In the beginning was the Word

September 18th, 2012

We are so lucky to have another visit from Maureen Barbieri who’s been a frequent contributor to the Stenhouse Blog. This time she talks about why words matter. “When we pay the kind of deliberate attention that Annie Sullivan, my close-reading friend Lorraine, the inimitable Anna Quindlen, and my first-grade readers pay to words, surely our lives are enriched. Surely we think more carefully about the names we give to our feelings, our ambitions, and our impressions.”

Enjoy this lovely piece. It will enrich your day.

Anna Quindlen was in town recently to be interviewed for New Hampshire Public Radio as part of her book tour promoting Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. Asked whether her daughter calls herself a feminist, she responded, “She’d better, if she wants to keep using the family credit card!” Then she launched into a bit of a rant. “Words matter. Words are important,” she insisted. “I am a proud feminist. And don’t call me a progressive. I’m a liberal.” The live audience cheered wildly. “Liberals gave us the civil rights movement. Liberals gave us affirmative action. Liberals gave us Social Security.” Words matter.

The first-grade readers at the school where I volunteer care about words too. One teacher  asked me to help them expand their vocabularies, so each week we jot down new words we notice onto a whiteboard and then, after some discussion, into special spiral notebooks. I was hesitant at first, not wanting to stop the flow of the stories, but the children’s enthusiasm persuaded me that this is a worthwhile use of our time. They seem delighted to be learning to use new words. Here are some of our discoveries from the books we’ve read together: wary, girder, barge, vixen, quixotic, content, heckled, harassed, strut, span, vicious, undermine, cache, and omnivorous. Sometimes I read aloud, sometimes they read aloud, and sometimes we read silently. Whenever anyone has a question about an unfamiliar word, we stop and talk about it. I make a conscious effort to reuse our newest gems again and again whenever I’m with the children.

Recently, one group of girls began composing rap songs and presenting them to us. They had the beat down, along with the dance moves. I brought in Eloise Greenfield’s Honey I Love, Night on Neighborhood Street, and Nathaniel’s Rap, three books of poetry about life in urban neighborhoods (unlike theirs). I placed the books on the table and invited the children to peruse them and choose which poems they’d like to read aloud. “Honey I Love” was an easy favorite, and then “Things” with its sweet echo of “still got it, still got it.” The title poem from Nathaniel’s Rap was another hit, and several of them read it one at a time and then in unison. They loved the rhythm of these poems, and I was grateful to Greenfield for her positive spirit. Here’s one of her poems:


one day I was dumb enough

to let somebody bet me

into a fight

and then I was mad with two

stupid boys

the one who was hitting me

and the one who was hitting


Later, their teacher reported that the students wanted to present “Jumprope Rap” to the whole class. “But,” she said, “they’ve told me that some of the words in another poem are ‘inappropriate.’” Which words, I wondered? She cited stupid and dumb, which had been deemed unacceptable in the face of the class’s commitment to kindness and respect. Words matter.

The following week, another teacher asked me to read a book called Church Mouse with her students, and so we began the sweet tale of a family of mice who live in a church. The mother mouse gives birth to “eight naked baby mice” and then proceeds to “suckle them.” “What’s suckle?” the boy on my left wondered.

“Well, let’s see if we can figure it out from the story so far,” I suggested. “The mother has just given birth. What is the first thing babies need when they’re born?”

“I think it has to do with sucking,” replied one student.

“Good thinking!” Then I asked if any of them had baby brothers or sisters. Or had any of their dogs or cats given birth?

“Oh!” one girl exclaimed. “It’s about feeding the baby. The baby gets milk from its mother.”

“That’s true,” I said. “The mothers are able to feed their children with their own milk.”

The girl on my right was flabbergasted. “Are you telling me that my body can make milk?” she asked, incredulous.

“Well, not right now,” I explained. “But if you have a baby when you grow up, your body will make milk for that baby.”

Next there ensued a long conversation about whose mother breastfed and whose mother bottle-fed her babies. I acknowledged that both methods are fine before gently nudging them back to the story about the mice. Before long, our time was up, and we walked together back to their classroom.

One quiet girl had her head down, her chin practically on her chest. “What’s wrong, Gracie?” I asked.

“I didn’t like that book at all,” she told me.

“Why not?”

“Inappropriate language,” she replied.

Fully expecting her to say suckled after our extended discussion, I asked with trepidation, “What words bother you?”

Without hesitation, she announced the offender: “Naked.”

That same week, Lorraine—a member of my writing group—reflected on the power of words in Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War by Sebastian Faulks. One standout was the word naked, which appears in this novel in several contexts. First, there’s this: “For a moment she was naked again. She recalled how she had shown herself to him in her hot afternoon abandonment.”

But it was another use of the word that shook her to the core. She wrote: “The word naked in the context of the war was gruesome. As a British soldier retreats from the front lines after being gassed, the author describes him this way: ‘Finally the boy stood naked, except for the two brown eye patches. The top layer of skin had gone from his body, though there was a big strip around the middle where the webbing of his belt had protected him.’ No clothes, no gas mask, no skin—he stood naked!”

Naked baby mice, a naked woman in love, and a naked victim of war. Layer upon layer of association, connotation, meaning. There is so much to consider when we look at words, each in our own way. Certainly first graders understand naked as being connected to privacy, the intimacy of family time, something personal. My friend sees all of this, of course, but ponders now other ways of experiencing the word:  defenseless, alone, vulnerable.

Sometimes my university students tell me language is just one way to understand the world. Surely music, art, movement, and communing with nature contribute to our making meaning in our lives. Mathematicians speak of the power and beauty they find in numbers, equations, and formulae. Still, for most of us, it’s words that matter most.

Helen Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, knew this. In William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker, she laments: “I wanted to teach you—oh, everything the earth is full of, Helen, everything on it that’s ours for a wink and it’s gone, and what we are on it—the light we bring to it and leave behind in—words, why you can see five thousand years back in the light of words, everything we feel, think, know, and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave.”

When we pay the kind of deliberate attention that Annie Sullivan, my close-reading friend Lorraine, the inimitable Anna Quindlen, and my first-grade readers pay to words, surely our lives are enriched. Surely we think more carefully about the names we give to our feelings, our ambitions, and our impressions. I love working with enthusiastic young children; I love seeing their eyes light up as they claim words for their own. It’s the same joy I feel when I hear my grandchildren, who are five and two, trying out new words in their mouths, coming to know that everything has a name, that the name stands for the thing, and that each one of us can choose how to use words to discover and communicate ideas.

I love that children know instinctively about the “barbaric yawp” that Walt Whitman speaks of, that they do not shy away from questioning or adapting the words they hear. My grandson Bjorn calls the directions that come with his more complicated toys “the destructions.” But as Gordon Wells shows us in his book The Meaning Makers, this is more than simply amusing. Bjorn is making sense, combining directions and instructions and unwittingly hinting at a common problem: sometimes this kind of writing can indeed be destructive.

The children I work with are voracious readers. They clamor for more books and seem insatiable, in the way we wish all children would be. This year we have loved stories and poems and words. When we ended our last meeting three girls began to cry, which led to a general breakdown of decorum, complete with groaning, lamenting, and gnashing of teeth. “We love to read!” they insisted.

“But you can still read all summer,” I promised them. “You can go to the library and take out all the books you want. Think of all the new words you’ll find.”

“It won’t be the same,” they sighed.

Perhaps not. But I’m confident that whatever shape their reading takes will be a boon to them. They are children who are head over heels, not only about books but also about the particularity of words. They love to ferret out new ones, to construct meaning through the context of the text, and then to weave their discoveries into conversations. I have no doubt that, before long, these new words will find their way into the children’s writing as well. This is a love affair that is just beginning.

Entry Filed under: Writing

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tracy  |  September 18th, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    As always, love reading what Maureen has to say. Maureen’s blogs make me think a bit deeper about my own writing and how to connect it with my current group of students. Love Eloise Greenfield; in the past I’ve had my kids act out the poem “Things”. Such a wide array of interpretations; stunning.

  • 2. Baking and the Zone of Pr&hellip  |  May 8th, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    […] her latest contribution to the Stenhouse Blog, frequent contributor and editor Maureen Barbieri wonders “how much modeling is too much” in life, in baking, and in […]

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