About My Blog

Tribute to a Teacher Who Put “Word Power” in His Students’ Hands

“Word Power,” the original name of this blog,* came from a high-school class that I had expected to dislike. The teacher, Larry Wray, introduced himself as a lover of words. What a strange idea! He then handed out yellow workbooks entitled Word Power: A Short Guide to Vocabulary and Spelling by Dr. Byron H. Gibson, who made some outrageous claims of his own:

  • “Words are power!”
  • “Teacher, your students will come back through the years to thank you for giving them this help in their single most important objective, learning words and learning them accurately, on which all other life objectives depend.”
  • “This guide has been prepared to be the single most helpful book you have ever studied.”

Hyperbole! I might have thought, had I thought in quadrisyllabic words. I liked writing well enough. I kept a journal. I valued self-expression. (My dad was a psychiatric social worker.) But I used whatever words came to me, undiscerningly, the way a hitchhiker hops into the first car that stops to offer a ride. Along comes Dr. Gibson, telling me that all life objectives depend on the accurate learning of words. Right.

I suspended my disbelief. I did the work. This class was supposed to help us prepare for the SATs, after all. My classmates and I, following what the author called the Gibson-Gordis method, learned Latin and Greek prefixes, roots, and suffixes. For example, we memorized prefixes (a-, amphi-, ana-, anti-, apo-, cata-) and associated them with words (amoral, anemia, amphibious, amphitheater). We filled out worksheet after worksheet.

The SATs came and went. I flew to Europe to live for a year with an Austrian family. I forgot about Mr. Wray and Drs. Gibson and Gordis. But my separation from the only language that came naturally to me sharpened my awareness of the importance of words. For months, I struggled constantly to communicate in German, coming up against my linguistic limitations in every interaction. Deprived of familiar words, I realized how much I had taken them for granted. With the awe of a child realizing that her parents had once had childhoods, I came to see that words, in any language, had lives of their own—long histories, complex genealogies—that I could only guess at.

I discovered, for example, that shoe had taken centuries to become shoe. Through those same hundreds of years, the nearly identical but more resonant Schuh had evolved to require more space between the tongue and teeth. (Both words ostensibly descend from the Proto-Germanic skōhaz,which in the Iron Age meant “covering.”) Similarly, I connected father and Vater,which must have derived from the same original—or should I say ur?—mouth movements.

During that year in Austria, the phrase Es fällt mir ein—“It falls into me,” literally, or “It occurs to me”—became one of my favorites. Every day, all sorts of new understandings fell into me. Language fell into me. During that year, language came alive.

When I came home, I moved on to college. I read Homer and Hemingway. I read like I had never read before. I grabbed every writing opportunity that presented itself, on campus and off.

I became a lover of words.

Since then, I’ve done more kinds of writing than you want to hear about. Each has taught me something about words and their ability to instruct, console, uplift, devastate, tickle, bore, confuse, and persuade. Writing leads me to insight and satisfaction. It deepens my relationships. It brings me pleasure. It earns me a decent wage.

When I set up my blog, the need to name it brought Mr. Wray to mind for the first time in decades. It fell into me that no name would do but Word Power.

That yellow workbook? Not the single most helpful book I ever studied. But Dr. Gibson predicted correctly when he said, “Teacher, your students will come back through the years to thank you.” Several years before I thought to thank him, Larry Wray died. Thanked or not, he must have known the value of what he taught us.

Word power. I aim to pass it on.

*The “Word Power” blog had its start at http://marciarieferjohnston.wordpress.com. In June, 2012, I migrated those posts to the “How to Write Everything” website in preparation for the launch of the book Word Up!

Last modified: May 30, 2015

15 thoughts on “About My Blog

  1. Where can I find this book? I am absolutely intrigued with words and their usage, but didn’t/don’t know how to jump into it! I keep saying (to be funny and ward off the “we know”‘s) I don’t have a huge vocabulary list. This would help. I’m thinking it’s got logic I can follow. Thanks to you and to Mr. Wray and Dr Gibson! Words are power!!!!!

    • Laurie, Sounds like you’d love this workbook. I’m not sure whether copies are still to be had. Here are all the publication details. Please report back if you find a source.

      Author: Byron H. Gibson, Ph.D., Head, Department of English, Stetson University
      Publisher: Everett/Edwards, Inc., DeLand, Florida
      Copyright: 1996

      • P.S. I’ve searched every way I can think of, and I don’t turn up any sources for getting a hold of that workbook. I’m sure that it’s been out of print for ages. I found some listings of books published by Everett/Edwards, including this exact booklet, but no one seems to carry it. I even searched on “Gibson-Gordis method” to see if there was any other information out there. The only search return I got was my own blog page.

        Bummer.

        Here’s one of the books that I found on Amazon by searching for “vocabulary greek latin”: Greek and Latin Roots: Keys to Building Vocabulary.

        You’ll find others. They seem to be geared for middle-schoolers, but why shouldn’t the rest of us love them too?

        Hope you find something that works for you.

  2. Nice story. Your blog always reminds me of the song “Miss Teen Wordpower” by the Canadian band, The New Pornographers.

  3. What a great tribute; what every high school teacher longs to hear. I wonder if your school would know how to contact him, or if someone in your home town could look him up in the phone book just in case…

    (just in case he is still in town).

  4. Pingback: Tribute to a teacher… one more time « Word Power

  5. What a wonderful story, Marcia. It fills in a few blanks. I’m sorry to read in the comments that your teacher passed away several years ago. Life is too short. It reminds me to keep trying to keep up with everyone, now! I know it is not possible, and I remember your post about “trying” but in this case trying may be the appropriate word.

  6. Hi Marcia, I found your blog by following the link you put in your FB answer whether AFS has changed your life. And here comes a HELLO from Austria!!!

    I liked your post – and I am sure this is a place where I can turn to whenever correct English “doesn’t fall into me”. (Very nice remark about ‘das fällt mir ein’ – somehow surprising to me that it can be seen the other way, too, as I’m rather used to noticing things like that in other languages than MY own. 🙂 Staying with “falling”, for example – how great is the English term “to fall in love” as compared to the rather meager German “sich verlieben”!)

    And yes, words do have true power- in many ways so. Over the recent years I have discovered that they do transport a lot more than the mere meaning they contain; they are also vehicles of a tremendous amount of energy.
    Noticing that, it became clear to me that careful choice of wording does add a lot to the quality of relationships. (Including that to myself!)

    • Hi, Lisa. Great to hear your thoughts. If you like the idea of turning to my blog “whenever correct English doesn’t fall into you,” you might want to sign up for email notices. See the “Sign me up!” button at the top right.

  7. What a tribute to your teacher and what an anthem to the power of words! You appear to have a long standing love affair with language–and your readers are the beneficiaries.

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