Head of School Matt Green offered these words to the whole school community at the first All-School Meeting of the year.
For at least a century, art teachers have found themselves in the unenviable position of having to justify the value and relevance of their discipline. Back in the early aughts, when it was clear the internet was here to stay, a particularly clever colleague of mine did so thusly: The medium of the first millennium, he argued, was the spoken word; the medium of the second millennium was the written word; the medium of the third millennium will be the image.
Whereas literacy once referred to the ability to read and write, the proliferation of sites like YouTube, Instagram, and the like suggested to him that a new kind of literacy, the ability to communicate via pictures, graphics, and video would become the proverbial currency of the realm. The visual literate among us, he argued, would be to this new millennium what Homer was to his time or Orwell to his. According to him, we were coming full circle back to the cave drawings of prehistoric times.
Now some twenty years on, I think he had a point. Visual literacy and its cousins, media and digital literacy, are indeed invaluable navigation aids in an increasingly complex and dynamic world. Though to the image, perhaps we should add numbers, symbols, codes, data, passwords, and prompts as modern communication means that fall outside of the realm of what I want to talk about this morning, which is words.
Because now it is I, a one-time English major and occasional writer, who finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to sing for my supper—of making the case for the ongoing relevance of the humanities and the written word—a practice our artist friends have had to do for a very long time. I’ll save this broader topic for another day, but suggest a theme for our year together this simple but powerful sentence: “Words matter.”
Now if you have been so unfortunate as to be in one of my study halls, my affinity for words will come as no surprise. You know I love playing the NYT’s Spelling Bee with captive audiences, sometimes holding the class until we collectively attained Genius status. And every morning, as my coffee brews, I pop open my laptop to do the Wordle and then the crossword puzzle. When my performance on either falls short of my expectations, it kind of puts me in a funk for the rest of the morning. So yes, to me, words matter.
Consider the many connotations of the word “word” and how they might apply to the coming year. For example, about 50 of the people in this space are new. Might you be able to offer a kind word to them that will show them that they belong? Or consider what it means to “keep one’s word,” or to be considered a person whose word is gold. When you give someone your word, do you keep it?
And while there is some wisdom to the old adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” is it actually true that words can never hurt us? What about the words we choose to post online or share in a group text or excuse with a casual “Just kidding”? And I don’t just mean four-letter words, which are sometimes bandied about in the halls and locker areas so casually, it’s as though those of us who might prefer a more elevated form of discourse are not even here.
No, I am referring to terms that, in certain contexts, are “loaded words.” How can we act in a way that demonstrates our appreciation for the weight of words, their payload so to speak? And shouldn’t we acknowledge that some words are imbued with such history and gravitas, are so hateful and hurtful as to never be uttered in any written or spoken context whatsoever? Shall we make this year the year that we “choose our words wisely,” as the saying goes?
I will close with a final variation on the word "word". It’s been a long time since my three adult children were toddlers but I still remember that particular transitional phase in their development. When your kids are infants and they need something, they just scream and cry. Then a little later, they begin to communicate with sounds and gestures, raising their hands in the air when they want to be picked up, slapping the tray of their high chair when they want food, and tossing a spoon when they want to get down. Even as they develop language, they are reluctant to give up this method of expressing what they need, which to parents can be frustrating, to say the least.
In such instances, we employ a seemingly universal response; we say to them, “Use your words.” What does it mean at FA to “use your words”?
In the classroom, it means knowing you have an important role to play in creating a culture of healthy dialogue and civil debate. So when a teacher or classmate poses a question, don’t just sit there. Contribute. “Use your words.”
And when it comes time to tackle a challenging written assignment, one that invites you to really think, don’t give up your authorship or voice to others, be they human or machine. Use your words. Your own words.
In our common spaces, when someone is saying or doing something that is not in keeping with the spirit of acceptance and belonging that this school is known for, don’t remain silent. Speak up. Use your words.
And finally, on days when things are not “fine,” when you don’t feel like putting on a happy face, when you are hurting, and we all are at some point, don’t worry alone and don’t stay silent. We are here for you. There are no more important times than these to use your words.
So to review: words matter, so offer a kind word to someone who needs it, your word is gold so keep it, words have weight so choose them wisely, and use your words.
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