words, moving a modifier before and then after, and I contemplate which form of punctuation that will best explain, and I realize clearly: it is not just words that I believe in, but all elements that interact with words to make communication possible. It is the power and beauty and sometimes failure but always optimism of language that propels me; it is in the power of language that I believe.
I am a high school English teacher and, on some good days, a writer: words and their accoutrements foundation my existance, and my love for them is thorough: Grammar? Yes! Alliteration? Absolutely! The canon and the contemporary and even lolcats: any time symbols—what letters are, really—gather in an attempt to explain the experience of being alive, that is where I find life. And the times I am most reminded of this stem from my classroom.
I teach Orwell’s 1984, and one of its themes is that language is a powerful tool for determining how people view the world; every time I reread the novel, I am struck by just how powerful the simple words within it are, especially in the power of students’ reactions. Their words in response, written and verbal, often demonstrate a struggle to say exactly what they want, and this too embodies the power of language: because of its multi-facetedness, its difficulties and failings and ultimate beauty, it can say everything and nothing at the same time. I am brought back to another character I teach, Prufrock, and his own inability to understand or make language work. And yet we keep trying, we keep writing and talking—teenagers especially, they never stop talking—because ultimately we believe that yes, we can and will find the right words, the perfect inflection, the precise sound and symbol and structure and finally: yes, that is what I meant to say. Despite Prufrock’s protestations, Eliot said exactly what he meant.
There are actions, there are pictures, there is music, and all communicate. But in the end it is words and punctuation that we come back to: it is language. And in the end, it is the simplest words—because of their simple and shared meanings—that stay with us, that we use again and again: yes, no, thank you, I’m sorry, I love you. We say them so often we forget their power—but never always. Because if you’ve delivered or been given one of these with their full power, their full force…
Sometimes language fails us, too often perhaps, yet we keep trying, and that continued hope for full comprehension and communication helps make life beautiful. It is the power of language that keeps us talking, even when we feel powerless. In this I believe.
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