Me: Do you want to play a game at the end of class?
Students: Is it a vocabulary game?
Me: Of course it is. Let’s be honest, pretty much all my games are vocabulary games.
We’ve been working on college essays for a while now in eleventh grade American Literature class. It’s a useful way to end the school year, being relevant for them–juniors about to spend the summer sorting through their dreams, finances and priorities to select a handful of colleges to attend–and pleasant for me–the teacher who’s spent a year on the texts of mostly-dead writers and now gets to focus the last few weeks directly on her well-loved students.
Today, I stand at the white board making a list of bad adjectives–here labeled “BADjectives”–that we must replace in the mediocre college essay I wrote for editing purposes.
“What’s wrong with paragraph one?” I ask the class.
“This sentence,” a junior replies. “‘In the summer, my family would go on these great vacations.’ It seems like ‘these’ just makes it sound too casual.”
“Exactly. Take ‘these’ out, for sure. What about ‘great’? It’s on our list,” I point to the BADjectives. “What can we replace it with?”
Ever positive, my students shout back a shower of synonyms. “Fantastic! Stupendous! Splendid! Excellent!”
“Ferly!” cries a lone voice, half a second after the word-storm has died down.
It takes a moment for me to remember. Ferly–a noun meaning “something strange or marvelous”–had shown up in C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, used in such a way that my lazy context-cuing couldn’t decipher, requiring a trip to the online dictionary. It was back in November, and I found the discovery so odd and startling that I’d added the word to the bottom of a vocabulary list, our “bonus word” for the week. It wouldn’t be on the SAT, I promised them, but it was still an interesting word, reminding me with its archaic mystery that I didn’t know everything. The students had laughed at me and dutifully memorized the word.
Six months later, like a long-delayed echo, I hear it again. I see my student beaming at me from the back of the room, delighted with herself for remembering the obscure word. I want to laugh, but I don’t, because the moment is too sweet for laughter. It’s like she’s given me a present, wrapped up in her attention to a detail that I thought rather trivial, even then.
I’ve been reflecting often this year on the verse in Luke that tells us that “everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). It is sobering, this reminder that no matter what discipline I am teaching, what I’m really teaching is myself. Every word, even the hasty and thoughtless ones, are part of this curriculum. I never know which lessons will stick with them, which words will echo back, long after they’ve forgotten the principles of Transcendentalism or the exacting requirements of MLA formatting.
This realization isn’t new in a place like Kandern, where not just my lessons but also my decisions, recreation and relationships are visible for 250 teenagers to decipher the path to serving Christ as independent young adults. Still, I’m both humbled and honored to remember the weight of this responsibility, to know that they are listening and I must continually remain dependent on Christ for strength, joy and wisdom, making sure that my words aren’t mine, so often hasty and inconsistent, but His.