The Power Of Words

Thinking back to my days at school, the first thing I feel is old.

Almost eight years have passed since the heady, post-exam days of the summer of 2005. Almost eight years since my classmates and I were together, dressed in shiny blue silk gowns and unflattering hats.

The girl I was at graduation would have thought of eight years as an interminable length of time, yet it has passed in a blink. Now — with a Bachelor’s, a Master’s, and two full-time jobs under my belt — I can look back to my time at school with a degree of nostalgia.

The truth is that without school, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not wishing myself back in time. Those young enough to remember the terrible anxieties of school dances and classroom politics will agree that teenage drama is worth experiencing only the once. Yet there are some memories that have stayed with me, and these are the ones that have shaped me into the (slightly older) girl I have become.

What connects all these memories is the most important lesson I ever learned at school:

Words have power.

Communication is the cornerstone to learning, but it is also so much more than that.

It is through words that teachers motivate, inform and inspire their students. However much being a teacher can become frustrating (particularly when students aren’t in the mood to concentrate) it is also an empowering role. As a teacher, you can help a struggling student if you know what words will motivate them.

As for students, it is through words that they express and find themselves. Writing well-constructed essays, however dull the subject matter, is an invaluable skill. The ability to critically discuss issues or stand up and present to a crowd should not be taken for granted.

Trust me: in the last eight years, I’ve met my fair share of inarticulate people. Perhaps that is why, when I think back to my time at school, the moments I remember most are those that involve the power of words.

At first, I was slow to enjoy words. I was a poor reader and a worse writer in elementary, lagging far behind my classmates. Yet one teacher managed to convey the joy of reading to me, to motivate me into wanting to learn. I began to devour books, not to mention write countless (appallingly drawn) stories about horses. Without her words, I wouldn’t have read one hundred books in a year.

In middle school, it was a teacher who taught me the difference between ‘can’ and ‘may’. To this day I remember my utter bemusement when I raised my hand and asked, “Can I go to the bathroom?” to which the teacher replied with a smile, “I’m sure you can.” Now, when I’m editing, I correct people making the same mistake with a little smile of my own.

Another teacher, frustrated by our snickering, pre-teen humour, stuck posters around the classroom with words such as ‘long’ and ‘hard’. With time, these words lost some of their power — or perhaps we learned to suppress our immaturity. This taught me that words mean different things to different people, and the importance of adjusting your lexicon to your audience.

My favourite memories, however, are the moments which inspired me.

I remember one day, our teacher came in and wrote on the blackboard that he had laryngitis and couldn’t speak. The entire class passed in attentive silence; never before had a class of teenagers been so quiet. He wrote a line of poetry on the board, and we wrote the next. Then he wrote another line. Then we did.

At the end of class, the teacher clapped his hands and said: “Right, let’s hear your poems.” Not only did he not have laryngitis, but in the last hour of silence I’d written my first poem. As each student read their poem aloud, it was astonishing to see the differences emerge.

In another lesson, our teacher asked one of my classmates to bring in his cello and play for the class. As the first notes strummed through the air, the teacher told us to relax and write whatever came into our minds. The words flowed through me onto the page, and I was filled with a contended lightness that made me realise: this is what I want to do.

There are many more moments I could mention. Throughout the twelve years I attended school, my love of words was recognised, nurtured, and encouraged. My current successes are in part due to being taught the power of words, and for that I am forever grateful.

Of course, I am a little biased. As an author, words mean everything to me. But I believe that the power of words can take you wherever you want to go, whether that place is writing a collection of zombie short stories, starting up a business, or even just surviving the next school dance.

So to the teachers out there, here are a few words of my own: watch what you say. You never know who is being inspired or motivated by your words.

To the students: listen carefully, and listen hard. School is what you make of it.

And to the (kind of) grown-ups like me: school may be over, but you should never stop learning.

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