The school year has finally come to an end and it seems fitting that I’m sitting here trying to find the right words, yet again. In many ways, it was a year filled with wondering about words—pondering over their meanings, finding just the right one, waiting to hear the one word that will change everything.
Teaching ESL students this year, I had to constantly think and double think about word choices and the power of which word we choose. “I’ll go for a walk alone” has a much different feeling to it than “I’ll go for a walk by myself.” While both might be correct for a given situation, the former implies a sense of solitude, and perhaps isolation, than the latter doesn’t. Does the subtle difference really matter? Is it even clearly evident? How far should one go in trying to explore the differences and when is it OK to just say, “either one is fine”?
Here’s another interesting example that came up in class. “My daughter is afraid of the darkness,” one student wrote. I edited it to “my daughter is afraid of the dark.” But when do we use darkness, she asked. Can you believe the best example I could come up with on the spur of the moment was Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” I might not have explained it well but perhaps I initiated a new Bruce fan.
I also spent an abundance of time this school year reading college essays and editing with a fine toothcomb. It turns out, the most important skill a teenager can have when applying to college is having a way with words in nonfiction. You have to be able to write about yourself and express a sense of who you are, preferably in 500 words or less. These words not only matter, they can literally change the direction of your life. Any college wannabes who had previously enjoyed a good nonfiction biography or memoir, certainly had a leg up in understanding how to create a mood, feeling, and image of the writer with their own words.
Most of all, we waited with my daughter to hear the words about her future. Although some of the letters said, “I’m sorry to tell you” there were also a couple of “big envelopes” that said “We’re happy to inform you” in our mailbox. But the wait for the one word from the one place she wanted to hear from continued. In the end, it was an email from an admissions officer that said, “you definitely still have a chance” that made me feel the full power of one’s choice of words. I knew “definitely” was not bandied about lightly and thus that one word filled us with hope. Two weeks later, I was thrilled but no longer that surprised when my daughter happily received the one letter she had been hoping for that began, “Congratulations!”
Know any kids interested in exploring words this summer? My supremely talented friend is running an amazing on line workshop called PLAY ON WORDS for kids ages 10-17 and it includes writing memoirs! And I will continue to help students find the right words to display their awesomeness in college admissions essays, so if you know any rising seniors that need help with this all important nonfiction writing, please send me an email (see address in the sidebar).