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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

word p o w e r

I started teaching in Fifth Ward, Texas. My life modeled any movie that you have ever seen when the new teacher goes into a rough neighborhood to begin their public school profession-- only a 1000 times worse. I cried every day.

I cried not because my students behaved badly. I cried because I had students that didn’t have food. I had students that didn’t have shelter. I had students that couldn’t make it to school because they needed to care for their children. I had present students who had absent parents.

I cried because in my self-contained mulch-disciplined remedial classroom- I no longer believed that education was as important as my professors told me. I wasn’t prepared.

One day during those first months I saw an interview of Maya Angelou. Ms. Angelou talked about the importance of words. The words we said stuck to the walls of the rooms in which they were uttered. I remember thinking words could make almost anything better. If I can’t teach my students, I can at least share wonderful words with my students, and maybe I won’t cry. 

There were no instructions. I made words a game. When one exited our classroom- they had to say a positive word. The kids made extra rules as we went along. 

You couldn’t say the same word twice. You couldn’t repeat a word someone else had said that day. Except for me I could say what I wanted and 99% of the time- my word was fabulous. I realized that words had taken on a life of its own. 

My male students got pretty competitive. Some of my students would enter the classroom knowing what their word for the day would be. Even better-- if the word were more obscure with lots of letters. 

We were learning words, sharing words, and loving it.

I hadn’t even realized that I didn’t cry after work anymore. I did realize something more interesting-- the question. 

What’s the question?

“Ms. White, what are you on?” Different variations of that question are posed to me weekly, with my most favorite being, “Ms. White, why are you sooooooooooo happy?"

Words! I’m on words. I was on words and I didn’t even know it.

In an inner-city classroom there was the occasion of a student being arrested. I made the promise early on that I would not entertain any part of that dynamic. We could still be cool, but I would not write letters to you or on your behalf or visit you if you got yourself into a situation. Then one of my favorites did just that got himself into a situation.

Weeks went by and I still missed this student. It was odd that he had not returned, because in my experience, at that point, they always returned-- sometimes even the following day. One day his mother came to visit me. I was ready to give my speech- I will not be writing any letters, nor will I be visiting your son. I was not ready to hear what she said.

You see, this student told his mother- that while he was in solitary confinement the w o r d s saved his life. When his situation got too unbearable to think about, he would repeat the positive words from class over and over and over again. Until he felt better.

She came to my classroom to thank me.

We continued to say the exit positive words. We learned tons that year. This was quite pivotal in my career as an educator. Administrators from the school district would visit my classroom, and leave happier than when they arrived.

Ms. White why are you so happy?

Here’s the lesson. You ready? Are you listening? Words ARE things, and I have proof. 

Would you answer yes to the statement, “Every sentence has a noun?” “And what is a noun?”

Thank you. Person, place or thing. I would include an idea, But tomato, tomahto. I have a sentence. Words are fabulous.  What’s the noun in that sentence? Words. And is it a person, place, or a thing?

When I was researching for this last class, I came across a research article online by Jenna Pope. She reported that, “seventy years ago, a study was done on the value of positive words. The test subjects were a group of nuns who were entering the same convent. The nuns were all close in age, subjected to a similar environment, conditions, and diseases as they were cloistered, living together, separate from the rest of the world.

Each nun was asked to write an essay describing her life before she entered the convent. Each positive word, such as "good," "contentment," and "happiness," was given a plus one. Each negative word, such as "sad," "unhappy," and "difficult," was given a minus one. Then the essays were tabulated and assigned a score.

The essays were then divided into four groups, based on their number of positive and negative words. The most negative essays were in the bottom group, and the most positive essays were in the top group. The essays in between were either closer to the top or bottom based on the number of their positive and negative words.

Seventy years later, the nun study was revisited. All of the nuns in the bottom three groups were dead, but EVERY SINGLE NUN in the top group was alive, in her 90's, and still going strong!

That evidence kind of disproves the childhood rhyme of, ‘Sticks and Stones my break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ Not only can they possibly hurt you, but they might just kill you or they can help you to live a happier and longer life.  Yes, it is my belief that a word can change your life.

You can use a single word to change your day. It won’t take money, or another person. Just a word. I guarantee this.

When you want to strengthen a relationship or uplift someone that is down- give a compliment. 

When you desire to change how you’re feeling- Name that feeling, pick an opposite word and focus on it. Find things that remind you of that word.

I give you words. Use them wisely.

My words for you on this day.

And Fabulous.

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