Twice in the last month a kid has said to me, I used this word. And you taught me that word. I have that word now. When you teach an infant a word, the first time a baby says a word, it’s magical, video camera worthy. These were the two words: arduous and abyss. Apparently the a’s make an impression.
My first year teaching, I planned to put together an anthology of my students’ writing, and have all their families out to celebrate its publication at the school and serve them dinner. My first year, we got the books late, and I threw them at the kids who had contributed. Congratulations.
By my third year, I was handing out the freshly printed books in creative writing class, and the kids spent an hour reading from them. This is my fifth year, and finally I managed to hand out the books early in the day and bring in Hi-C and off-brand cookies for an after school celebration.
As I passed out the books today, I gave one of those dumb teacher speeches about how lucky they were to have volunteers help with publishing their work. “It would be nice for you thank them when they come by for the after school thing,” I suggested. Kid in the back snaps, “Well, that’s their job!” “No,” I said, annoyed. “They’re volunteers.” “Why do they bother, then?” kid returned.
Now, a bunch of quiet kids were blazing through their books, page after page, trying hard not to embarrass themselves by appearing too impressed. It was hard to notice this because all my anger about being unappreciated was laser-focused on the snotty kid.
Wait, I thought, I don’t have to stay calm and reasonable. Kid kept handing me ammo, but I didn’t have to use it. I could duck, instead. Send the kid out. So I did. I felt better, just like last week when I asked someone to watch my class for a second so I could go pee. It was heaven. I don’t always have to be this pathologically perfect example. It’s okay for me to occasionally drop the argument in favor of simple self-protection.
After school, the kids ate their off-brand cookies, and shared the jugs of Hi-C diplomatically, and took turns reading their writing. Romantic poems, lustful poems, crowing poems, and mourning for lost loves and lost family. They went on for an hour. At certain moments, I was able to relax and appreciate their quiet attention and their earnest delivery.
As I was cleaning up, one of the poets was being teased. “You don’t even know that word you used. What’s an abyss?” “A hole, a deep hole,” the poet said. “I know it. I know what it is. I learned it in her class.” Learning words might be better than reading, or giving writing advice. Learning words is like baking bricks in the desert. Humans own all this raw material, even in the barest places.
I used to be annoyed when so many students, on their year-end surveys, wrote “Vocab” in for the best thing we’d studied. Vocab? We read Arthur Miller and Zora Neale Hurston! We talked about bias and story structure and character development! Maybe I shouldn’t be so annoyed. They are building things.