The Power of Language
11 Oct 2016

Teachers have the potential to shape lives. It is hard to know specifically which words or comments or stories or lessons are affecting our charges, but they do. Sometimes we sense our influence, and sometimes a student will return years later, as an adult, to tell us so, but more often, I imagine, the effect takes hold but remains (sadly) untold and unacknowledged.

As a young lad, I was a shy in class, one who did not often volunteer comments. My Senior English teacher (at the Pingry School in New Jersey) was Dr. Herbert Hahn, a jowly old man who wore wire-rimmed spectacles and spoke in a low, unhurried monotone. But we students respected him as a scholar and revered him as a teacher. To us, he knew everything: his knowledge was encyclopedic. He was someone the students really wanted to please and worked hard to impress.

One morning, when I was a high school senior, the class was discussing Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset. While I can no longer remember exactly what I said, it was something about the psychological interaction between two of the characters. Immediately after I spoke, Dr. Hahn responded by saying––for all to hear: “I like you!” His response, of course, was coded language to identify and mark––for my peers and me––something insightful. Everyone in that classroom understood that what appeared to be such a personal response was actually a rare moment of positive, public recognition and reinforcement for a special effort. I felt enormously rewarded.

Little did I realize at the time that that moment would have such a long-lasting effect. But it became a point of reference, the benchmark that I have always tried to replicate in dealing with literature ever since. That was fifty-odd years ago. Dr. Hahn never knew that those three words catapulted me––to a Ph.D. and a career as an English teacher!

Years later, when asked, “What do you think happens after death?” Dr. Hahn responded, obliquely, “I don’t know. What I do know is that a flower will grow from my grave.”

Teachers have tremendous power (and an awesome responsibility)––to instill confidence, to set directions, to teach perspective, and to share intellectual passions. The best teaching and learning often comes at unexpected moments. Our best experiences as learners should continually inform us as teachers.


Author

Dr. Jeffrey Fast

Dr. Jeffrey Fast has been a teacher and administrator in America’s leading independent schools for almost 40 years. After graduating from Oberlin College, he served in the Peace Corps in the Philippines teaching English at both secondary and collegiate levels. He received his MA in English Literature fromYork University in Toronto, then moved on to receive his PhD from the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, England. Upon his return to America, he took on both teaching and administrative positions at The Webb Schools in California, serving for 15 years as English department head, Dean of Students, Director of Curriculum, and Director of the Summer Studies Program. He also taught English to Japanese students at The Toin Gakuen School outside Yokohama in one of his sabbaticals. After Webb, Dr. Fast moved to Boston, and took on teaching and administrative positions at Belmont Hill School, serving as English department head, Director of Curriculum, and Form Head for the past 22 years. He currently teaches sections of 9th grade English, as well as several advanced English electives — Shakespeare, Faulkner and the Southern Tradition, Search For Faith, Literature of Social Reflection.

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