Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Impact of Words

“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also much more than that. So are we all.” James Baldwin

Yesterday, when I was in the History classroom for the last two periods, I perused the room as the video droned on (with English accents) about the American Revolution. I had to walk around often, to urge students to refrain from chatting, sleeping, texting, and sneaking on earphones to listen to music. Inspirational quotes peppered the walls. The more I passed by these laminated words of inspiration, the more I was inspired. These were clearly there for the students, but I wondered if the teenagers even noticed the black letters on white backgrounds, with accompanying pictures of the authors in the bottom-right corners, all apparently made by the teacher. I assumed that she wanted those words to have an impact.

The above quote is the first one I noticed and the one I loved most. When I was an undergraduate, I remember a professor in an American History class making a similar point. He asserted that there was never a time in history when every person thought that anything was a given, just because it was common practice. He advised that there was always opposition to slavery and promoters of the rights of women. Even if the documents didn’t always reflect it, at the very least, slaves knew they deserved freedom and women knew they deserved more rights. I’ve used a similar argument when teaching (but maybe not as eloquently as James Baldwin), explaining that we are always a product of our history and circumstances, but we need to become more than that, rather than rely on it as an excuse for how we treat others or what we make (or fail to make) of ourselves. Did this teacher talk to her students about this quote, using it to illustrate points or people in history, or did the words just hover, waiting to be discovered?

“I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot… and I missed. I have failed over and over again in my life. And that’s precisely why I succeed.” Michael Jordan.

I love this quote because I love basketball and Michael Jordan. If only he had been this gracious (and less petty) at his recent induction into the Hall of Fame. That aside, it reminded me of when I was fortunate enough to be substituting, and attended a talk given by E.B. Lewis at an elementary school. He was trying to inspire ten-year-old boys, so he spoke of his own antics at their age and how an uncle saved him from becoming something less than what he was capable of. E.B. Lewis explained that Michael Jordan wasn’t always… Michael Jordan. His free-throw shots used to be his weakness, so everyday after hours of regular practice; he’d stay until he made one hundred shots in a row. It meant that if Jordan missed on 99, he’d begin again. Since then, I’ve used this example with other students to discuss dedication. I assumed that of all the quotes in this classroom, this one would have the most impact because of the author and subject. What did it mean to them?

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your abilities. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” Mark Twain

There were two Mark Twain quotes, but this one was more inspirational. The picture of him, with his bushy hair and plush mustache, probably wasn’t the most enticing to teenagers. How could they relate to him? That’s the great thing about words – though they can generate ideas and images – they don’t need to have a face. I suppose that this quote would be more inspirational to me, as an unpublished writer. How many of us have been told we cannot do something, which eats at our deepest insecurities and tempts us to give up? I hope that for all the people who say no to the students, they remember these words.

“You cannot conquer an idea with an army.” Thomas Paine

This quote was not on the wall, but uttered during the video. I quickly copied it down and reiterated it to the two afternoon classes, explaining that the colonists had more passion for what they were fighting for, so even though Britain’s army was bigger, the British soldiers had less at stake (Plus the Americans had the French). If it had been my class, I would’ve taught them many examples of how this fairly simple idea has played out in History.

One of my favorite lessons, which I created for an education class in graduate school, uses three pictures: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela. I ask the students what they have in common. Eventually, someone comes up with the idea of peaceful protest. I talk about the word, ahimsa, which is the Hindu and Buddhist belief in the sacredness of all living creatures and the avoidance of violence. Just as the American colonists overcame the powerful British Army, so did the people of India, thanks to Gandhi. But he did it with the idea of ahimsa. Then, King was indirectly influenced by ahimsa through Gandhi, and then Mandela through King. What a wonderful illustration of how words and ideas can have the most powerful impact of all.

No comments:

Post a Comment