New inventions often result in new words, or neologisms. Radar, for instance, emerged as an acronym for a “radio detection and ranging” device. Cultural developments also evoke new words and phrases, such as cyberspace (originating from science fiction), soccer mom (from the world of politics) or prequel (from movies and pop culture).
In June the World’s Fair with bright red strawberries and cream over seared Belgian waffles. It grows hot. Trapped in the crowd, a tangled skein of nerves, lost and hungry for quiet, for tenderness, I ride with my aunt on a long conveyor belt to see the Pietà. So gentle the grieving, tranquil mother with her downcast eyes, the stone folds still around her, the cold flesh of her perfect son. She does not attempt to cry. My aunt, primed by The Agony and the Ecstasy, leans to recognize “Buonarroti” on the chiseled band, tasting the contours of each round unaccustomed syllable. She whispers the name. She will not last two years. Silent, thrilled and careful as dancers, when we step off on solid ground we are joined by our secret, sworn never to tell what we have no words to say. This is how it will be in the winter we take our leave: bitter flakes in a sharp ribbon of wind beyond tears or anger, the long frozen loop home from the hospital waiting for me, as we both know. Suddenly shy and tongue-tied as a girl, she will reach out from her bed to touch me, recalling too the marble brow, faintly wrinkled, the white hand, open, as if it were asking a question.
My neighbor scrapes old paint from the fence around his pasture, an annual chore he attends to, for he knows the white he applies revives each slat. I think of his recent essay, peeling back the layers, as he said, of online education, revealing a barren base devoid of the body’s subtle gestures— how a screen cannot replicate confusion written on a brow, engagement flashing in the eyes, or a hand touching a shoulder. How a cursor cannot translate the voice’s inflections, nuanced as the nod of his head, greeting me, while he lays down his tool to rub my dog’s ears, while he motions toward the remaining wood, tells how he’ll finish the job before winter.
Nathan Eckstrom teaches English in the Boston Public Schools, one of the most diverse school systems in the country. Its more than 9,000 students come from about 100 countries, and they speak more than 80 languages. Instead of taking a vacation this past summer, Eckstrom went to Haiti to find the places where several of his students live and to visit their extended families. He knows that he will be able to make better connections with his Haitian students after learning about their culture and country. Over the past ten years, Boston teachers have made similar trips to Cape Verde, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and other countries. Fund for Teachers, a Houston-based nonprofit, helps fund these trips (Boston Globe, September 12).