Not surprisingly, Wordly Wise, the vocabulary series we use at my school, tilts big time towards those words brought over to England from France by William the Conqueror and his various cousins, i.e., words of Latinate origin. This imbalance, of course, makes perfect sense given the College Board’s predilection for polysyllabic words and that our students will be spending not an inconsiderable amount of their adult lives chattering away at upper tier cocktail parties.
Obviously, softening “cowardly” to “pusillanimous” at a St. Cecilia Ball might be judicious, especially considering the status of the target of the aspersion, and it’s not as if all failures-of-nerve are created equal. Throwing down your weapon and turning tail at the command charge is not the same as wincing your way through a racist joke without protest.
The problem with Latinate diction, though, is that it often comes off as stuffy, to use an Anglo Saxon word, or pretentious, to use a Latinate synonym. You might even say – I’m sure someone has – that Latin appeals to the cranium/head, Anglo-Saxon to the viscera/gut.
Anyway, if you’re a new English teacher at our school, one of your many chores is to do Wordly Wise exercises, and at the beginning of a school year, if you’re an enterprising new teacher and headed from Charleston, SC, to Rhode Island to attend a friend’s wedding, you might decide to bring Wordly Wise along in your carry-on to bang out some exercises while you wait for boarding, wait during your layover at Baltimore, fly over the Northeast corridor, etc.
This scenario describes my new English colleague Emily Neilson’s weekend. Emily did bring her Wordly Wise along, she did do the exercises, but she also wrote a letter to her students describing the weekend’s adventures and in doing so used every word in Chapter 1 of the Book 8 Edition of Wordly Wise!
The piece is downright inspired, brilliant, a tour de force, yes!, so I pleaded with her to let me share it with you, which she graciously has.
(By the way, if any of my former students are reading this, I encourage you mentally to circle any Wordly Wise words you come across and see if you still remember them.)
Emily, take it away:
Musings, Off-and-Onhand: Worldy Wise Essay, Edition I
Good morning, my little English ensemble, vibrant with curiosity and intellect and Joie de vivre. As I sat at the gate of the Providence Airport yesterday watching the phalanxes of folks line up to board flight after flight, I worked on my Wordly Wise homework. Yes, people, don’t ring the tocsins and become rambunctious, refractory parolees all because you have learned that teachers must also endure the tribulations of homework. It is of tertiary importance in this moment, but it is true that the Sunday Scaries are known by all — old and young, men and boys, women and girls, large and small, short and tall — what a swamp of lyrical empathy, a paregoric that should assuage us somewhat from feeling totally disconsolate. And if you do indeed set out to break the trajectory of my story, I will corral you back with the figurative lariat I own as a teacher. I am the maestro – or is it maestra? – within this classroom, this cornucopia of learning. Anyways, there I sat at the gate, oscillating between my Wordly Wise and my phone, and I thought how you might enjoy a story from my weekend, and so I began to indite right there, at gate 19, in Providence, at 11:12 am, telling you about my weekend – a meteoric one – spent in the hinterlands of New England, witnessing the nuptials of my friend.
As you might know by now, one of my favorite maxims is to “throw kindness like it is confetti.” I am equable in that belief, steadfast in my semi-dogmatic notion that kindness is the thing that helps us mortals hold up the cosmos.
I, however, also believe that sometimes kindness is not the cure-all, and sometimes situations call for more acetic approaches and attitudes. So there I was on my flight starting the descent to Baltimore early Saturday morning when I felt a rogue hand creep onto my knee. The rogue hand was attached to the man seated beside me, and I wondered, what was he thinking? That I was an effete sort of gal? That my effeminate ensemble afforded him an itinerary for his hand to explore my knee? That when I asked him earlier, “Is that seat taken?” I had intimated some wish for his hand’s current oscillations or for some clandestine maneuvers later to come? That I, a woman, rode some kind of tame, precious, subdued palfrey? No, sir! I opt for the wild mustangs roving the Staked Plains, unbridled, beneath the biggest skies, because I am one of those wild mustangs! Desist your tactile infraction! What a stupid, insipid attempt to cultivate romance! Was I disconsolate, you wonder? Would I be his collateral in the enterprise? Some kind of feminine lien that he could use and abuse and lose? Would I devolve in my integrity and sense of self? What, no! Students, listen to me: I was vibrant in my fusillade, impeaching this scoundrel for his manual traipsing. I repelled his advance; I felt refractory to every ounce of this meretricious loser. I needed my mace, either to spray in his eyeballs, making them rheumy, or to club over his head and dash out his brains like the Roman Heroes do in scenes atop ancient, marble friezes. I refrained from asphyxiating him, but my counterattack had plenty of those motifs to do the figurative trick. I might not be a professor emeritus, but I am smart enough to believe that there’s a good kind of love out there to keep me from temporizing for such airborne garbage!
I wish to spend no more time on such filth, trenchant as I may sound now, and perhaps sometime down the road we will exhume the story and laugh about it together — I assure you we won’t have to exhume him. Or will we …
What I do wish to tell you is this: that in Little Compton, Rhode Island on Saturday afternoon, a svelte bride married a svelte groom, beneath ray upon ray of light that streamed through the big windows of a white church, sitting beneath a blue sky. But that’s not right because the sky wasn’t just made of blue that Saturday, but out of sapphire, topaz, turquoise, indigo. It was the firmament of heaven, overarching everyone who has ever lived and ever will. It was made out of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen. It was made from the Big Bang which blew all those bits at the very beginning into a trajectory which would eventually lead to him and her, and to you and me. It was a regular stone transformed into a small opulence and held, tiredly, in the hand of the lapidary who had stooped for hours at his wheel, chipping and chipping away to unleash a beauty he knew possible all along. Or maybe it was in another hand, in the quivering hand of a maestro as he holds on to the last notes in their last moments before cutting all that cornucopic, symphonic sound, creating a vast, sudden, and evanescent silence.
But in the late afternoon light on a Saturday in Little Compton, Rhode Island beneath one blue, blue, blue August sky, evanescent also means this: as the minister spoke to the couple and the congregation about love’s many forms, the man standing before the altar reached out through the air, almost imperceptibly, and without taking his eyes off the minister, and sought to find the hand of the woman beside him; and she, at the very same moment and without taking her eyes off the minister and also almost imperceptibly, let go a hand from her bouquet and reached out to hold onto his.