Lesson Learned "Words matter!"

My 329th Lesson Learned column must be considered overdue—a pondering on precision in the use of language. If I realized my weekly reflection while serving as an elected member of the Upshur County Schools Board of Education would become a multi-year endeavor, I would have started with an observation from the book “Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English” by N. M. Gwynne: “Words matter!”

Gwynne creates a nine-step argument for the importance of words, even suggesting, “If enough societies in the world crumble as a result of bad decisions taken because of bad thinking, yes, the whole world civilization faces collapse, with consequences for each individual that are literally incalculable.”

Now I do not know if Editor Brian Bergstrom, then at the helm of THE RECORD DELTA, figured on such an earth-shattering goal when over six years ago he proposed I write a weekly community opinion column dealing with education. But I do know he recognized that words matter in our thought process, and without them we cannot reason things out, which leads to poor decisions.

A special thank-you to our local newspaper for the opportunity afforded me to hone my Board of Education logical thinking skills in approximately 800-word columns. And a special thank-you to loyal weekly readers who continue the logical discussion of the many weighty educational issues facing our schools when we meet shopping the aisles of Kroger’s or walking the Buckhannon River Trail or in other local encounters. 

Fortunately, listening for a living has been my high privilege for 50 years. In medical practice I listen to each patient’s “chief complaint.” In our very first lecture in Physical Diagnosis Class in September 1970 at West Virginia University School of Medicine, Clark Sleeth, MD, Dean of Medical School, urged us to “listen to your patients.” He elaborated dramatically by saying, “In 90% of the encounters, the patient will tell you precisely what is wrong, and the other 10% of the time you will never know even if you order a million-dollar technological work-up.”

Serving on the Board of Education, the concept holds. Complex issues gravitate from the homes in our mountain communities to school classrooms to the school principals and the central office professional staff to our public Board of Education meetings. Five BOE members listen and deliberate. Getting the words right is vital as we arbitrate and interpret and deliberate. By writing a community column focusing on the issue of the week, I gain the rare privilege of further cogitating. Thinking correctly and applying the thoughts usefully, words need to be used precisely.

All of this focus on precise word usage goes back to one of my great Upshur County Schools English teachers—Virginia Bly Hoover—who taught 7th-grade English in the old Buckhannon-Upshur Junior High School in 1960-1961 when I sat under her tutelage. She defined our use of words in her own unforgettable way: “Mean what you say and say what you mean!” Miss Hoover taught diagramming of sentences so we could improve on our preciseness. From that lesson learned I remember her quoting Francis Bacon. In fact, she posted a quote from him on her blackboard for frequent reference. For emphasis she hit the board many times with a yard stick. That certainly got my attention, especially when my mind wandered into daydreams. “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man,” said Francis Bacon. 

For me, in the seventh grade, semantic precision was a matter of a grade and pleasing a favorite teacher. In medical school, words understood became the best way to make a diagnosis and treat a patient, effectively restoring health and saving lives. While serving on the Board of Education and writing 329 columns, the future of Upshur County’s children and grandchildren, if not “the whole world civilization” as Gwynne states, hangs in the balance.

Words matter—lesson learned!


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