The power of words to include and exclude, to raise up and to tear down: An extended interview with Mr. Stephen Wicker


Arielle Kouyoumdjian

Mr. Stephen Wicker ready to welcome students into his English classroom.

Arielle Kouyoumdjian, Staff Writer

  1. Mr. Stephen Wicker, my ninth grade English teacher, is a master of language and literature. His knowledge grows from a lifetime of learning, teaching, observing, and adaptating to our ever-changing lexicon we use to define our world.

In our interview, he desribes his sobering personal experience with harmful language. At the same time, he speaks about helping each student articulate their identity. A podcast of our interview will be available shortly.

My interview with Mr. Wicker is the second in a series of articles and podcasts that will explore the Potomac community’s response to the inclusivity-driven shifts in the English lexicon. The first podcast in the series features Ms. Charaun Wills. The series will ultimately open space for a collection of diverse perspectives that shed light on multidimensionality and nuance in contemporary language.

Can you start by telling me a little bit about how your connection to words is influenced by your role as an English teacher? And if being an English teacher gives you a unique connection to words.

There’s a philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. He said something to the effect of “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. I only know that which I have words for.” And particularly recently, and by that, I mean in the last five to ten years, I think I’ve come to really understand what the job is, which is to help young people find the words for the things that they’re thinking.

It used to be that we had a vocabulary book and we’d do vocabulary exercises, but, there are specific words for the emerging things that come with being human now. Again, as I’ve learned to help young people and see the struggle and challenge, I think I understand it more. If you’re a student in my class, you know I may ask you:

“Exactly what do you mean here? Be precise or what is this?”

There are certain songs whose lyrics coupled with their music have inspired certain feelings in me that have made me realize not only is the arrangement of carefully chosen words effective for communication, they can inspire you. It can inspire you to feel a certain way that you would not be able to feel without hearing the words. And to me that makes words not just practical and pragmatic, but very worthy. If you’ve ever read a good poem or lines from a movie that make you feel a certain way, it is, at a very primal level, one of the most important things we have in humanity is our language.

A few minutes ago you were telling me about how you also try to use words that are not only precise, but inclusive to your students. So can you just talk a little bit about words in that sense? 

When I was growing up my parents took me out of public school and sent me to Catholic school. I was called the N-word. And so I knew the power of words that way. Now I don’t want to go into a long personal story about it, but I don’t think it ever hurt me in the way it was intended.

And I think it hurt me more in that I knew I was just being excluded. I knew I was not the term that I was being called. I knew I wasn’t wanted.

More recently, the disposition of the classroom has shifted to being more student than teacher centric.I understood the real importance of empowering every student in the room. Not every student in the room had my life experience, or saw the world the way I did. And so it started with just not wanting to alienate students.

I’ve come to understand the importance of using pronouns that people identify with. I think it goes deeper than words. It’s using words that capture everybody’s experience. When I first taught Romeo and Juliet, I very much made it about a heterosexual couple. I made it very much about Romeo’s masculine presence and Juliette’s feminine presence, and I would compare them to a traditional high school couple.

But I realized that wasn’t everybody’s experience. I later made it about first love, which is one of the coolest things about being human. First love is not an experience that can be understood through a singular paradigm.

It’s about two human beings experiencing for the first time the rise in passion that we can get from interacting with another. Even if it gets cumbersome for me to have to use words that I didn’t grow up using, I frame it this way.

It may empower someone in the room to understand that with whom you fall in love is your experience, not Shakespeare’s, not mine. Love has to be able to be universal.

You described the experience of being called a racial slur when you were young. How do you think things have changed since then in terms of how minority groups are referred to? 

I want to be careful here because I want to acknowledge that there is still immense and enormous suffering and attacks on people unfairly for who they are organically.

I know words were hurled around carelessly when I was your age, but now they are at the very least limited in public forums.

I think about our home football team, with whom I had a passionate love affair when I was a boy to a young man. And even then I knew that the previous term used for the Washington football team didn’t sound right, but I wasn’t the one being marginalized.

So I wasn’t as offended by it as I wish I had been, but I noticed.

I think about a particular slur regarding sexual orientation that you heard a lot when I was a kid. I’m sure it’s being said in places, but I just don’t hear that word anymore. And I would imagine in some ways, these are major advancements, and in some ways they’re baby steps. We know that economic power and representation in the media is really where you see real change.

More and more, I’m seeing commercials of mixed race families, and gay and lesbian families. I also saw some Christmas movies featuring diverse families. As a boy, I’d always wanted to see myself represented in those movies. It starts there.

Our language is a representation of our thoughts. If we speak respectfully, perhaps we will comport ourselves as such and certainly stay away from words that we know to dehumanize, disparage, and thus marginalize people, not giving them full access to citizenship. Yeah. Baby steps. Certainly.

Some people still continue to use words or terms that are outdated to describe anything from ethnic groups to holiday celebrations. How do you, as someone who clearly appreciates the importance of words, respond when you hear people who choose to use outdated terminology?

It’s different in different circumstances. If one of our students engages in that, there’s kind of a swift, impatient response that I have. I will tell a student, you can say that if you want, but you’re not going to say that in front of me. I’d like to think I have a good relationship with kids, so they know if I’m telling them that, it’s not just me popping.

With my personal friends, the response may not be as swift. I know what’s in their hearts. And then sometimes I don’t say anything at all. I have to decide when to call people in, or call people out in social settings.

Do you think generational differences come into play in the words that people choose?

I think this comes into play when people decide who they’re gonna call, or not even say anything at all.

For example, if someone throws the N-word around carelessly, I may say, “if you knew how much that really hurt me, I wonder if you’d still say it.”

The words for Black people have changed over generations, from “Negro,” to “African-American,” to “black,” to “Black”. How does this make you feel about your place in the world?

My birth certificate says Negro. I’ve been African-American. I’m Black, you know? It’s confusing. Certainly. I think I’m at a place where I’m secure enough in my understanding of myself that I don’t know that I can be moved. My trepidation comes with speaking with others and trying to be reverent with them and how they see themselves.

Studying other people’s stories and trying to look into them in a reverent way is eye-opening. Using the right words really does matter, so that I pay the proper homage.

We all misspeak. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve misspoken today I’d retire. Right. You can say one thing, but your deeds speak another. Sincerely spoken words can lead to sincerely good deeds. Today in society there’s such a focus on using the right words; And yet our actions don’t always match up with the words. And it’s great to use the politically correct words and the inclusive words, but when we don’t have policies in place, we’re not making changes at the top.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

We can move each other in a meaningful way, just by having the capacity to find the exact words. I think we have lost some of our ability to share what it is to be human. We’re in such a rush to just sort of live our lives.

I don’t know that we have time to think as deeply, to even know how we feel. I think we spend a lot of time not thinking about how we feel, but to put how you feel into words can be really eye-opening. It’s like an artist who paints a picture. It’s just as beautiful and challenging to write out how you’re feeling.

I’m very grateful that I get to work with young people and words in my daily life. I don’t think I’d have this understanding of words if I didn’t do it.