Vocabulary Lesson

As I was introducing a poetry lesson this week, S. was calling across the aisle to C., who was removing the foil from the shish kabob she’d bought (but not eaten) during her lunch break. Another student was working on an assignment for her next class, and still others were passing notes and whispering loudly.

“Ladies, could you please conduct yourselves with a bit more decorum!” I shouted above the din.

This caught S.’s attention. “Why you always have to use such fancy words? It gives me a headache.”

“Good question,” I said. “Why do I use such fancy words?” I wrote the word decorum on the board. “But first,” I asked, “what does it mean?”

“How should we know?” R. muttered.

“Because even though you may never have seen this word before, you know what I was asking you to do just now. What does decorum mean?”

“Acting respectful,” S. offered.

“And being polite,” C. added.

“Good behavior,” someone else added.

“See, you know what the word means.” I said. “Don’t worry if a word looks unfamiliar, you can still figure out its meaning.”

“But why should we use big words?” S. persisted. “I don’t like all those big words.”

“Because that way you can tell someone off and they don’t even know what you were saying,” one young woman suggested.

Fair enough. “Also, the more words you know, the more thoughts you can think. The more thoughts you can think, the more possibilities you have for what you can do with your life,” I offered.

Thus, this week during poetry class I’ve been focusing on vocabulary. For many of my students, who, shall we say, have not exactly felt welcomed into the hallowed halls of academia, new words sting, slap and burn. They’re evidence of what they don’t know. They are like signs that say, “No Trespassing.” “Do Not Enter.”

But for the poet, I told them, words are like treasures. They offer new ways of saying old things. They are new tastes. New experiences. Each one is a doorway into a new world.

I read somewhere that the late, great, poet Stanley Kunitz had the first hint of his calling when, as a child, he would skip through the woods repeating a new word again and again because he loved the sound it made in his ears.

When I took a poetry class with Lucille Clifton, she insisted we all stand up, hold hands, and each share one word we love the sound of.

Meanwhile, as my poetry class with S., C., R. and the rest continued, we added words to our list: gnash, unperturbed and ambiguous among them. I invited students to try to use at least two new words in their poems. C. wrote:

Inside the forest …

leaves gnash against each other

they feel like war

is coming toward them …

S., however, remained unconvinced. She didn’t finish her poem that day, and kept crumpling one piece of paper after another. But she did write the word “ambiguous” in big blue letters across the top of her page. Perhaps that was her way of having the last word on the subject. At least it was a brand new, multisyllabic one.