Feb 16, 2010

In conclusion
The final speech for the last day of class for Language & Use

On the very first day of class I asked you to raise your standards and raise your sights, to consider what you could accomplish in learning English. I said you weren't just visiting the language, but could actually live there, that you didn't need to just borrow or rent this language: you could buy it. If you want it it's yours. I told you you could own English.

Of course, when you buy something sometimes there's buyer's remorse. There's a feeling of regret you get as soon as you drive out of the parking lot with the brand new car. You think, crap!, I'm stuck with this thing. I don't know that I like this car and now I have to drive it and make payments on it for years. I know you've all had those moments of regret this semester. Why didn't I do French? Man! I should have stuck with math. Especially when we've gotten bogged down in grammar and those little, picky, painful parts of English, you've asked, Why does it even matter?

I want to take a few moments -- our last few moments -- to give you my answer to that question.

On Sunday, my wife and I went to a cafe in the Altstadt. It was very nice. It was quiet and we drank coffee and did some reading and it was very nice. One of the things I like about Germany is how quiet it can be, especially for me, since I can kind of tune out or shut out German. I don't hear it unless I'm concentrating. So everyone was quietly talking or working and it was peaceful and I could think.

But then an American girl walked in.

And she was loud.

And she was stupid.

And her voice -- she just kept talking and it was a knife stabbing my mind. And the things she said were grating and she just kept talking. She made me so mad: she was saying stupid things, like, "There are so many, like, words."

But, of course, there are. There are so many words. There are layers and layers of words and they surround us, they're all around us and we can feel them and taste their texture in our mouths. There are flocks of them, like birds. Schools of them, like fish. They say that when the Europeans first went to America there were so many birds they blacked out the sky. There were so many buffalo, the American bison, that they filled up the plains, as far as the eye could see -- these big beasts, shoulder to shoulder forever. And words are like that.

There are so many words.

But of course it's not just the number of words. Not just the amount. There's also this power they have. They can change us and move us, make us, shape us, find us and save us.

I have been saved by words.

When I was a child my father was a preacher. I know that in the European context a minister is sometimes understood as very formal, very stiff, a figure of sort-of sonorous authority. In the American context it's not like that (especially in my father's faith tradition). Preachers are expected to be dynamic and charismatic. Their words are supposed to be electric. My father, at one point, went on a preaching tour, where he gave the same sermon every night in a different church in a different town. The same sermon every time -- and he started, every time, with the words of the prophet Isaiah.

In the year that King Uzziah died, then I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up. And his train filled the temple.

I remember being mesmerized by those words, by the texture of them and the taste of them, but also the power. There's a magic to those words. A power. Words can connect us and reach out and touch us and they have a force to them. Of course Isaiah was a Jew, and the Jews believe that words are not just floating "out there" and they don't just lie on the page. They believe God used words to create the world. Words have the power to create. And in the story in that text when the king dies, the prophet actually receives words from God and they're so strong, they're so powerful, he says they're like fire. They burn his face.

I believe that about words. They can change you. They can make you and remake you and remake the world. So they're worth getting right.

When we spent weeks working on pronouns and prepositions and I'm criticizing your commas and you have to look up dependent and independent clauses and know the difference between subordinate and coordinate conjunctions, it's not because I just enjoy grammar so much. We do this because words are powerful and we need to respect that power. There are so many words and they're yours. You have them now, you own these flocks and herds of words. I want you to use them well.

That's why we're here.