It’s not as bad as it sounds. I’m not completely end-of-May-exasperated on the first full day of school. Though I readily admit to this very thought shouting in my consciousness at year’s end, it also floats into my mind at the school year’s beginning. In August, it has a completely different context. It’s one of my breath prayers – those one-liners you say on the run or in desperate moments.
Here I am.
Show me what to do.
Add to that list: Don’t let me hurt them. I know the power of the tongue. I’m a wordsmith, a writer and an English teacher. Every job I’ve ever had paid me to use words and I know their power. That’s their attraction for me, the mysterious, surprising capacity of the endless combinations and context in which they dwell. They can bless and curse; expand life or diminish it. They wound and they heal; they love and hate. They encourage or they demoralize. They empower and enthuse; they also reject and refuse.
When you love and own and practice words the way I do, there is tremendous potential for good or evil. In the course of the day with my students, I can instruct and encourage, comfort and cast vision, or I can confuse, unnerve, embarrass or demoralize. Just writing those last four words frightens me. The rate at which I run my mouth, often before my brain is engaged (as my father used to say) is dangerous. Teenagers can be snarky and sarcastic and funny. They complain and speak about things of which they are ill-informed. The tendency sometimes is to want to get in there with them.
But I can’t. There is not a balance of power. I’m the adult. They are “not quite yet”. I’m the teacher, the giver of the grade; they are students who have to do what I assign. The temptation to become one of them in conversation or to get a laugh at another’s expense is one I must not give in to. The opportunity to teach them the high road in civil discourse and in personal relationships is mine. So is the chance to comfort the hidden hurting ones who walk through my door every day, whether they tell me those hurts or not. My minister often says, “There’s pain in every pew.” So it is in my classroom – in every desk. I pray I am never the instrument which inflicts more.
I know the power of words, get drunk on it at times, have run away with those words without thinking of the consequences. I’ve lost count of the times in my life I’ve had to ask forgiveness for using them carelessly. So I’ll begin this new school year the same way I do every year, with this simple prayer, “Don’t let me hurt them.”