During the student conferences of a past semester, one young woman seemed surprised as, word by word, we pored over her essay. When we finished, she said, “So you’re one of those teachers that words matter for?”
Her unsettling question reminded me of another student’s assertion, that same semester, that “people who read are boring.”
When I mentioned that startling statement to a colleague, he commented, "Yes, and people who don’t are so interesting."
This literary split made wonder if those of us for whom words matter seem, to others, like members of some strange club.
Either way, I was grateful to have met soon afterwards with Samantha, another student. She had shown, early on in the class, a passion for language, evident in her thoughtful word choice and well-wrought ideas, and abundantly clear when, in response to weekly assignments that had the class search for etymologies, Samantha mentioned a word-origin podcast she listens to regularly.
When I asked about her keen interest in language, Samantha’s response went beyond a reference to the roots of English:
“A goal of mine was to learn Spanish and Tagalog by the time I was 30. My parents spoke Tagalog, but they didn’t teach me or my siblings. I think the incentive to learn language is to open up the number of people I can communicate with. No one’s really influencing me to learn language. It’s more of an intrinsic incentive.”
That notion of an intrinsic push towards language – for writers, a deep impulse which leads to serious aching when denied – reminds me of a line from Jane Hirshfield’s essay “Making Soul,” in her book Northern Lights:
“The writer, when she or he does not write, is a person outside the gates of her own being.”
This may not be the experience of most people, but I dearly hope that my students have adopted one more assertion, embedded in my syllabi, since we all are bound to language: “Words will be the instrument with which you realize the best that is in you.”