A six o’clock news story that aired a few years back still haunts me.
The television camera zoomed in on a college student throwing chairs off a balcony. He had thrashed everything in his dorm room. Apparently, he had played his final college football game, his athletic scholarship had run its course, and it dawned on him that he could not read or write beyond an elementary school level.
Academic advisers had cherry-picked his classes and somehow kept him academically eligible to play ball. They had snookered him, cheated him. At that crisis moment, he realized that he had little training for going forward, no words to confess his shame, so he wept, screamed and destroyed things.
That notion found reinforcement for me at the then-still-operational state prison on McNeil Island about five or six years ago. The program where I worked sponsored several school programs on the island, and I volunteered to observe one of our basic instruction classes. There I found education-impoverished inmates, many of whom could barely read or write.
In fact, a teacher there said that one inmate she tutored had a vocabulary of fewer than 150 words, most of which were profane or venomous. (He had, she said, about as many tattoos as he had words in his vocabulary.) Naturally, one so bereft of language would have few choices in life.
Think about all the benefits that words afford.
Below the painting of a pipe, René Magritte, the Belgian painter, writes: "Ceci n'est pas une pipe", which is French for "This is not a pipe." Somewhere in my education I learned, as Alan A. Watts said, “The menu is not the meal.” And it follows that a word is not the thing it represents.
Even so, we marvel at the images found in paintings, our salivary glands start to flow when we read a menu, and words allow us to embody the world of things and experience. Words, whether spoken or written, serve as skeleton keys to open the whole shebang.
My love affair with words started with Dad’s dictionary, the New International Unabridged Webster’s Second Edition printed in 1942. Dad wrote sermons and letters and jotted in ledgers at his makeshift desk in a corner nook of our small house in Seattle’s Rainier Valley. He had cubbyholes above a neat rectangle of blotting paper. He had a pen set and drawers for filing important papers.
But it was that dictionary, always open and ready to serve, that had me besotted. All those fetching words! When closed, it measured six inches thick. Inside, it featured pictures of flags, indices of all kinds, and more words than anyone could ever know.
About the time my eyes reached desk level, I started to appreciate the conjuring power of words. My prepubescent mind had found the source of magic. If only I might learn those words, I might rival Superman. That’s how kids think.
Never mind that words when strung together like Lego bricks need syntax and rules of grammar. Never mind that knowing what a word means has little to do with knowing how to use it. But as a naïve youth, I found supernatural authority living in that weighty book, the answer to some cipher, a power well beyond the influence of Mother Goose and all those other bedtime stories my mother and father would read to me.
A few years later, after reading “Treasure Island” and “Silas Marner,” I fell over the edge and into an obsession with words and stories. Beguiled, I spent more time reading than I did catching fly balls. I believed then, and still do, that words are not just little mirrors reflecting what they represent. Using words properly becomes a sacred act.
Sorcery hides inside words like kernels of life inside seed husks. Words engage our gears. They translate human experience. They employ our senses. They enlarge our world. One cannot even begin to argue against the supremacy of language without using it.
Words can slap you in the face. And, sure, they can bring color and joy to your life like a bouquet of red roses. They can do it all.
Dangerous and divine, they wait between covers just across the room in my father’s dictionary.
Steilacoom resident Steve Jaech retired from Pierce College, where he taught literature and composition. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.