In Context X: "Words, Words, Words," by Melinda Tsapatsaris
In kindergarten I vividly remember encountering the word “pop.” I became dazzled by it: how the consonant sound “p” connected with the same consonant sound p again. The way the short o sound felt at the top-back of my mouth. I remember the excitement of understanding that I could reverse the word and it was still the same word. I kept manipulating the first p and the second p back and fourth, on paper and in my head. There was an emotion to the word too. It had movement. This was my breakthrough moment as a reader. I can even tell you I was wearing a too-itchy black and yellow striped sweater and that Mikey Bairde called me a bumblebee that afternoon. It didn’t matter. I was too busy deconstructing the power of p-o-p.
To this day I am mesmerized by words. I love language. I oftentimes ask people how they spell their names because when I see folks, I see their corresponding letters in my mind’s eye. I collect delicious words when I read. This past summer my epic book was Katharine Graham’s autobiography, Personal History. I underline words that I don’t know or even just words that I basically know but never use. “Toadying,” “discomfit,” “erudition,” “maladroit,” “vituperative,” and “pulchritude” are some words of Graham’s. (I vow to use “pulchritude” in a future In Context blog.)
Right now one’s stance on language is oftentimes controversial. Words pack a punch and as I heard Allison Parks once say last year, words become the currency for the “Woke Olympics.” Parents can feel clueless when their children come home talking about the realities of “cisgender, heteronormative privilege.” And for myriad reasons, eye rolling can ensue when language’s punch is at play. Political correctness conversations ensue, which tend to shut down conversations quickly. Feelings of resentment about not having freedom to express oneself abound. In this piece, I offer a hopefully helpful “both/and” regarding political correctness of language for myself: I can be thoughtful, intentional, and respectful about my language and speak my own truth across differences.
I am part of an ongoing training group around equity, inclusivity and multiculturalism through Visions Inc. And in the span of one year we went from sharing our “preferred personal pronouns” in the first session last year (an exercise in the power of language and privilege that comes with something I thought was as inconsequential as the pronouns I use) to the practice of sharing “our pronouns”—you’ll note the word “preferred” has been dropped. It became problematic for folks fighting for gender equity and transgender rights. The nature of the word preferred implies that our pronouns are merely a “preference”…a whimsical want instead of an inherent right we all just deserve. (Are your eyes rolling? Or are you pumping your fist like Arsenio Hall at the idea of such thought going into a pronoun? My invitation to the reader: Time to practice self-focus and consider your relationship to language…because language is a big deal at Westland!)
Westland is a school that cares deeply about language. We avoid saying, “good job.” We don’t call children or their projects “cute.” We oftentimes support children to “make a plan.” We invite students to reflect about “the group’s” progress, instead of only their own individual progress. The Board of Trustees recently made a motion to change language in our mission statement (his/her) due to the limitations of the binary to “their.” Pronouns again! Language matters at Westland. And from what I can tell by researching our archival documents, it always has. Here’s an institutional confession, though—for all of our care around language, its first cousin, communication, was noted as the school’s number-one stretch to me in my first year—formally and anecdotally—from parents and colleagues alike. Westland loves and cares deeply about language; we don’t always communicate why though. It’s a contradiction that deserves to be named.
A couple of years ago the school shifted from hosting a Thanksgiving Feast to hosting a Fall Feast. The traditions—from the children cooking a sit-down meal to the dancing (the dancing! Oh, the dancing!) to the inherent secrecy of the parent-free zone (one-of-its kind in the school calendar)—are all still belovedly present. The name just changed. Or, the name “just” changed. Either Juliet or Romeo asked, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” As Romeo and Juliet tragically find out, a lot.
The word “Thanksgiving” has many people conjuring up images of families gathered ‘round the dining room table set with warm, buttered dinner rolls; mashed potatoes with equal amounts of butter; pumpkin pie with a dollop of whipped cream; sweet potato pie; hot apple pie with vanilla bean ice cream (I really like pie), and, of course, green bean casserole. I could go on. Okay I will: tart cranberry sauce and leftover turkey sandwiches made on white bread. Let’s throw in some due time off after a very long stretch since summer break. Feelings of gratitude, love, and family emotionally sweep over many folks. The word “Thanksgiving” and how it breaks down—thanks and giving—are beautiful. Talk about pulchritude!
And. And, many people conjure up a markedly different notion of the word Thanksgiving: a departure point for a violent, shameful U.S. history targeted towards Native Americans. A history marked by the death of millions of people. A genocide marked by broken treaties, war, and smallpox-infested blankets. What indigenous writer Jacqueline Keeler describes in her beautiful article “Thanksgiving: A Native American View” is a word marked by “…bigotry, hatred, greed, self-righteousness.”
When Westland noticed the duality and impact of the word “Thanksgiving,” we kept the content of the Thanksgiving Feast and changed the name. I have seen 3 to 4 people grapple with this decision—this name change. I have seen eye rolling and I have seen sassy air quotes when people talk about the “Fall Feast” accompanied by what I interpret as a sarcastic chuckle. I’m okay with these responses, actually. We’re all on a journey with our learning and our understanding of the world and of the language we use. Westland is an institution that cares deeply about language. I do hope that we can have open, meaningful, intentional, and ongoing conversations about the language we use. It’s vital to our democracy that we lean into uncomfortable conversations and try on different perspectives than our own. That we try on being uncomfortable with new practices and new learning about words and the impact of words. And that we try on the ideas of community members who demonstrate resistance. I believe it’s imperative, as our children are watching us, picking up on our every word and nonverbal cue.
Westland changed the word. Westland kept the same scrumptious food and same feelings of gratitude, love, and joy. Fall Feast: a name that emphasizes the season and the passage of time. A word connected to the harvest, not so directly to a painful past.
The fact that Westland changed its “Thanksgiving Feast” to “Fall Feast” does not mean there’s judgment on anyone’s practice of celebrating Thanksgiving. In my home we celebrate Thanksgiving. I’ve not yet talked about the problematic history of the holiday with my children. I’m motivated to do so. And, I’m motivated to share that three years ago Westland did something about it: something small, but something significant.
It’s at this point in the piece where I think of a friend who’s a fine artist. She says the hardest thing about painting for her is to know when to stop—to know when a piece is finished. In this context, here is one last brush stroke. One of my educational heroes, Deborah Meier coined one of my mantras: “Good hard work begets more, good hard work.” I think of her often and silently answer her throughout the year in my head: “Ain’t that the truth.” It’s certainly true for the topic of language at Westland.
Conversations on language lead to conversations on what holidays we celebrate, what days we take off in the school calendar. Conversations on language have led us to discussions of race-based affinity groups, because one way to get better about talking about hard topics across differences—like race and institutional racism for example—happen in intra-cultural groups for people of color, and white anti-racist affinity groups. A few weeks ago Jason David shared a quote that went something like, “White people talking to people of color about race is like having pre-algebra students in an advanced calculus class.” As a white person, I need to work out my foibles, my questions, my language, and my learning with other white people on a similar introspective journey. I just heard the analogy that if I want to learn and talk about death, I wouldn’t go to someone who became a widow yesterday. This is why thoughtful institutions set up affinity groups. Affinity groups are a supplement to, not a replacement for, multi-racial dialogues between white people and people of color. They create a safe space so that we’re even more effective with our words, ideas, and language when we all come together as in a diverse group.
Through all of our work together as a school community, particularly as we think about equity and inclusivity, I hope our collaboration is marked by openness, by goodwill, sincere grappling, and by an attuned attention to the language we use. I hope Westland’s keen attention to language isn’t annoying, but rather reminiscent of a five-year-old, analyzing p-o-p for the first time—experiencing the wonder, excitement, and power of words and language.