“Gentleness encourages hearts and makes them more receptive while harsh words only harden hearts.” - St. Jane de Chantal
You’re probably wondering how I got picked for this - let me reassure you that I am not really up here as a shining example of Salesian gentleness. I am a reasonably qualified commentator on the quote from St. Jane. The part about words anyways.
Words are my work. Latin in class. English for the Georgetowner. My students and I take words apart and put them together. We try to use words to make a translation that doesn’t sound like Yoda or to make a subtle allusion in a poem. They may never work at the Vatican or Vanity Fair, but I want all my students to love words, to explore them, and to use them wisely. Words used well can make us more receptive to the insights of others and to the grace of God.
On the other hand, words have a sinister side. Words carry with them the burden of the ages. Half-forgotten original meanings, historical accretions, changing connotations, literary and cultural associations and tiny but significant nuances, any of which might be disturbing. Words, whether age-old, or newly-minted, or craftily repurposed, can be weapons.
We are aware of the pain and anger caused (or worsened) by harsh words used in spite or prejudice or ignorance. Civil debate devolves into a barrage of nasty compound words: soundbites, buzzwords, namecalling. Sometimes we can even feel our own hearts hardening when we hear these harsh words -- or use them ourselves.
As we prepare our students for what lies ahead, is there a way to help them to stem the tide of harsh words and hardened hearts? We don’t hear the really harsh words in our classrooms, but still we sometimes observe the subtle ways that words can sabotage communication. An unfamiliar word is misunderstood; a careless generalization is made; two people assume two different meanings for a controversial word. Feelings are hurt; the conversation comes to a halt. There’s room for moral instruction on the virtue of gentleness, but we also need to encourage the habits of mind that distinguish words that communicate from words that cut off the conversation.
It’s so important, but realistically, we don’t get these opportunities to nurture civil discourse very often. By the nature of some of our subjects, class discussion isn’t very frequent, or very deep. But gentleness of speech works in our classrooms in those Salesian little ways, too. Gentle words may encourage where hard words fail.
There’s a hard word in my classroom. It freezes hearts across our fair campus: T-E-S-T. It is particularly terrifying to first-year Latin students, most of whom have come to me after disappointing experiences in the modern languages. Even when I’m confident they’ve learned the material, the mere mention of a T-E-S-T causes universal consternation and begging for additional preparation time. At the end of one chapter, I announced, on short notice, that we would be having a “Thing.” I simply substituted the word in the title line of the Chapter Test and printed up the copies. On “Thing” Day, the mood was upbeat. Most students did very well on their Things, and their scores were recorded as their Test grades. The others learned that their Things would be treated as pretests, and were required to take the test (same form, different questions) for a grade. These students sought extra help in better-than-usual numbers before their tests and improved their mastery of the material considerably. While this is clearly an approach tailored to a specific group of students and a regular level syllabus, and I’m not proposing it for general use, it does show the power of a word. As we ended our last chapter, a student actually said, “Are we going to have another Thing? I LOVE Things!”
Let us pray that we will be able to find
words that bring love and joy,
words that will open hearts
to the wonders of learning
the unique beauty of each person
and the grace of God.
We ask this
Through our Lord Jesus Christ,
Who is the very Word of Love