About this blog
Tribute to a teacher who put “Word Power” in his students’ hands
My blog name comes from a high-school class that I had expected to dislike. The teacher, Larry Wray, introduced himself as a lover of words. It had never occurred to me to be such a thing, let alone to confess the fact. Mr. Wray handed out yellow workbooks with the title “WORD POWER” in all caps repeated nine times forming a column down the right side of the cover, followed by this subtitle: “A short guide to vocabulary and spelling.” The author’s name, Byron H. Gibson, appeared in small letters at the bottom.
The author, this Dr. Gibson, made some (to my mind) outrageous claims:
- “Words are power!”
- “Teacher, your students will come back through the years to thank you for giving them this help in their single most important objective, learning words and learning them accurately, on which all other life objectives depend.”
- “This guide has been prepared to be the single most helpful book you have ever studied.”
But I suspended my disbelief. This class was supposed to help us prepare for the SATs. I did the work. My classmates and I learned Latin and Greek prefixes, roots, and suffixes, following what the author called the Gibson-Gordis method. For example, we memorized prefixes (a-, amphi-, ana-, anti-, apo-, cata-, etc.) and associated them with words (amoral, anemia, amphibious, amphitheater, etc.) We filled out worksheet after worksheet.
The SATs came and went. I flew to Europe to spend a year as an exchange student living with an Austrian family. I forgot about Mr. Wray and Drs. Gibson and Gordis. But my separation from the only language that came naturally to me sharpened my awareness of the importance of words. For months I struggled to communicate in German, coming up against my linguistic limitations with every interaction. Deprived of familiar words, I realized how much I had taken them for granted. With the awe of a child figuring out that grownups had childhoods, I came to see that words, in any language, had lives of their own—long histories, genealogies—that I could only guess at.
It dawned on me, for example, that shoe had taken centuries to become shoe. Through those same hundreds of years, the nearly identical but more resonant Schuh had evolved to require more space between the tongue and teeth. (Both words ostensibly descend from the same Proto-Germanic ancestor, skōhaz, which in the Iron-Age meant covering.) Similarly, I connected father and Vater, which must have derived from the same original, or should I say ur, mouth movements. During that year in Austria, the phrase Es fällt mir ein… (“It occurs to me…” or literally “It falls into me…”) became one of my favorites, because that’s what every day felt like: things constantly falling into my brain.
During that year, language came alive.
When I came home, I moved on to college. I read authors from Homer to Hemingway as if I had never read before. I took on every writing opportunity that presented itself, on campus and off. I began my love affair with words.
Over the years I’ve done more kinds of writing than you want to hear about. Each has taught me something about words and their ability to instruct, console, uplift, devastate, tickle, bore, confuse, and persuade. Writing leads me to insight and satisfaction. It earns me a decent wage. It deepens my relationships. It brings me pleasure.
When I set up my blog, the need to name it brought Mr. Wray’s class to mind for the first time in decades. It “fell into me” that only Word Power would do.
That yellow workbook (now out of print) might not be the single most helpful book I ever studied, but Dr. Gibson predicted correctly when he said, “Teacher, your students will come back through the years to thank you.” Unfortunately, I missed my chance. Several years before I got around to looking him up, Larry Wray died. I like to think that he knew the value of conveying to young minds the possibility of loving words. What a gift, his lesson that words have power that anyone can claim. I aim to pass it on.