The Words They Need

If you have ever studied anything having to do with education, be it the policy, philosophy, or pedagogy of it all, you may be familiar with the term “the ten thousand word gap”. If not, let me enlighten you: the 10,000 word gap is the amount of words that children from wealthier, more established families understand when compared to children from less stable, more impoverished households. Some of this is experience based—why would a child from a poor home in Baltimore or Detroit or Chicago have the schema to know the meaning of “jacuzzi” or where Aspen, Colorado is on a map? More of it is because the offspring of parents who work 12 and 15 hour days, balance work and school and are struggling to keep the lights on aren’t usually having the kinds of rich conversations involving rhetoric and reason that you can have when your soul ain’t exhausted.

I hate to break it to you, but the 10,000 word gap doesn’t even scratch the surface anymore. From The Atlantic:

”for more than three years, they sampled the actual number of words spoken to young children from forty- two families at three different socioeconomic levels: (1) welfare homes, (2) working-class homes, and (3) professionals’ homes. Then they tallied them up. The differences were astounding. Children in professionals’ homes were exposed to an average of more than fifteen hundred more spoken words per hour than children in welfare homes. Over one year, that amounted to a difference of nearly 8 million words, which, by age four, amounted to a total gap of 32 million words. They also found a substantial gap in tone and in the complexity of words being used.”

THIRTY TWO MILLION WORDS. How does this not break your heart? I decided to write a letter to the young girls I work with with my take on the word gap.


Dear Queen,

This has been a really rough week for us  Heck, it’s been a rough month—the year was supposed to fly by after Spring break, but instead it has trudged, weighed down by your antsy silliness and my frustration, your lack of integrity and my frustration, my frustration and your…frustration. Here we are though, with 6 more weeks until I set you free. Some of you swear you aren’t returning, which I, a veteran of your parent’s hasty promises yet unkept, will believe only when I don’t see you in August.

You’ve been driving me crazy lately because, after all, it is May, and I feel like I am having to use the precious amount  of words per minute  that I get with you haranguing instead of encouraging and nagging instead of supporting. I don’t like that. PLEASE understand that I hate that just as much as you do.  I want to close your word gap singlehandedly with all that you are missing, and that’s such a lofty goal that I walk away exhausted. 

You, my dear, have a word gap. Here is what you hear regularly. 

No – This is the word that takes away your permissions, shuts down your imagination, stunts your growth and blocks your escape route. Often, it is a response to a decision that you’ve made. No, you can’t eat in the lunchroom because you won’t sit down. No, you can’t have your cell phone in class because despite all the good that could be done with it, all you’d do is make Musicsal.ly videos all the livelong day. No, you can’t play outside because I need you to come home in one piece. No, you can’t go with your friends because I don’t get paid until next week. On and on and on.

Stop – Stop switching. Stop being fast. Stop looking at these boys (never mind the fact that these boys are looking at you and should hold equal responsibility). Stop being so loud. Stop getting smart. Stop cursing. Stop running. Stop being too much and too little and too late and not enough. 

Never – You will never get off of this block. Never be more than this. Never be better that me or your mom or your dad or your guardian. Never win. Never try. You will never get into the school of your choice acting like that. You will never pass. Never  grow. Never change. Who you are is why you’ll always be. 

Here are the words that I want to fill your gap with:

Yes – Yes, you can complete that assignment  You can get it back with a grade you were expecting and submit it again because once you know better, you do better. Yes, you can demand to be treasured and cared for. Yes, you deserve goodness and light. Yes, you can have a hug. Yes, the world is conspiring for your well being. Yes, you are made of the same universe as stardust and high tide and the Aurora Borealis and you are twice as magical as any of these.

Go Confidently in the direction of your dreams. Go pursue that thing that scares you. Go hug that person that you had beef with and fixed, but the atmosphere still feels a little beefy. Go take that class. Go sing that song. Whatever you do, just GO. 

Passport – You loved making food from around the world. You loved trying my Spanish snacks last month and have been harassing me for a new country even with my protestations that I don’t know when the next box comes. I wish for you to hope on a plane and go somewhere where you don’t speak the language. I want you to feel small at the base of the ocean. To taste your humanity at the top of a hike . To be confidently lost in the wilderness is an excellent allegory for your life. 

Freedom – Freedom from your phone. Freedom from expectations. Freedom from an oppressive regime that paints targets in tears and legislation on the backs of your brothers. Freedom from sadness. Freedom from shame. Freedom from the inner city. Freedom from worry. I want you to have a taste of total liberation and get so hooked on it that you chafe under anything that restrains you. 

Home – Home is anywhere and anything that brings you comfort. Maybe that is here in Baltimore. Maybe that’s a beach in Bali. Maybe it’s a classroom in a district that supports your inquisitiveness. Maybe it’s where the lights are always on and there is ample food and a warm embrace from someone who REALLY wants to hear about your day. Maybe it’s her. Maybe it’s him. Maybe it’s a forehead kiss or a chicken box from someone that studied your love language and wants to make it happen. I found my home in spoken word and cuddles with friends and in Jesus and maybe even in him, but my home isnt’t necessarily yours. Find where you are rooted. 

Love – I don’t want you to get to 25 before you know what Love is and I don’t want you to be 30 before you demand it for yourself. Love is high standards and high pitched laughter and trips to the movies and watching you march and stupid inside jokes. Love is also coming back to work with you a mere 24 hours after you told me to get the f*** out of your face and gave me your arse to kiss…and harboring no resentment. Love is giving you 1000 chances to break my heart into fragments with the gaps in your  heart because chance # 999 May be the one that clicks. Everybody in the world isn’t equipped to love you this way. Respect the effort. 

I would be here all day if I continued typing the words that I want to fill your gap with—but these will have to do for now. If I am lucky, you’ll leave me in June fully able to define these words. In the words of Kendrick—-we gon’ be alright. Let’s just continue to add new words ok? You can always use my pen. 

 

Love you always,

Ms. O.

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