Friday, March 14, 2008

Words can change things

I've been thinking a lot lately about how powerful words are. Given my journalism degree and my current profession of all things middle school English, we should be glad that I believe this statement. But what do we mean by this?

Do we mean that if you write it down it makes a difference? Do we mean that you have to write to communicate and therefore, duh, things change when you infuse words into the situation? Or do we mean that words are powerful — thoughts, lyrics, books and phrases matter because they can profoundly effect the way you look at the world or look at yourself or look at others?

All of the above, I think. Here are a few examples.


I think because I like to torture myself I decided to teach two separate books to my English classes. Regular English is reading The Outsiders (which will be a post unto itself soon) and Pre-AP is reading NightJohn. I love NightJohn. It is a hard book to read, but it's important. It brings up topics of control, education, justice, freedom and, possibly most important, words.

We've been reading it this week and my students are utterly appalled at the way the slaves are treated. They shudder at the images, but more importantly they are truly impassioned by the story. They are asking questions and making statements that you don't usually hear everyday in the hallways of my school. This story is challenging them to believe that education really can change things. We got to the part where NightJohn explains that he was free — he had been there, he had tasted freedom — and he came back because this, slaves learning to read, was more important. It's a beautifully written scene and often hard for me to read out loud to them. When I stopped reading they were silent. I asked them if they could do the same thing. If they could knowingly give up the freedom from pain and persecution for someone else. I asked them to think about the fact that he didn't give up his freedom for someone else's freedom or for someone else's life — things that are more tangible, if not just as difficult — but simply so others could learn to read. The struggle he was fighting was not an immediate reward, not an immediate solution, but a piece of a grander scheme. That is a sacrifice I'm not sure many of us could make, but in their childlike minds they said they could, they would, make it. Reading and writing have power they told me and if that power would help someone else then we would do what it took to give it to them. I hope they hold on to that though. I hope they remember those words because they are some of the sweetest promises I've ever heard.

An Endless Ring of Light

One of my soccer players has been in a funk recently. A really bad, make me want to hunt her down and make her regret ever daring to cross me by not coming to practice funk. We had a very serious discussion about her continued placement on the team on Wednesday before our game. What is possibly so frustrating about her funk is that, first, she's an amazing girl with a beautiful spirit. It hurts me to see her so angry. Second, it's hard to see her like this because she is a good player. She's talented and smart and can use sports to keep herself out of trouble and focused on a larger goal. I don't want to see her give that up.

After a particularly well played game on Wednesday she found herself without a ride home, so I drove her. As we were headed home I started asking her why she was so angry and why she was being so mean and disrespectful to her teachers, teammates and me. I really expected the typical "I don't know. Nothing. (shoulder shrug)" response, but I'm a stubborn teacher and I can't help these questions. Instead of the typical student answer she told me her grandfather had died recently and since then she couldn't help but be mad. That being mad hurt less than being sad. In an eloquence I have rarely found in myself she told me of regrets of not being able to say goodbye and wanting to talk about him and remember him but hating the pain and tears it caused her mother to talk of him. Her life is hurting and broken without him and some days being mad and being mean is all that she has to hold onto. It's moments like that in my car with a kid, late for my busy important life, that God gut checks me back into the reality of what I'm really doing here and why my life is not nearly as busy or important as I like to think it is.

Later that night I mentioned her in prayer request at bible study and a teacher friend of mine instantly said I had to give her the book he just finished. I have yet to read this book, but he swore up and down that she would like it. The story is about a girl whose grandfather is dying of cancer. I went to the library the next day and checked it out for her. I hope she will find some peace in the story. I hope she will see that she is not the only one who has lost or hurt or been scared. There are specific books I have read at specific times in my life that have truly moved me and shaped me and helped me to take that pain and move it into something better. The note I sent with the book yesterday told her not to swallow the pain and not to make it something dark within her because she has too much to offer the world to be like that. I hope the book or my prayers or something will help bring that to light for her.

Just Let Go

Last night I went to a show to see The Autumn Film, a truly great band that I love. One of the openers was a group called Evangeline. I had heard talk of them and was pretty sure their lead singer has lead worship at my church before. I really liked what I heard as they played, but I was not expecting what was to come.

I moved here nearly two years ago. I quickly found my church via my old church (they're friends). The first Sunday I attended I was exhausted and overwhelmed with my move and pretty much at the end of my rope. As I stood singing they started to play a song that spoke so clearly to the place I was in at that moment that I couldn't hold back the tears.

The song goes:
Sing, oh sing, like no one listening
Dance, oh dance, like no one is watching you
And live, oh live, like you don't know what's coming
Because you don't and you won't, no you never quite will

Just let go
Just let go
just leg go
I know it's hard
Don't hold on
Don't hold on
When I tell you to move on

Breathe, oh breathe, the coolness of morning
And dream, oh dream, so softly
And wait, oh wait, where are you going?
I am here
I am here
Wait, I am here

That song in that moment was exactly what I needed to hear. That's the beauty of words, of music. Sometimes you need to hear the right thing. You need something to connect to, something to make you feel a little less alone. That song made me believe that I had found a place and that God was reaching out to me.

I have not heard that song again until last night in a dingy little bar waiting for a different band to play. I asked around about it after that first church service, but no one really knew what I was talking about. It wasn't the regular musician and it wasn't a song we sang regularly. I googled it and searched for it, but I never could find out whose it was. Then last night the first lines started and I realized I knew the words. I knew the song. It was the same song and I'm fairly certain the same singer I had heard that first time I visited my church. It's actually kind of interesting. I needed to hear that song that first Sunday in Houston for very specific reasons and I needed to hear it last night for different reasons, but it carried the same power as the first time I heard it.

And that is the power of words. They meet you where you are and carry you where you're going.

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