Clarice’s Pieces: The Gift of Words

By Clarice Feldman

I think if there is a heaven, a special place must be found there where the best teachers in the world have thrones of glory. If I’m right then there’s one that already has inscribed upon it the name “Miss Sanchez,” for she has given my five year old granddaughter Saya the gift of words.

Saya is certainly bright. She’s already bilingual in Japanese and English and working with Miss Sanchez to learn a third language, Spanish. But she first transitioned to a passionate lover of words under Miss Sanchez’s tutelage.

Saya lives by the ocean in Los Angeles and her school is a long commute from home. Her mother decided that it would be a good idea for her to use part of that commuting time each day to speak by cell phone to  her grandfather and me  in Washington, D.C.  For a long time the conversations were about the day’s events and, as she especially enjoyed them, tales (sometimes embellished) about her father as a young boy and our very naughty, high spirited Bengal cat.

For her part, Saya, who sees herself as a budding naturalist, would tell us what she learned about animals — which ones were carnivores, herbivores and omnivores and where they lived. Then she added the great dinosaur naming.  Like Adam in Genesis naming each creature that walked the earth, she’d name each of the known dinosaurs. I thought she’d forgotten one and offered it up but was quickly brushed off with, “that’s the colloquial name” and she gave me the real one.

A few months ago Saya told me that all the girls in her class (and she named them one at a time, of course) had gotten up from their chairs and hugged Miss Sanchez, adding that they loved her so much. I had not heard of her before and asked what course Miss Sanchez taught her. “It’s the Readers’ and Writers’ Workshop,” she answered. I was puzzled because Saya’s reading skills are limited and, therefore, I assumed that it would be impossible to write.

“How can you write when you don’t even know how to read very well?” I asked.

“We write things the way we think they sound and that’s ok in the workshop,” she explained. And so it is.  Her great grandmother, aunts and uncles and  we started getting hand written notes and books from Saya which we were able to completely comprehend. (Of course, the hand drawn pictures in her “books” helped a little but her phonetic spelling was completely understandable.)

I have always had an idea that having a rich vocabulary helps children understand things so much better, so building on Miss Sanchez’s platform, I made up a goofy song about antonyms and synonyms and homonyms and mornings were quickly taken up with a family-wide homonym contest.

I thought it would be hard for someone with such limited reading skills to understand homonyms that were spelled differently but sounded the same but she explained she thought she could do it from context and she could. For several weeks we all plugged away and came up with new ones. Three part ones like pear, pair and pare were particularly admired. (I realize some now call these homophones, but my third grade teacher Miss Disch called them homonyms and that’s the way I will always consider them.)

When I visited a few weeks ago she would corner me from time to time full of excitement and tell me Japanese homonyms and then Spanish ones she had figured out.  But in that respect, like the dinosaur naming, she was so far ahead of me, I added nothing to her cache.

We’re finally out of those and moving into antonyms and synonyms as we head into spring. She and I have agreed that since English comes from so many sources it has more synonyms than Japanese or Spanish and so we probably are in an area which will not be so easily exhausted as homonyms proved to be.

But should we come to the end of that road, there’s a straight up vocabulary contest for, to the rest of all this verbal gamesmanship, we have added “The Word of the Day.”  Soon Saya said she would also give me words and  now she does. Yesterday she gave me “debonair” and said her grandfather was debonair, but her dad only a little bit.  I told her about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and how debonair they were dancing on black and white tiled ballroom floors.  She laughed when I told her I was really disappointed when I started to go out with boys and realized teenaged boys weren’t debonair like Astaire.

This morning when she struggled again while her mother tried to dress her hair, her mom gave her the word “sabotage”, and when she told me what it meant and where she got that word, I suggested “unruly” and why you could use it to describe hair that does what it wants just as well as kids who are uncontrollable. She laughed. Obviously, she wasn’t sabotaging the morning’s mad rush to work and school. It’s just that her hair is unruly in the morning.

Anyway, since Yiddish is one of the sources of American English you might as well learn the word “qvell.”  It’s the indescribable pride and joy grandparents take in watching their grandchildren grow and learn.

There are lots of synonyms for thanks but none are sufficient to express my gratitude to Miss Sanchez and her Readers and writers Workshop  for her priceless gift of words.

Page Printed from: at March 29, 2011 – 04:36:15 PM CDT