Sticks and Stones

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The English language has the power of being beautifully expressive, poetic. At the same time it can be curt, crass, hurtful. Changing the order of words or punctuation sometimes drastically alters the meaning of a sentence. When phrases are uttered nuances in intonation transform them into vocal images. Throughout history there have been individuals with astonishing capabilities for using words to clarify, inspire, affect. These have been the authors, poets, teachers, speakers who have used their facility with language as art, education, and political persuasion. The best among them leave legacies that are studied and revered from age to age. The variety and elegance of language makes it an instrument of profound possibilities. Unfortunately when words are in the hands of someone who does not know how to use them as they were intended they become vehicles of confusion and even hurt.

I have a major in English, but became a mathematics teacher. I believe that my adequate abilities in connection with my native language helped me to explain and demystify concepts using words that my students were able to understand. I consider my facility with expression to be well suited for most of the tasks in which we must convey our thoughts. Nonetheless there have been multiple occasions in which what I was attempting to communicate was totally misunderstood. This generally happened when I was addressing a large group or in those moments when I chose to write down my ideas. Without body language, facial expressions, and opportunities for clarification it is more likely than not that confusion will occur. Because I realize that such possibilities exist I try to carefully analyze and measure my words before making them public so that I will not damage feelings or foment anger. In spite of my efforts I am almost certain that the sentences that I craft may not always be taken in the ways that I intended, and so I do not ever feel personally attacked if a reader or listener finds fault.

A source of great pride for my mother was that she was masterful with the English language. I suppose that it stemmed from the fact that her parents were immigrants whose facility with English was either lacking or nonexistent. Her father demanded that she and her siblings speak in the national tongue and develop comfort with it. By the time she was in high school she was lauded by her teachers for having an imposing command of vocabulary, grammar, usage and punctuation. She had the eye of an editor and the ear of a college professor when it came to finding mistakes in sentence construction, spelling and pronunciation. I suppose that she passed this affinity for language down to me and my brothers because I never found it difficult to write and speak properly. I’d already had one of the best instructors at home.

We are accustomed to witnessing a certain level of refinement in both the orations and essays of our presidents. Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence is remarkable in its brilliance and the brevity with which it illuminates the rights of mankind. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is both moving and inspiring. We still quote John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan’s speech to the nation after the Challenger explosion was exactly the message that we needed to hear.  So it is with a certain level of consternation that we realize that President Donald Trump struggles with expressing himself in a coherent and intelligent manner. As long as he is reading a prepared document he is fine, but as soon as he is speaking off the cuff his deficiencies become all to apparent.

If I were attempting to help President Trump to improve his writing and speaking abilities I would first address his lack of an extensive vocabulary. We all overuse certain words and phrases but his limited stable of words is dramatic. He struggles to move beyond descriptors such as “big, biggly, huge, fantastic, really good, the best” and so on. His statements lose impact because he is so often at a loss for more edifying vocabulary.

The other problem that is perhaps the president’s major flaw is that he does not elaborate enough to clarify his remarks. He leaves so many ideas to be inferred that the imagination goes to notions that he probably never intended. Because of my background as a teacher I often find myself filling in the blanks of his utterances. I translate what he has actually said into what I believe that he has said. I suspect that I’m rather good at doing that because even when he is misunderstood and has to back track to explain himself I have usually been correct in my original assessment. The trouble is that not everyone takes the time to give President Trump the benefit of the doubt by attempting to discern what he may have meant, and so he finds himself causing a stir again and again. Usually he becomes so frustrated that he eventually hurls insults at those who have questioned him and his good intentions blow up in his face.

Another terrible habit that the president has is exaggeration. It goes to those favorite words of his and speaks loudly of his personality. He has to win, be the best, come out on top. Every oration becomes a power play reminding me of the child in the classroom who needs constant attention and adulation. Because President Trump demands to be the center of the universe he will even resort to lies at times just to appear to be more grandiose. I don’t understand how he thinks that we won’t recall what he has said in the heat of the moment. Like a child boasting on the playground he will resort to insult  if necessary just to be in control of the discussion. He uses words like weapons rather than healing agents. His art of the deal always seems to come down to an insistence on a “my way or the highway” kind of negotiation.

While some may find his ways of expressing himself refreshingly honest I see his mauling of language as an embarrassment. He is in such a powerful position that every word matters, and as of now he appears to be making far more enemies than friends. It may take years for the nation to recover from the trauma that he dispenses on a daily basis. Most of the damage he is inflicting need not happen if only he were to develop a more diplomatic tone, especially when attempting to comfort a Gold Star widow or when dealing with an allied nation.  He really does need to forget the chip on his shoulder and remember that none of what he does is about him. It should instead be about addressing all of us in a more honorable and selfless tone.

I wasn’t born yesterday. I know when someone is pressuring me to accept his/her point of view. Sadly each time President Trump speaks I feel as though I am in the presence of someone who is desperately attempting to sell me a bill of goods. My brain almost instantly turns off when he becomes abusive or combative. What he says does not touch either my heart or my head and yet I have suspected for some time that somewhere inside the mangled thoughts that he professes there is actually a very good heart. I have seen flashes of his compassion and desire to please us, but until he sets aside his own needs for those of the country he will continue to stir controversy over utterances and tweets rather than actually getting things done. He somehow doesn’t realize or just doesn’t care that some of us want him to be successful, but simply can’t abide by the vindictive sound of his interactions with those with whom he does not agree.

I know that my advice to our president will fall on deaf ears. He is who he is, but I think he might be better. Other men and women have risen to the challenges of their moments in history and guided people with eloquence. Winston Churchill comes to mind when I think of someone who changed himself and saved a nation. His words became a buttress against tyrants. He momentarily set aside his own needs to become the voice of freedom and steadiness in a world gone mad. How I wish that President Trump would take a page from Churchill’s life and use his words to inspire rather than hurt. I don’t suppose that I will ever see that, but I can wish.

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