Why Words Matter: An Open Letter to my Students in the Time of Quarantine
We’ve made it to the end of a strange and challenging semester. As students and people, you have experienced an unprecedented world event that has had direct and significant effects upon your lives, your education, and your outlook on the future. And I want to thank you for your willingness to stick with me through this adventure…to remain loyal not only to your educations, but to me as I navigated the new and particularly perplexing world of remote teaching. I’ve tried my best to tick all the boxes and check off all of the learning outcome requirements for this class. I’ve tried my best to teach you punctuation and sentence structure and transitional phrases. I’ve reminded you, repeatedly, to “be specific” and “integrate your quotes” and “create compelling hooks.” I’ve nagged you about citing your sources and I’ve even gone so far as to insist that you never, ever, under any circumstances, use the phrase “Fast forward to…”
We’ve honed in on the finer points of literary terminology, MLA format, and how plot is like an airplane taking off and landing. But I worry that, with all the necessary benchmarks and the added weirdness of a global pandemic, I have possibly neglected to share with you the most important and most basic lesson — and that is why we write at all.
So many of you, I’m sure, are taking my class, and perhaps a few more writing classes, purely to satisfy a requirement; to check something off of an academic list that you will forever put behind you and think upon rarely. Trust me, I understand. I felt the same way about statistics. But if you leave my classroom with nothing more than what I share with you here, today, then I will have done my job — and I will have imparted something that I believe is truly vital and fundamental to the human experience.
Perhaps now, more than ever, we are aware of the power of words. We are in our homes, some of us isolated and worried — and the only things that connect us are words. Texts, Zoom chats, well-placed Instagram puns. As we struggle to forge bonds in the absence of real contact, we bridge those gaps with stories and language.
More importantly, however, and at the risk of dipping my big toe into the political swamp, words have taken a turn — a rather sinister turn of late — that further compels me to write to you. Humans have always had the ability to weaponize their words; hurling them at one another to hurt, to win, to intimidate. But the words of this current leadership, missiles sent from one party to the next, often riddled horrifyingly with misspellings and misinformation, seem like a new breed of weapons. And we must consider the equally sinister absence of words — the systematic silence of a society who watches atrocities and writes nothing. Our words are our rights and our protest. And if we are to move forward with grace and clarity and strength, the power of words has never been more important, whether those words take the form of a letter, a sign, a poem, an amendment.
And so, our words. Where do they begin? Our inclination to write begins quite early, when that crayon or pencil or magic marker is first placed into our hands and we are told to write. Our clumsy letters looking less like language and more like a jumble of shapes. But the inclination is there. The inclination to put our feelings and our words into writing, however that writing manifests.
As a kid, I was constantly writing things down. Feelings. Experiences. And as a bit of an nostalgic hoarder, I still have the majority of these early scribblings. These early writings were a way to put my feelings somewhere outside of myself. A way to express anger when there really wasn’t anywhere else to put it. Writing became for me, and for many others, a mechanism by which we could feel HEARD in a world that didn’t necessarily feel like it was listening.
And this early foray into writing — into distilling those feelings we have into something pure and meaningful and unassailable — suggests that the method, the act of putting pencil to paper, or fingers to keyboard, has value beyond the word count or the grades. That is fulfills something fundamental within us, as we attempt to make ourselves heard.
The act of writing then progressed into actually sharing that writing with others in the forms of letters. Of taking those words that we had kept private for so long and taking a risk. In becoming vulnerable enough with one another to show our words to the world; to communicate with others without necessarily expecting something in return. It seems, at times, that just the knowledge that another person is reading what you’ve written is an accomplishment in and of itself — that your words have entered another’s heart and brain and could potentially impact their thoughts and feelings is at the very root of this act.
Now, unlike some of you, I decided that I wanted writing to be the focus of my life. I knew I wanted to be an English major from the moment I walked onto campus. Not because I necessarily wanted to write twenty-page papers on obscure medieval texts (which, okay, I admit I like…), but because I have always been drawn to experiencing the world through words; the taking in of them in their various forms, and tossing them around inside my brain, and then pushing them back out into the world as a means of experiencing something in two ways: the reading and the writing.
Both are intimate, personal experiences. Not one of us will read a book, a poem, an essay that same way, coming to each word with our own experience trailing behind us like smoke. And the magic that happens between reading and writing has long fascinated me. To gather a poem up in my arms, find something new and evocative about it and then blend my words with the original author’s has thrilled me and continues to do so today.
But when the last essay was written and the diplomas were handed out, the prospect of how to keep those words part of my life became daunting. And as I entered the work force, I realized that my relationship with those words might have to change.
But the words never left me, instead boiling up inside of me in a symphony of feelings and moments and experiences and I am fortunate enough that I have been able to write, both professionally and personally, my entire life. Poems, short stories, essays (some published, some never to see the light of day). And now I am in the miraculous position of trying to teach you how to put all the words in the world together and give them meaning.
This is the most important job I’ve ever had, and not because I like to be called Professor (which secretly I adore) and not because I am educating the youth of today, but because I get to sit here with you every week and help you (as your parents used to say) use your words. To find your voice in a world that, very soon, could be attempting to silence it.
The words you use have never been more important. The sentences that you craft and the ideas that you put to paper have never been more necessary. You are at the tipping point of your lives — and yes, there are requirements and math tests and chem labs and student loans and car payments and an unknown job market, but there are also words. Words that can, in one moment, change your life or the lives of others. You may not ever think about Pericles “Funeral Oration” or ethos or metonymy ever again after you leave my class, and you may never find the inclination to write a poem or a letter, but you can. You have the tools in your brains and in your hands to create amazing things with the words you put together.
The letter that gets you the job, the degree, the power over your own destiny and safety. The words that tell this new world that we are stepping into that your rights matter. The essay that makes your reader stand up and pay attention and see the world in a different way. Those are all yours for the taking.
The words that come from your head and move to your hands can change the world and make you be SEEN. The world operates on words — it’s why we learn to read and write as one of the most fundamental skills in our culture. And this world of words is still being written by each and every one of you in this classroom. This work is important — because in each of us is a single voice, waiting to be heard and read. Use these skills — these commas and transitions and body paragraphs — to write your own introduction to the world.
So read. Find those passages that speak only to you. Take the words of others in, and then match them with your own — lending your unique voice to the fabric of our collective experience.
If you take nothing else from this class, just promise me that you will keep listening. Keep reading. Keep finding words that inspire you to anger, to action, to reaction. And then putting one word in front of the other, like only you can, mark a clear path that I can proudly follow.