Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Last Words

Words are powerful. We’ve heard it before but it can never be said enough. Well thought out words can make you dream of possibilities you’ve never considered. They can make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world or they can convince you that you are worthless. Words are powerful, and yet at times we throw them around like rice at a wedding. They fall scattered among the listeners. We may not even be aware of where they’ve landed or in whose ears.

Words are powerful. That’s what our mothers were trying to tell us when they admonished “if you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all.” Words can bless, uplift, humor, provoke deep thoughts or gratitude. They can also inflict pain, humiliation, anger and fear. The same person can spend inordinate amounts of time agonizing over which words to use when writing. And yet when they talk, their words are careless, thoughtless, causing unexpected and unintended reactions.

The words we use in our classrooms, as in our home lives, are absorbed eagerly by those that look up to us. How are we using our words to show that each person has value; that although we are different and may see things from different perspectives we can speak and treat each other kindly?

Words are powerful. I’ve been listening to a lot of words this summer, words on the television news, kids programs, and radio shows. I’ve been reading lots and lots of words, particularly on the internet, in the blogs I read and posts on social media sights. I’m discouraged by the words I hear. The words are often hateful and insulting. Even in children’s programming the laugh tracks are heard after insults have been strewn. Only occasionally do I hear or read words that inspire me. And sadly, when I do, they are words that were spoken many years ago and just replayed over and over.

It seems to me that we have more opportunity to make our words heard than ever before in history. Yet, it's as though everyone is talking and no one is listening. Is it because in the rush to have our words heard we aren’t thinking about them anymore? There is a popular saying these days that if you just keep repeating something often enough and loud enough people will begin to accept it as the truth. Are we in a struggle to see who can establish their words as the truth? I wonder.

How are we using our words to create change rather than just noise? Words are meaningless unless they are followed by actions. Do our actions support the words we speak? Those children’s shows that insult and create characters subject to repeated pranks are often followed by public service messages that denounce bullying. Twenty minutes of programming versus a 60 second PSA. Politicians slinging insults at each other during primary elections hold hands and become running mates after election night, hoping we will forget the venom they spit just 24 short hours ago. What message are they sending about the importance or reliability of their words?

Words are powerful indeed. We now have the technology to capture every one of our written and spoken words. Words that can be pulled out from mothballs, manipulated and repeated out of context. And in doing so, someone can create an image of you that is not truthful. Yet, the people who know you will remember you best by your actions. What will your actions say about you?

I was prompted to think about the effect words have while watching an episode of How I Met Your Mother last night. The setting of the episode was the funeral service for Marshall’s father. Each family member would talk about the last words spoken to them. Most were loving, touching and inspiring. But poor Marshall was agonized by the fact that his father’s last words to him were a movie recommendation. In turn, he prompted each of his friends to recall the last words spoken by their own father if they turned out to indeed be the final words spoken.

Ten years before he passed away, my father suffered a massive stroke. As a result, he lost his ability to communicate with us beyond grunts and a few gestures and soon gave that up as well. I tried to recall my father’s last words to me before that fateful blood clot traveled to his brain. I just couldn’t. Instead, like Marshall, what I discovered is so cliche – that actions really do speak louder than words. The lessons our fathers (mine real, his fictional) set for us by example are what makes us who we are. Without speaking it, my father was able to demonstrate how to treat people kindly and with respect. He taught me about charity by helping others when they needed it. Even though he lacked an education himself, I knew how much he valued mine by what he gave up to see that I had one.

It would be rare for someone to know which words will be their last. Or to have the time to carefully craft something that lives on in the minds of our listeners. Words are powerful indeed, but it just may be that actions are more powerful still. And when the two can live up to each other, imagine the legacy that will be left behind.

Click the link to see the episode that inspired these words.
How I Met Your Mother: Last Words

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My "AHA" Moment at the Save Our Schools March

This past weekend I traveled to Washington, D.C. to take part in the Save Our Schools March and Rally. As I arrived at the Ellipse where the Rally was to be held a man with a video camera approached our small group. I was browsing the tables set up along the sidewalk and didn't really hear the beginning of the conversation or the man's introduction.

The next thing I knew the questioning was directed towards me with the statement that he should really talk to me because my bargaining unit the day before had been handed a wage cut. I should explain that my school district is under a governor appointed Emergency Manager who has the sole ability to void or alter our contract or any portion of it he desires. Although the wage cut is 10%, along with step freezes and certification "bonuses" the total of my lost wages will equal nearly 25% of my compensation.

Suddenly the camera was thrust towards me and everyone waited for me to speak. What would I say? I could talk about the Emergency Manager Law that allowed our collectively bargained contract to be thrown out the window. But that wasn't the reason I was in Washington. I could talk about how teacher tenure in our state was "reformed" earlier this summer to abolish last in, first out practices and how teacher evaluations will now be tied to student's standardized test scores. (See previous post.) That wasn't really it either. I could talk about the over-emphasis of standardized test scores and the effect it has on the educational opportunities of students as schools restrict curriculum to assure successful test scores or face closure.

It was then I had my "aha" moment. What I said went something like this:

I would love to talk to you about all the reasons I came to the March this weekend. I obviously have some very strong feelings about the direction education reform is currently taking across this country or I would not have come all this way on a beautiful summer weekend. However, my state - Michigan, has recently "reformed" teacher tenure laws. Because of the changes in this law I no longer feel I have the ability to exercise my right to free speech as I would in the past. After all I have no idea who you are, what your purpose is or where your video may appear in the future. Therefore, out of fear that my employer or future employers may at some time see this and object to what I say, I am not at liberty to discuss my personal opinions with you. My family relies on my continued employment.

This is what it has come to.