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.


Vocabulary Lesson

broken-egg-rsd-sm.jpgbroken-egg-rsd-sm.jpgbroken-egg-rsd-sm.jpgbroken-egg-rsd-sm.jpgIt is always tricky choosing poems for my students. I want to challenge them, but I don’t want to lose them. Too many words that they don’t know, and … goodbye. They’ve checked out. The red flashing sign that spells S-T-U-P-I-D goes off in their minds and nothing I do or say will bring them back. I want to give them all new glitter-spewing signs that read L-E-A-R-N-I-N-G, instead.

So, Wednesday morning I read the class three short poems, one each by Charles Simic, Nikki Giovanni and Alice Walker. Each poem was visual, vivid and full of metaphor. Simic compared a watermelon to a green Buddha. Walker compared her moodiness to a flood. Giovanni compared herself in love to a leaf falling from a tree.

Two words popped up that none of my students knew: Impartial was one. Walker’s brow-black mood was like the impartial waters of a deluge, flooding everything in sight.

Giovanni’s poem gave us the word impale … her leaf was impaled on her lover’s branch. My students will now never forget the meaning of the word impale, since after we discussed the actual leaf being impaled on a branch, I reminded them that this was a love poem, after all, and I invited them to consider what else the poet might mean by impale? What can I say, at least half the class incorporated that new vocabulary word into the poems they wrote that morning.

Meanwhile, D. had a forlorn expression on her face. D. is a newly hatched poet. Two months ago she probably had never read a poem. Now she wants to be a poet! The local paper chose one of the poems she wrote in our class for publication, and the next week we had a visiting poet do a reading at our school, and now she is a woman transformed. She has a mission. This high school drop out whose pregnant belly looks ripe as a watermelon, wants to write.

“How am I ever going to write poems with words like that in them?” she cried out, casting a defeated glance at the white board, with our new words scribbled in trails of thick blue ink.

First, I told her, you are going to use all the words you already know. Then, I told her, you are going to write down any words you don’t know and learn them. And year by year, I promised her, she would know more and more words.

Then I felt my heart break. I felt what she already knows … that she’s pretty far behind. I also saw what she can’t quite see. How young she is, and how easy it would be, relatively speaking, for her to really catch up; swim in the dictionary and come out with new syllables dripping from her tongue. Then I saw what she feared: The baby coming. The welfare trap. The neighborhood where bullets fly, and where the streets are paved with drugs and drug money, and no money, drug feuds and crushed hopes.

Then I pulled out the thesaurus. And I handed it to her.

Then I did what I always do. I hoped for the best.


Photo by Aja Riggs copyright 2007