Let’s talk about words. I’m a writer and I’ve had this huge passionate love affair with words since before I can remember.
Words are a way of connecting us to our thoughts and ideas. Words allow us to move pure emotion and sensation into a different part of our brain that stores and accesses memories. My selfish desire to access my own memories of trail running and whatever else has floated through my mind led me to create this blog; the process of writing about a specific moment in time and what has connected me to those emotions, colors and sensations of movement has helped cement certain feelings and pictorial memories into words that now are less a piece of my mental landscape than stories that can be told to others to create a sense of space, time, energy and place. Now I have something tangible to share.
Words allow us to speak with others and connect with members of our species. We can share commonalities, teach our children, debate with others and learn new languages, thus expanding our reach and understanding. The universal understanding of what individual words mean creates infrastructure that allows us to use words as building blocks to create whole sentences, concepts and expressions for our ideas.
Children are fascinating to watch as they learn language. They start with individual sounds, simple sounds such as “ma-ma” and “da-da”. When my daughter was first learning to talk she loved this simple combination of sounds and would say it over and over and over: “Bah-bee bah-bee bah-bee bah-bee bah-bee bah-bee…”
Her dad and I would laugh with delight and say, “Who’s Bobby?” just to hear her say it again. I always noticed that when she said it her dad and I thought of the sounds in terms of a name, whereas she was just saying sounds that felt good on her tongue. We weren’t communicating in that we didn’t agree that certain sounds meant certain things.
Fast forward eleven years and she’s a 6th grader in middle school. She’s articulate and literate, and yet she came home the other night and told me with sadness that she must not be very smart. Her Language Arts teacher says that a test measures how smart you are and she doesn’t always get the best grades on her tests. She connected the dots and came to the obvious conclusion that her mental faculties are lacking.
As you might imagine, I hit the roof. I told her that her teacher is wrong, tests are not a measure of intelligence, and this is why. Cupping each of my hands, I held them shoulder-distant apart and told her:
Imagine that my left hand is the bucket of all the things that are in your head. Now imagine that my right hand is the test. How is the information going to get from your head to the test? Well, there’s a pipeline that connects the two together. If the pipeline is clear, then all the information in your head can get to the test. But what if it’s not clear, what if there’s a blockage somewhere and only some of the stuff in your head comes out? Then what happens?
She said, “Not all the stuff in your head gets to the test.”
“That’s right,” I told her. “It doesn’t all get to the test. So if the pipeline isn’t clear somehow, does that mean that your bucket of knowledge isn’t full?”
She shook her head. No. It means simply that there are a few possibilities: either all the information that was in your head made it to the test and in fact, there was insufficient information to do well on the test. Or, the information was there but something prevented the knowledge from formulating into a way that the teacher found acceptable for the test. Either way, there’s a gap in communication, learning and knowledge.
I thought about this as I ran today. Words are incredibly special to me personally, but they are also an absolute treasure trove to the human species as well. With words we can convey thoughts, feelings, emotions, and questions. We get to connect with people on every possible level. Here’s the catch though; if the words that are used as the “pipeline” to convey ideas from one bucket (person) to another get stuck somewhere because there isn’t enough knowledge or ability to express a complex thought or idea, does it mean that the person lacks intelligence? Sometimes, but not always. Sometimes it just means that the words aren’t always there.
Anyone who’s read this blog has probably figured out that I use writing as a way to help me make sense of what I’ve done, seen or experienced. Words help me make sense of my world, both internally and externally. This doesn’t mean that I have all the words I need at my disposal; it just means that I’m doing the best I can.
The day after I talked with my daughter about the bucket and pipeline metaphor, she came home from school and told me that she was frustrated in science that day. She and her friend were working together and she told her friend my metaphor, and how frustrated she was that the information was in her head and couldn’t get out. Her friend understood immediately, said, “Oh! That happens to me sometimes too!” and immediately went to work helping my daughter organize the jumble of information in her head into a format that made more sense. They were both thrilled that they could recognize the problem and then work together with their words to piece together the knowledge that they both possessed.
I’m glad that my daughter believed me when I told her that her teacher was wrong and that a test is not a measure of intelligence. Tests can measure many things, but a 6th grade Language Arts test or book report does not tell anyone how smart my kid is. If anything, it can tell you that she didn’t read the book, didn’t understand the concept, doesn’t know how to write a summary, doesn’t understand punctuation, or simply didn’t do her best work. Any of those things can be addressed by a teacher that is paying attention. But to simply announce that THAT test measures intelligence? Nope. You’re wrong. In so many ways.
Words help us communicate, but they also help us to understand the possibilities of HOW to communicate. That’s the beauty of language; we get to constantly experiment with different ways to make ourselves known. My use of words helped my daughter understand the places that intelligence lie, and that an external source might not be a good indicator of what’s hanging out in her brain. And that was a good use of words.