Use It in a Sentence

A third-grade lesson in the power of words.

The right word — or the wrong one — can change things. I learned this in third grade.

That wasn’t the point of the assignment. All I was supposed to be doing was seat work, a daily task with five steps:

  1. Copy the vocabulary words from the board.
  2. Look up and write their definitions.
  3. Do the worksheets.
  4. Use each vocabulary word in a sentence.
  5. Color the worksheets.

I realize now that step 5 was just a way to occupy kids who finished early, but at the time I blazed through the rest of the work so I would have the luxury of taking my time with step 5. This was not because I loved coloring worksheets, but because my 16 crayons were infused with distinct personalities and governed by an elaborate set of rules dictating how and when different colors could leave the box. Reaching step 5 meant that I could indulge in narrating a wildly dramatic soap opera starring my crayons.

In short, I found seat work boring.

And step 4, the vocabulary sentences, was the worst part. “Use it in a sentence” was code for “Prove to me that you know what the word means.” I found this insulting. I just looked up the definition. Of course I know what it means! (At age 8, I had no idea that words weren’t easy for everyone.)

So, to entertain myself, instead of unrelated sentences I wrote stories, stringing together a beginning, middle, and end in spite of the stylistic constraint of having to use all the vocabulary words in order. Ha! Take that, seat work!

While this was an excellent writing exercise, it wasn’t how I learned that words can change things.

I learned that when I wrote the death threat.

I don’t remember the exact vocabulary word. Kill? Murder? Assassinate? They all sound a little intense for third grade.

I don’t remember if I wrote her name or just “my teacher.”

I do remember that I illustrated the sentiment by drawing a woman with an enormous knife hanging over her head.

And I remember that I wrote that sentence out of frustration over feeling powerless in the face of inequity.

The back story is this: As I sat at my desk in the back of the class, amusing myself with word games and crayons, I had noticed that there was a group of three boys who were always given harsher consequences than the other kids in the class. I didn’t like these boys. I actively disliked them. One, in particular, had a knack for intimidation that made me give him a wide berth. But it still felt so wrong to me that every day they got in trouble for minor infractions.

Hence my violent sentence.

Prove that I know what the word means? I knew what it meant, knew it was an electric word that would grab attention, knew it was strong enough to convey what I was feeling.

I hadn’t yet learned about hyperbole, but I’d written a textbook example of it. If asked, I would’ve said with all sincerity that I didn’t really mean it.

In fact, that’s exactly what I said, sitting in the stuffy classroom while everyone else was at recess, my teacher grave and disappointed asking why I would write something so unkind.

“I didn’t really mean it, but you made me so mad.”

She blinked in surprise at the uncharacteristic outburst and waited without comment.

“It’s not fair. When those boys get in trouble, I don’t think it’s fair. You shouldn’t take away their recess just for whispering. You wouldn’t do that to me if I whispered during seat work.”

And to her credit, she heard me.

It’s possible that nobody else, including the boys in question, noticed that she became more equitable when doling out punishments, but I did. The words I’d written had won me an audience and the words I’d spoken had changed her perception.

I strongly advise against threats of violence, hyperbolic or otherwise, but when you use a word — the right word — in a sentence, it can shift things. Choose your words, choose your battles, but expect that what you say can change the world.

Article © 2012 by Annie Woodall