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The irony of language

We find words in new places. They are hiding in smiles, dance moves and signs.

By Leah Moore

It started in my basement. Each stuffed animal would sit on top of the ping-pong table, waiting to find out if they had passed the spelling quiz. Beary could never spell “because” correctly and would have to stay after school to get some help. Words were never his thing. Luckily for him, they were mine.

So I used them. I wrote songs. Terrible, terrible songs. When two people are very close, they’re friends. They have friendship. Carole King I wasn’t, but my mom was a big fan.

I wrote stories. My seventh-grade English teacher told me the 87-page, handwritten, double-spaced story about a woman looking for her daughter was a bit excessive—but it showed promise.

I wrote letters. A 102-page ongoing note to my most trusted 11th-grade friend. Perhaps I should have taken more notes on American history and less on the boy in the front row, but it was good practice.

I loved words. I would use thousands of them a day. In fact, my whole family did—except my poor father, who rarely got to speak more than five a night. How was school today, girls? I found every opportunity I could to practice with words. On stage. On paper. With sign-language. Formal essays. Short stories. Poetry. Literature. Bring on the words.

So perhaps it was only fitting that these little entities became my livelihood. I am now a high-school English teacher. And I hear words every single day: The word-choice Gwendolyn Brooks uses to capture the stereotypes of teenagers. The hubris of Odysseus. The rhythm of Shakespeare. The pain of hearing That’s so gay in the hallway. The bullying caused by a snide remark. The devastation of knowing there is a student with many, many words who never feels comfortable enough to share them.

And we can’t all poetically express ourselves like Atticus. In a fictional world, there is time to prepare the perfect response and know exactly which word to use to rectify a situation—but in everyday life, it’s too exhausting. I can’t always shift-F7 to open the thesaurus and know the right thing to say. But I keep trying. Because these little words are everywhere.

You’re pregnant. It’s a girl. There’s something wrong. We don’t know if she will ever speak.

Cri du chat. It’s a new phrase in my vocabulary. In French, it means “cry of the cat.” In the medical world, it means a genetic disorder. In the doctor’s office, it means tests and therapy. At my kitchen table, it means my daughter.

We find words in new places. They are hiding in smiles, dance moves and signs. They sneak in with “Mama” and “More.” They come out with pointing and listening, and just knowing. And each day, we wait and wonder. Will there be a new word? Does she understand ours?

And then the words form more questions. Will she ask me where she left her shoes? Will she remind me to pick up more milk at the grocery store? Will she yell as she runs down the soccer field? Will she ever stress about where her thesis statement goes?

I don’t know.

And for the woman who is shaped by words. Who teaches them every single day. Who enjoys discovering the power of vocabulary, the derivation of a term, the perfect synonym. Turns out—maybe you don’t need them at all.

Maybe there is something much more powerful. Something that encapsulates pride and fear, strength and temerity, sadness and joy, love and comfort. Being a mother and knowing how to speak to your child who cannot speak.

And when they create the word for that—let me know.

Leah Moore is a teacher and mother of three delicious children. She captures the stories of her daughter living with Cri du chat syndrome, and the adventures of her twin baby boys in her blog, lovingyoubig.com.

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