As a librarian I place a high value on the written word and strive to instill a love of reading in my students. But, as a storyteller, I also place a high value on the spoken word. The breath of life adds meaning; it adds intimacy that is lacking on the page.
I read books aloud to my students often – the perfect intersection of written and spoken. I try to read theatrically, giving the characters distinct voices. But, there is always the book between us and always the understanding that the words are not my own.
Then there are days when I give in to my guilty pleasure of storytelling. Today was one of those days. I told a story about going to Space Camp and a story from Roman Mythology.
As the class left room one student stopped to say, “Thank you for your stories.”
My first thought was, “But they aren’t my stories!” With no book I am the “authority” but most stories have not originated with me. Even those that do, could not persist without listeners. I hesitate to accept ownership.
Now, as I write this, I am beginning to see that perhaps I shouldn’t focus on the “your stories” part, but the “thank you.” In thanking me, this student accepted what I was giving away. What really matters is not whether or not the stories are mine, but that they are certainly now his.
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.