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February 12, 2024

Why Words Matter: The Fall of Rome

I grew up in a family who just didn’t read for fun. My teacher-parents read to my sister, my brother, and me consistently when we were little, but I’m the only one who caught the reading bug. Every other day, I biked to the library to check out new books as I devoured them throughout the summer, blowing through every reading incentive program that existed. For the rest of my family, recreational reading was a hard pass.

Well into my adulthood, I was teasing my dad about it, and he finally gave me a reason why he doesn’t read: The Fall of Rome. <dramatic pause>

To hear him tell it, my father was in 1st grade, and his class went to the library to check out books. He found a book he wanted to read: The Fall of Rome. He brought it to the librarian to check it out, and she said,

“That book is too difficult for you to read. Why don’t you pick something else?”

She may have been right. At this point, we will never know; I cannot find the exact book as there are many The Fall of Romes.

It’s important to note I was hearing this story from his perspective, which is why it was impactful, and why it matters. Some kids would have taken the librarian’s word as advice. My dad took them as a signal: if he couldn’t read The Fall of Rome, he wouldn’t read anything else. So there. From that day on, reading was a chore and never became something he was excited to try.

Yes, he’s stubborn. Ridiculously so. But there’s something else worth mentioning. 

My dad is in his late 70’s, and he can remember that experience from 1st grade just as I shared it with you. He went on to become a life-long educator, teaching elementary school for 30 years and now, subbing for more than 10 years after retiring. He can remember students from his 1st, 8th, 24th class, and everyone in between. 

The message the librarian gave my dad that day stuck, just as we remember powerful experiences, both positive and negative, that have shaped us as the people we are today. 

When we work with students, our opinion matters to students. Our words echo in their heads. Anything they receive from us is potentially stick-able. The catch is, we don’t know what will remain after we are long gone from their lives. Do you want your students to remember The Fall of Rome, or would you prefer they held close all the ways you lifted them up, praised them, and made them feel like they mattered? 

My dad’s opinion of reading, well, he’s not interested in learning “new tricks.” However, we can make choices in how we speak to students to leave a lasting impression. Let’s make sure it’s a positive one.

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