Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Reflecting on Words

Today we lost a giant.  We, those of us who trade in words, make words our lives, worship at the altar of words, lost a giant.  Nora Ephron, she of When Harry Met Sally, among others, changed the way women talk in movies, the way people talk in movies. And for that we will never be the same.

This got me thinking about words and reading and writing, and where I might be without those who came before me.  I found my voice because of the imprints of those who wrote ahead of me and those who taught me to love words.  I remember when I fell in love with reading, and by virtue of that, words and writing.  Third grade.  My favorite teacher, Miss Massey (along with my parents), pushed me to read more.  It was important.  Our classroom had a "bookworm," Sylvester, who grew each time one of us read a book.  Sylvester "lived" on the wall and grew by one "circle" for each book a kid in our class read.  By the end of the year, he stretched around the room, down the hall and weaved his way through the school.  And for each book a kid read, her name appeared on a circle as a badge of honor.  In fact, it was even a technique I would later employ in my own classroom when I taught seventh grade nearly 20 years later.

The student who read the most books was recognized at the end of the year at an assembly in the front of the whole school.  I never even considered that I was a contender.  I just read because I had to.  And then there was that day at the end of June 1984 -- the last day of school.  The attendance awards were given out.  So were the awards for academic achievement.  I hadn't been particularly stellar in either.  And then came the "bookworm" award.  Little did I know that I had read the most books in my third grade class.  Wow.  I was definitely proud -- and yet, I still didn't love reading. I didn't realize the gift I would be given that day.  The gift that turned reading from "have to" into "want to."  The gift that would change words from something I learned into something I loved.

Miss Massey changed my life that day by giving me the best book I've ever read.  It's hard to imagine, looking back at my eight-year-old self, that something as simple as one book would change everything about who I am.  The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster -- the greatest words I've ever read.  The words that changed me from someone who read into a reader.  That changed me from someone who used words into someone who loves words. I've read a million words since then -- Shakespeare, Austen, Salinger, Melville, Dickens, Poe,  Hemingway, Rumi, Bronte, Dostoyevski, and yet nothing compares to that book.  And nothing ever will.

There are moments in your life that define who you are and who you are going to be.  That summer after third grade, I had one of those moments.  And I had another moment the first time I saw When Harry Met Sally.  I knew I was experiencing something special.  I had never seen a movie where anyone had talked that way, had used words in quite that way.  And as someone who had already learned to love words, I knew  (as Nora Ephron wrote in When Harry Met Sally), "I knew the way you know about a good melon," that I had found something special.  Someone who understood words in a way that I hadn't yet learned to, someone who had figured out how to talk the way regular people talked, someone who knew how to reach into our souls and tickle places we didn't even know existed. My god, what a gift.

Tonight I celebrate the gift of words and those who turned us onto them, turned us on with them. For me, there was Miss Massey, Norton Juster, and Nora Ephron.  Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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