Our Shared Lexicon: An essay on the language our community uses to talk about identity

What I learned about identity, diversity, and how we communicate from in-depth interviews with Mr. Wicker, Mr. Hyde, Ms. Wills, Kennedy Ferguson, Victor Lee, and Javi Almonte

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Current Advisor

Students congregate in the Crossroads at the end of a school day.

Arielle Kouyoumdjian, Staff Writer

Our shared lexicon is the medium with which we capture the nuances of our humanity and individual experiences. Through my interviews with Potomac faculty and students about multidimensionality and fluidity in contemporary language, I’ve deepened my understanding of our diverse and unique identities–and I hope to share what I’ve learned with my Potomac community. By asking questions and discerning what is meaningful about the way we describe ourselves and others, we may find themes that transcend the particularities of our experiences as individuals, and discover what unites us as humans. Ultimately, this series explores the power of labels: Do they provide authenticity and validation to each of our identities, or do they create barriers that estrange us from one another?

My discussions with Mr. Stephen Wicker (my 9th grade English teacher), Mr. Hyde (my 9th grade history teacher), Ms. Charaun Wills (my 9th grade biology teacher), Kennedy Ferguson (senior), Victor Lee (sophomore), and Javi Almonte (freshman) illustrate that If there is a universal human experience, it must be the desire to be understood as individuals, to communicate our individual human experiences and truths in an effort to connect with those around us.

Though the way that we express our cultures differs from person to person, students and teachers alike find that the English lexicon is shifting to more precisely capture the identity of each individual. As senior Kennedy Ferguson notes, “Inclusive language plays a huge role in shaping, communicating, and understanding one’s identity. Words can dehumanize, dictate how we treat individuals or entire social groups, and support oppressive systems. Even when considered ‘tradition,” [using] outdated lexicon, such as Columbus Day instead of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, prolongs destructive, harmful legacies of the past. Having access to the words that define our individual experience itself demonstrates that other people throughout history identify in the same way, or needed to express themselves in a similar way. ”

Mr. Wicker, who has been teaching for decades, experienced both the positive and deleterious effects language can have on people, and his experiences shaped his philosophy as a teacher and mentor at Potomac “I think I’ve really come to understand that my job as an English teacher is to help young people find the words for the things they are thinking,” Mr. Wicker said.

Mr. Wicker’s perception of the lexicon’s potential to include or exclude guides his relationship with students. “My decision to use inclusive words started with not wanting to alienate students. It grew into wanting to make every student feel that they could be their unconditional self, their best self.”

We explored the shifts in inclusive language that have transpired since he was a child. “At a very primal level, one of the most important things we have in humanity is our language. … Growing up, teachers simply used standardized vocabulary worksheets to equip students with the language required to reflect their perception of the world. … There are specific words for the differing things that come with being human now. As I’ve learned to help young people, and see their struggles and challenges, I think I understand it more.”

In order to be inclusive, Mr. Wicker has learned to weave “his/her/their” pronouns into class discussion. Changing the way he addresses students both grew from and led to a deeper understanding of where we’re coming from, and what our pronouns say about us.

“It goes deeper than using words. It’s using words that capture everybody’s experience. Romeo and Juliet is not just a story about a boyfriend and girlfriend, it’s about two human beings experiencing the rising passion that they get from interacting with the other. Even if it gets cumbersome using words and structures that I didn’t grow up using, it’s worth it to empower a student to understand that with whom you fall in love is your experience, not mine, or Shakespeare’s. It has to be universal. Hopefully using inclusive pronouns, and taking some of these themes out of context, makes it accessible to more students.”

Victor Lee, a non-binary sophomore who uses they/them pronouns, is grateful for teachers and students who embrace using inclusive pronouns: “I was assigned male at birth, but I never identified with being male. The non-binary title encompasses that in-between and allows me to embrace different aspects of femininity and masculinity. I don’t want to say that using somebody’s correct pronouns is mandatory, but it’s something you do out of respect. A lot of times there is some ignorance surrounding it…[when people don’t know the pronouns I use]. There’s definitely more awareness of the concept of being non-binary.”

Victor’s words challenge us to “call-in” those who remain unaware–and to think about how we do so.

Having teachers and mentors in our school community who understand and adapt to our generations’ concerns is vital. In our current environment, we’re ever more sensitive to the ways that words can label and hurt each other. Kennedy Ferguson says, “From being able to describe all the different spectrums of gender and sexuality, to being able to discuss mental health and disorders, language definitely provides validation in a unique way. Words have so much power.”

Students and teachers alike admit that mistakes happen; when people use outdated lexicon to describe racial and ethnic backgrounds, pronouns, or holidays, it is usually an issue of misunderstanding or lack of education, rather than a hateful attack.

On some levels, inclusivity may be learned, not lived. Mr. Hyde, who teaches history, has reoriented his perspective from a Christian-centric model to an examination of the past through various lenses, ranging from religion to gender identity.

Mr. Hyde explained that “There’s [now] less of an emphasis on Christianity and more on inclusivity. I’ve never stopped to hammer that one out. I just assumed when you were saying “before Christ,”(B.C.) you’re focusing on Christianity. That’s the lens through which we look at everything, as opposed to maybe removing that and just saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to say ‘before common era’ and ‘after common era,’ just to remove the religious component.”

Mr. Hyde hopes to learn alongside his students as he broadens his own horizons. His world history classes enable pupils to probe the single-story narratives that permeate traditional history curricula, and peer into the perspectives of the diverse array of individuals with different life experiences.

Mr. Hyde admits that it’s a learning curve. Just as Mr. Wicker noted, the learning between student and teacher is mutual, especially as the student-teacher dynamic shifts to encourage a more “student-centric” learning environment. Finding the words to capture and validate the identity of every student requires smoothing over some of the ripples lingering from his upbringing, and his adaptation to changing social norms. Mr. Hyde noted that “Language is evolving. For example, when I was growing up [inclusive pronouns] didn’t exist. So they’re foreign to me, but it’s important that I try to learn as much as I possibly can about how to communicate with my students.”

Certainly a person’s own life experiences shape their worldview. Mr. Wicker relates to the struggles faced by today’s youth, because he experienced the potency of words and the raw emotions they can conjure: “When I was growing up, my parents transferred me from public school to a private Catholic school. I [was] called the N-word. That’s how I knew the power of words. I don’t think it ever hurt me in the way it was intended. I think it hurt me more that I knew I was being excluded. … I knew I was not wanted. I also knew I was not the term that I was being called. So when I became a teacher, I understood the real importance of empowering every student in the room. And every student in the room doesn’t see the world the way I do, or is accepted in the way that I might have been.”

Mr. Wicker brings this life experience to the support and understanding he offers to students of all backgrounds and identities.

Mr. Hyde described the way in which his own experiences have allowed him to grow. “I guess you could say I was in a [stereotypical white, Christian] box because of where I grew up, where I had the opportunity to go to school. I was very fortunate for those opportunities, but that didn’t necessarily allow [me] to see diversity, or how other people live.’

‘A prime example [of broadening my horizons occurred when I met] my wife. My wife is a colored woman from South Africa. So she grew up during Apartheid. I’ve been to South Africa at least a dozen times and it’s incredibly ethnically diverse. And I love it. But when I was 20 years old, the school I went to was predominantly white.”

Learning from each other is key to deepening our connections and strengthening our community. It is vital to ask, to listen, to write, and raise consciousness of the impact of our word choice on our friends, colleagues, and fellow students. In all of my conversations, it was clear that everyone in our community wants to help others feel connected.

Students and teachers seem to appreciate the need to redefine the language of inclusion, but how do we ensure that nobody is left behind as our lexicon evolves? How do we preserve the essence of the English language itself, even as we scrutinize the social constructs in which it developed? Coming to agreed-upon terms is not always an easy journey.

Freshman Javi Almonte feels conflicted over a new addition to our vocabulary, “Latinx,” a word used to encompass people of Hispanic heritage without the gendered implications of “Latino/a.” While some individuals prefer the term “Hispanic,” others resent that word’s Spanish-colonial history and disregard for indigenous peoples whose histories have been too often erased.

Javi explains, “I’ve always had some trouble with the word ‘Latinx’. My parents had raised me to consider myself and the rest of us ‘Latino.’ Most people today still prefer being called Hispanic over Latino, but my family found Latino more appealing. It was a way for them to display their pride for their heritage. I’ve always appreciated the term Latino, primarily because as a child who was born in the US with parents from two different countries, I never had the luxury of connecting to one singular culture like my parents, cousins, and friends could. When the term Latinx was first introduced to me, [I was told that it was more inclusive of] women. I had never recognized this as a problem growing up because I understood that gendered Spanish adjectives default to the masculine when referring to a group of people (americanos, mexicanos, españoles, etc.). Because the gender rules of Spanish don’t agree with the rules of English, well-meaning ‘American saviors’ used Latinx as a way to combat misogynistic overtones of language of which they are unaware.

“I didn’t like the term [Latinx] because I thought it was unnecessary and awkward in Spanish, like many other Latinos did. Later the fight for the word evolved into inclusion of people who don’t identify as either male or female. This was a more understandable concern. If a person identified themselves as Latinx personally, there would be no reason to disrespect it or tell them to identify differently. I appreciate substitutes for Latinx like Latine, which fit much better in our language. But I still believe that Latino is ok to use for the general population, because the beauty of the language English-speakers seem to not understand is that Latino can still be inclusive of all, even if it ends with an o instead of an a, e, or x.”

Is this one of the paradoxes of the lexicon? Perhaps certain efforts to reshape our language so that everyone has a label that captures them perfectly is analogous to the contradictory search for a “universal truth” that includes every human; it is nearly impossible, because every individual’s truths, desires, and perceptions are unique. Like the word “community,” it can unwittingly be used to flatten difference and dismiss feelings of unbelonging.

Language is an external depiction of our society’s core values. It is an indicator of our progress and setbacks. It is also a vivid and vulnerable painting of our society’s internalized belief system, and an opportunity to represent the vibrant diversity of our community. The language we choose defines our connection to each other. So let’s speak as if the world depended on it.