Saturday, February 4, 2012


 “What’s your first word, Tayna?”

“Impotent,” she responded sweetly.

“What?” I asked

“Impotent,” she announced.  “It means powerless.”

This couldn't be right.  The students were reading Rudyard Kipling’s story, “Rikki Tikki Tavi,” and they were told to pick out ten vocabulary words.  I grabbed the lit book, flipped it open to the story, and quickly scanned through the highlighted vocab words.  

Uh oh!.  There it was on page 267.  Darzee the bird sings a chant at the end of the story after Rikki Tikki kills evil Nagaina.  Within Darzee's chant was the line, "Terror that hid in the roses is impotent -- flung on the dung-hill and dead!"

They had to define each word and use it in a sentence.  Vocabulary is hard for most of my students and I usually reduce the number of new words they have to learn.  I made the bad mistake of telling them they could choose the ten words they wanted to learn.  I figured they’d pick words they had seen before and make it easy on themselves.  They had written their chosen words with the definitions before coming to my room.  I was going to help them write their new sentences.

“Okay.  Do you know what powerless means?”  I asked her.

“Yes.  It means not strong.”

“That’s right,” I replied.  “Can you think of a sentence now for your word?”  I was having a hard time saying “impotent” in the Learning Center.

“Yes,” Tayna said as she bent her head over her paper and began writing.  Normally I have to coach kids with new words, but Tayna had already figured out what she was going to write.  I waited until she finished and then asked her to read her sentence.

“My dad is impotent when no one gives him attention,” Tayna proudly read.  When she finished, she looked up at me beaming.

I stared back with my mouth starting to slack open.  I was concentrating really hard on not smiling.  I knew that if I even started to smile it would disintegrate into laughing.  And it wouldn’t be the subtle kind of laugh.

When Tayna didn’t get an approving smile back, her eyes widened into a worry.  “Isn’t that right?” she asked.  “My dad doesn’t like it when people don’t do what he says.  He doesn’t have power if we don’t pay attention to him.”

“Uh . . . yeah,” I slowly responded.  I decided to give the Communication Arts teacher something fun to grade.  “Your sentence is just fine.”

“I have a sentence,” Naomi announced.

“What word did you choose?” I asked.

“I chose impotent too.” 

Oh Phooey I thought as I watched Naomi bend her head over her paper, biting her bottom  lip as she wrote.  After a minute she proudly held her paper up and read, “My dad is impotent in the morning.”

I’m pretty controlled, but we had just gone over the line.  I quickly got up and walked over to my desk, turned my back to the kids and stretched my mouth open into a silent scream.  It was the only thing I could think of to keep from laughing.  If I burst out laughing, I knew the girls would carry the story home about how they made the teacher laugh.  I didn’t want to have to explain why their daughters were learning about “impotent.”  I rummaged on my desk as though looking for something and asked Naomi to explain what she meant.

“My dad is really tired in the morning.”

My back was still to the girls and I did the wide silent scream thing again.  Don’t laugh.  “What does that have to do with being powerless, Naomi?”

“He’s tired,” she explained.  “He’s not strong.  Isn’t that what powerless means?”

I waited a few moments more. “Yeah.  That’s fine,” I finally said. 

Don’t ever let them chose the vocab words again!  I scolded myself.

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