A Vocabulary Lesson

Your vocabulary defines your life, so make it positive

The football players nicknamed her Yoda because of her wrinkly stature and mystical wisdom. To everyone else, she was Judy: the fiercest little educator who knew English/Language Arts better than anyone. She could skillfully diagram any sentence faster than I could say “venti-skinny-caramel-macchiato.” She was fascinated with every type of literature imaginable, especially the wearisome chapters that described nature, completely void of characters or plot. She was going to see to it that every student enjoyed a lifelong affair with literature… or else. To the left of her desk was a tea brown wooden bookcase with thin vocabulary books.  These books were chocked full of words that only SAT-takers care about; words like deleterious and lassitude. Every Tuesday was vocabulary quiz day, which meant that every Tuesday I would suddenly realize once again that it was Tuesday. I would sink into my chair directly in front of her desk and prepare to guess (aka fail) again. Tuesday after Tuesday she proclaimed her power by concocting some deleterious quiz just so she could render sophomores into a state of utter lassitude. The only reason why I didn’t get zeroes was because they were multiple choice.

After several weeks of this “guess-what-this-word-means” game, she asked me to stay after class. I knew what she wanted. I didn’t need any online grading system to tell me that my grade resembled the chilly fall temperature. You also have to remember that teachers and parents played on the same team, so to speak. Teachers were allowed to speak sternly, and correctively. And it was us kids, not the teachers, who feared parental backlash because teachers were respected for their direction, their determination, and even their discipline. After everyone dismissed, I approached her lair with nervous trepidation. She sat back in her chair and looked at me over her tarnished half glasses. She exhaled slowly, audibly.

“Dana,” she hissed, “you are never going to go to college. First, you are a daughter of a single mother. We all know kids with divorced parents have a harder time achieving success over children who come from stable homes with married parents. But beyond that you can’t write to save your life because you never use decent vocabulary. You’ll never write an essay well enough to get into college. You, Dana, are destined to fail.”

Destined to fail?  Because of vocabulary words and my mother’s marital status? I was dumbfounded. My teenage rage caught hot fire like a malatov cocktail at her audacity. Yet, somehow I kept it together. I just remember leaving her classroom thinking I was “destined to fail.”

The saddest thing is when we stumble into people who enjoy foretelling our personal failure. Perhaps you were told to just “mouth the words” and not sing out loud, either in chorus, or metaphorically somewhere else. Perhaps you were told that the odds are stacked against you because of your history, or due to some uncontrollable facet of your existence. Perhaps you don’t think you have the resources or the time to go back to school, finish the degree, or do what you need to do to change lanes into a new career. Or maybe, you just don’t think that you have the emotional/personal support to redesign and redefine your life into the person you dream of being.

When it comes to vocabulary, remember this: Judy’s justification for her opinion about my future was largely based on my inability to use decent vocabulary. Despite her harsh and wildly unprofessional approach, I made the decision to start using decent vocabulary. I gave up deleterious and lassitude for encouragement and possibility. I embraced words such as underdog, perseverance, and victory. What I discovered is that the most decent vocabulary that anyone could ever use includes words that positively define your life now and in the future.

To quote the real Yoda: “Always pass on what you have learned.”

August 8, 2018

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