Friday, May 20, 2016

Word Power

In my Toadrolling youth, I attended a fine secondary school- all male, catholic, jacket and tie.*

One educational tradition applied to all students at all grade levels: Monday through Thursday, in our English classes, we would add another page - five words- from Mark Hart's Word Power.**  Friday was the quiz.  After some four years of this we young men were released to the world armed with amazing vocabularies.

Or so you would think. 

I remember my bubble bursting the moment I charged into the pointy end of the vocab section in my SAT tests.  "Alright!  Let's do this!"  Holy cow, there were words I couldn't even make an educated (for that's what I believed myself to be) guess at.  No romance language roots for me; my French was worth moins que rien.  It figures that I scored much better in the math side of the SAT's. 

There's a great scene in the romantic comedy Say Anything where John Cusack's innocent, simple-but-noble character, Lloyd Dobler (who wouldn't like Lloyd Dobler?) is talking with his romantic interest, the beautiful, over-achieving class valedictorian Diane Court in her bedroom.  As Lloyd flips through a dictionary found there, Diane admits, a bit shy and embarrassed, that she used to look up and mark any word she didn't know.  The camera cuts and zooms to page after page being flipped, a good 70% of the words therein marked in pencil.

Like Lloyd, we're kind of humbled and dumbstruck.  Sure, you should look things up that you don't know.  But nobody actually does that, do they? 

There are two sides to that:

First, having the discipline to pause what we're reading and make the effort to look something up.  The second is to be reading material written by authors knowledgeable of and willing to use the right word for the moment. Is what we're reading challenging enough to make us work for it?

Thankfully, the internet and technological devices, where most of do our reading anyway, reduce the effort of research to a simple click or a tap.  Not just for words, but for any phrase.  Someone mentions fully grown tea trees*** in the jungles of the Yunnan region of China, and moments later Google Earth is winging you there, to look at them from an eagle's and a terrestrial's point of view.  The mention of an historical event in a novel has you reading about it and putting two and four together from something else you learned at some other time.  Kindles will even show you what other readers highlighted. You have permission to write in your books.  If you can't bring yourself to do that, write on a post-it and stick that into the book.  But you should write in your books.  They don't belong to the library or the school.  They're paper.  They're not worth anything.  Write in them while the thought is fresh.

How do you learn?  You seek and apply effort.  A mentor will be there should you occasionally need them. 

* Slacks, jacket, belt and tie.  But they knew we were young males, and gave us artistic freedom to wear the ugliest, grungiest, wrong-sizedest things we could find in our parents closets or at a yard sale.  This was the 80s, and the flamboyantly styled 70s were a recent memory and embrassment.  Naturally, we loved velour and paisley.  Preferably velour paisley. 
** Get it here: 
*** Darjeeling tea.  David Warren.  Here's someone whose daily writings and musings help me recover Catholicism and faith in the world (for what it is: a place, a bunch of people, mistakes and good intentions and ignorance swirling about each other and colliding more often than truly necessary; not Heaven).  Highly recommended: 

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