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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.”

Right.

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.

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  1. Laura Simon
    March 8, 2011 at 5:53 am

    where can I find this book? I am absolutely intrigued with words and their usage, but didn’t/don’t know how to jump into it! I keep saying (to be funny and ward off the “we know”‘s) I don’t have a huge vocabulary list. This would help. I’m thinking it’s got logic I can follow. Thanks to you and to Mr. Wray and Dr Gibson! Words are power!!!!!

    • March 8, 2011 at 10:54 am

      Laurie, Sounds like you’d love this workbook. I’m not sure whether copies are still to be had. Here are all the publication details. Please report back if you find a source.

      Author: Byron H. Gibson, Ph.D., Head, Department of English, Stetson University
      Publisher: Everett/Edwards, Inc., DeLand, Florida
      Copyright: 1996

      • March 8, 2011 at 11:23 pm

        P.S. I’ve searched every way I can think of, and I don’t turn up any sources for getting a hold of that workbook. I’m sure that it’s been out of print for ages. I found some listings of books published by Everett/Edwards, including this exact booklet, but no one seems to carry it. I even searched on “Gibson-Gordis method” to see if there was any other information out there. The only search return I got was my own blog page.

        Bummer.

        Here’s one of the books that I found on Amazon by searching for “vocabulary greek latin”: Greek and Latin Roots: Keys to Building Vocabulary.

        You’ll find others. They seem to be geared for middle-schoolers, but why shouldn’t the rest of us love them too?

        Hope you find something that works for you.

  2. Melinda
    March 8, 2011 at 6:57 am

    Nice story. Your blog always reminds me of the song “Miss Teen Wordpower” by the Canadian band, The New Pornographers.

    • March 8, 2011 at 10:55 am

      Melinda, I love it! I just listened to a snippet of that song. You’ve just broadened my world.

  3. Wendy Hood
    March 8, 2011 at 11:00 am

    What a great tribute; what every high school teacher longs to hear. I wonder if your school would know how to contact him, or if someone in your home town could look him up in the phone book just in case…

    (just in case he is still in town).

    • March 8, 2011 at 11:19 am

      Wendy, Just before I saw your comment I sent an email to our friend Tim McGinty, who is now assistant principal at the old school. Whatever I learn, I’ll be happy to share.

    • March 8, 2011 at 11:33 am

      This just in from Tim McGinty: “Larry passed away several years ago in Florida. He had lived there for close to ten years after retiring.”

  4. Karen
    March 10, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    What a wonderful story, Marcia. It fills in a few blanks. I’m sorry to read in the comments that your teacher passed away several years ago. Life is too short. It reminds me to keep trying to keep up with everyone, now! I know it is not possible, and I remember your post about “trying” but in this case trying may be the appropriate word.

  5. Lisa
    March 11, 2011 at 5:34 am

    Hi Marcia, I found your blog by following the link you put in your FB answer whether AFS has changed your life. And here comes a HELLO from Austria!!!

    I liked your post – and I am sure this is a place where I can turn to whenever correct English “doesn’t fall into me”. (Very nice remark about ‘das fällt mir ein’ – somehow surprising to me that it can be seen the other way, too, as I’m rather used to noticing things like that in other languages than MY own. 🙂 Staying with “falling”, for example – how great is the English term “to fall in love” as compared to the rather meager German “sich verlieben”!)

    And yes, words do have true power- in many ways so. Over the recent years I have discovered that they do transport a lot more than the mere meaning they contain; they are also vehicles of a tremendous amount of energy.
    Noticing that, it became clear to me that careful choice of wording does add a lot to the quality of relationships. (Including that to myself!)

    • March 11, 2011 at 1:08 pm

      Hi, Lisa. Great to hear your thoughts. If you like the idea of turning to my blog “whenever correct English doesn’t fall into you,” you might want to sign up for email notices. See the “Sign me up!” button at the top right.

  6. Stella Robertson
    March 12, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    What a lovely tribute to a former teacher.

  7. June 10, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    What a tribute to your teacher and what an anthem to the power of words! You appear to have a long standing love affair with language–and your readers are the beneficiaries.

  1. March 8, 2011 at 10:32 pm

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