Bon Mot

It’s ironic that a NYT opinion article on little red shoes would make my morning. Ironic because anyone who knows me (or my wardrobe) knows how likely I am to have a pair of Louboutin shoes. Nevertheless, the article’s author garnered a Cheshire grin from me when, in paragraph seven, she used the word “qua.” I learned the word when I was eight, maybe ten, from my 85-year-old, French-Canadian neighbor Evelyn with whom I spent my childhood afternoons playing word games with an old deck of Royalty letter cards she kept rubber-banded in a drawer by the front window. Long after she’d died, I pulled out the matching deck she’d given me; I just loved making words. As a teacher playing Royalty with my students, it grieved me that never once did I play the word “qua” without a challenge.

What’s it mean?” my students would ask.

“In the capacity of,” I’d reply with dread of the inevitable.

“How do you use it?”

Silence.

See, I’d really never known. Sure, there was the occasional archaic example in the dictionary, but I never really had a solid grasp of how to put this word smoothly into a sentence.

“In the capacity of” is a fairly vague definition.

Then I saw the article: “Little Red (Litigious) Shoes.”

“The red elephant in the room is that though it is the artistic and creative core of the fashion industry, design is not protected qua design, but only as a symbol of who created it.”

Two and a half decades of confusion gone with the morning paper.

My students routinely squawk about the futility of memorizing words they won’t use in daily life, but therein lies the beauty in the love of language. Right? I try to explain to my kids that the grand words they learn in the mundane pages of Wordly Wise and Vocab Workshop are like the dollars we leave in pockets: we have them, we forget them, and we are overcome with joy when we stand at the washer/dryer and pull them unexpectedly out of pocket. True, most vocabulary words don’t require a quarter-century’s wait to be put to use, but there is no denying the swell of recognition at their rediscovery.

Of course, though young, my students are smart enough to understand my message: in order to benefit from memorizing endless lists of vocab, they also need to read. This is a double whammy of bad news for some; add to this the fact that my value analogy only holds value if you’ve ever actually stood next to a washer/dryer to do laundry and find those hidden $5 and $20 dollar bills – well, you can appreciate the uphill battle in passing on words like “meretricious” and “asseverate” to the next generation.

Perhaps I shall have to let them discover the love of language on their own.

“Why do we have to learn these, Miss Jennifer?”

I’ll conjure a more palatable reason. “For the SAT… Because I said so… Just do it… You’ll thank me later… So you’ll win Words with Friends.”

I may miss the moment their eyes twinkle with the pride of recognition at discovering that particularly memorable word in the line of a book on a lazy Sunday morning, but not everything can happen in the presence of our teachers. And when it does happen, the word’s significance will likely be particular to the individual. For me, “qua” is a memory of someone who called me “ma cherie” and taught me Royalty, Canasta, and the art of afternoon tea.

The word “qua” qua word holds little value, but the word “qua” qua memory is special indeed.

Boy. I hope I did that correctly.

Tell me. Is there a word that is special to you?

Caring Shouldn’t Be Cute

Five years ago, on a warm summer day in Pasadena, California, I took a group of my elementary students to the Chamber of Commerce’s monthly breakfast meeting. We were selling books written and illustrated by kids in order to raise money for water wells in Ethiopia, and this breakfast allowed every attendee to get up to a microphone for twenty seconds to “pitch” a product or service. Students decided for themselves what they would say and scattered throughout the room so they could engage the other attendees in conversation about the clean water crisis.

One by one, the kids went to the microphone and gave their pitch. For some it was a quick sound bite about the need for global access to clean water. For others it was a background statement about the organization and what they were trying to accomplish. All together a coherent picture evolved about kids writing books and selling them to raise awareness about and money for girls who had to walk miles to get water for their families. Packed with more than a hundred coffee-sloshing, business-oriented adults, the room lit up with the vibrancy of youthful idealism and hope.

Then it was Ronald’s turn. Ronald was an eight, maybe nine-year-old, diminutive black kid with a smile that could charm the Grim Reaper. He approached the microphone lugging a big chair to boost his sightline just over the podium.

“My name is Ronald and I go to YouthInkwell and I’m changing the world. What are YOUR kids doing?”

And just like that, he climbed down and dragged his chair back to the table.

The room erupted in laughter. It really was cute. Adorable even. The sass. The precocious energy of a child who thinks he can truly change the world. Come on. We love that stuff.

There is something about watching our kids put their hearts on the line to fight for what they think is right. Lemonade stands for tsunami victims. Selling bracelets for Darfur. In our jaded adult minds we know these efforts will likely have little impact, but we encourage them anyway because… well, because they’re sweet. And as a society we convince ourselves that we want our kids to care, that compassion is a positive quality.

Yet, as an educator, I know that the 20-second proclamation of leadership, the Sunday afternoon lemonade stand, the $5 bracelet—none of these efforts alone can create compassionate leaders. The act of caring must be rooted into daily life. And so, if we really want to create compassionate leaders, it’s time to ask some tough questions.

How do we create an educational environment that seriously addresses social justice? How do we follow-up “sweet,” meaningful acts of caring with opportunities for critical thinking and discussion of issues? How do we create problem solvers who do more than just talk about the problems or throw money at them? How do we raise our kids not just to care, but to care well?

It has to start with us.

At the end of the Chamber meeting that day there was a series of raffles. A local realtor had donated some bottles of wine for the occasion. All participants’ names were put into the hat, and sure enough, Ronald’s was chosen. The room erupted in laughter for a second time when it was announced, for obvious reasons, that another name would have to be selected. Hearing only that he would not receive a prize, Ronald exploded into tears and locked himself in the restaurant’s broom closet. In the mingling after the meeting, I became aware of the collective consensus that the only thing cuter than Ronald’s speech was his response to the seemingly grave injustice he’d suffered.

To some adults, even injustice can be cute.

Perhaps that’s part of the problem.