I remember the shock when I first heard the words: "The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word." (Isaiah 50: 4-7). I was half-awake in a pew at morning mass, a self-imposed hit-and-miss routine intended to compensate for not being able to concentrate at Sunday liturgies because managing the music took all my byte-space.
I looked up. Run that by me again? The tongue of a teacher? That's me. I am a teacher. So, what about the tongue of a teacher? Sustain the weary with a word. Sustain the weary? If I am a teacher, I would know how to sustain the weary? And if I know how to do something, I would have a responsibility to do it. The words seared on my brain. The rest of the mass was a blur. I had never before considered my life's mission in those terms, sustaining the weary.
The implications of that line reoriented my thinking. If my mission was to sustain the weary, then it wouldn't do to be weary myself. How can the weary sustain the weary? No, if I was to sustain the weary, I would have to let go of any weariness I might be feeling, and concentrate on brightening other people's lives. At that moment, I decided not to allow any complications in my life to colour an entire day.
Today, Palm Sunday, hearing those words proclaimed again in the First Reading, I was back in that moment, reliving the epiphany, wondering how I am doing with that mission. Because not being weary is only the first leg of the journey. The next part involves using words.
How could I use words to sustain the weary? Right off, I could think of the obvious ways--greet people, notice things, take the time to chat, write letters, make phone calls. There had to be more. What would be the next level? Right about then, I happened on Peter Johnston's Choice Words. This book sensitized me to the effects that even ordinary, innocuous conversation can have on people. I could eliminate "but" from my vocabulary, he said, replacing it with "and." That small change would make any feedback I gave students much more powerful. Before, my left hand adding the "but" was taking away all the good from the positive comments the right hand was offering.
He had more to say. You want to communicate your trust in people, he said; you want them to know you believe that they will do the right thing. I thought I was doing that. Maybe not always. Was I unconsciously undermining my work? Use the phrase, "It isn't like you to . . .", Johnston wrote. Why not? So I started saying to a student whose work was late, "It isn't like you to be neglectful of your work. Could we talk about why it hasn't yet been handed in?" That one simple phrase started so many surprising and meaningful conversations that deepened relationships and cultivated collaboration.
Recently, I happened on Inviting Students to Learn: 100 tips for talking effectively with your students, by Jenny Edwards. Actually, the subtitle could be, 100 tips for talking effectively with anyone.
Does that mean I am always successful at using words to sustain the weary? I wish. Sometimes, I get it right. What's important is that I am at least conscious of what I am doing, or not doing, as the case may be. With consciousness can come change, and I can get better.
As I age, I hope to refine those practices. With serious aging, though, I've noticed (now, I mean pushing into the nineties and onward), losing filters and reverting to basic, raw habits can happen to some people. That scares me. I really would like to continue moving forward.
This blog, too, uses words--to chronicle events, share ideas, entertain viewpoints, tell stories, express hopes. Maybe as well to sustain. To sustain me, anyway.