Words were important in the Rendall house when I was growing up. VERY important! With a Dad, who for ninety percent of his daylight hours was either writing, speaking or reading words, you could say that I didn't stand a chance! Both Dad and Mom were authors, with Dad having written at least ten books and Mom five. For over thirty years Dad was also the editor and principal author of the school's flagship publication, the Prairie Overcomer, in addition to the children's magazine, Young Pilot. He wrote thousands of articles for this magazine over the years. He would also edit and contribute to the books of other well known authors when he could find the time. Mom, who could type 120 words a minute on a manual typewriter in her prime and could also take shorthand, served as home secretary to Dad. She prepared many of his manuscripts to go to the publisher. The proofs or galleys as they were called, would come back and be checked over. Edits and corrections were made and off to the press they would go. It was always a great time of celebration when a copy of the finished book would arrive in the mail.
With close to one hundred thousand books in his collection, in addition to thousands of magazine clippings and other documents, it was clear that words dominated every inch of our house. Dad has been collecting books since he was twelve years old and still shows no sign of slowing down. Old books, new books, large books, small books, Dad loves them all. He could pretty much put his hand on anything you might be looking for to finish a report or research project in school.
I was fully immersed in this culture of words from my earliest memories. Mom and Dad would listen to the BBC show "My Word" on CBC and would try to outsmart and out guess the contestants. Long discussions at meal times over syntax, context, grammar and punctuation dominated the conversation. Dictionaries and other writing tools were always at the ready to settle any dispute. Mom and Dad loved Scrabble and the game brought out their competitive spirits. Puns and clever nuances were the order of the day. Dad would sit in his recliner almost every evening grading papers, preparing sermons or reading a book. He was a good multi-tasker. He could listen to the CBC Concert Hall program and have a conversation with Mom, or occasionally us boys, all while reading his book.
Dad kept a stash of red pencils on a tray beside his chair. I think he bought these at the PBI Bookroom in boxes of 12. He would go through all the pencils and when they were dull, he would get up and sharpen the whole lot at once. He claimed this was a much more efficient way of using his time and he was probably right. With these pencils he would underline important thoughts and points in his books. Corrections were made to any punctuation or spelling mistakes that he found. This he did by underlining the offending spot and then writing a note in the margin of the book. Occasionally, he would also write in small reference notes that brought more light or clarification to the subject at hand.
Bible 10 was held at 11:30 a.m. Monday to Friday in the basement math room of the High School building. Our teacher was also the Dean of High school girls and had several other responsibilities. Many times she would be late, not really prepared and in general seemed unsure as to the direction of the class. She was frustrated as she tried to impart some sort of spiritual formation to a bunch of restless high school kids. One day I had had enough. I thought of various ways that I could show my frustration to this teacher. I thought about a petition. I talked to my classmates and found that many shared my frustration, but no one would sign the document. I encouraged everyone to write letters, but no one did. I stopped short of picketing. However, in my own haste and foolishness I composed a letter to the teacher and unleashed as much venom and anger as my little Grade 10 brain could muster. "That should do something", I said to myself as I popped the letter in the mail.
To say "something" happened would be an understatement!
I was summoned to Principal Ken Penner's office. He asked me, "Rendall, did you write this letter?", as he waved the offending document in my face. "Yes. I did", I replied. Ken continued, "I have called your Father, and he is on his way over from his office." "O boy", I thought, "this could get interesting." To add to my stupidity, and wanting to show an inclusive spirit, I had taken the liberty of citing the names of various other students who felt like I did. Evidently, that was a big no no. I have known Ken my whole life and I could tell that he was not the least bit impressed. Quite the opposite - he was ticked. This was not the desired result. After a lengthy summit meeting with my Father and Ken it was decided that I would have to meet with the teacher, apologize for my letter and my behavior, and promise to behave myself for the remainder of the school year. There may have been some manual labor in the boiler plant assigned as well. I was a frequent visitor to the boiler plant but I am not always clear in my old age which specific offences landed me there. I think I painted the same wall multiple times and became fairly adept at busting up large chunks of concrete with a sledgehammer. I was informed in no uncertain terms that if I caused any more trouble things could and would get a whole lot worse.
You see, I never understood at the time the tremendous pressure and responsibility this teacher was under. She had way too much on her plate and I am sure teaching our class at the end of the morning was the last thing she wanted to do. Having to deal with knotheads like me, just made things worse. As an adult who has had to deal with more than a little pressure and too much on my plate, I have a much better appreciation for what she must have been going through at the time. In the heat of the moment, selfishly, all I could think about were my own needs and the needs of the class. I never gave any consideration to the teacher's needs or to her situation. The words I used in my letter were mean, hurtful and spirit crushing. There was no excuse.
Dad took me aside after the meeting and told me two things that I have never forgotten. He said, " Son, never document in writing something that you do not want to be used against you." Or, as Jane Fonda has so aptly written, "Best not leave everlasting proof of your temporary insanity". The other piece of advice was, "If you write a letter out of anger or frustration, put it in a drawer for at least a day or two. When you go back to it, see if you still feel the same way or if your letter could be rewritten." I have tried to live out those two pieces of advice in my life. I haven't always succeeded, but I am sure Dad's wisdom has helped me on more than one occasion.
We have all heard the saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." Don't believe a word of it! Words are powerful! Words can inflict pain, cause heartache and discouragement. In our interaction with our partners, children, friends and business associates, let's all choose to use words that will encourage, heal and bring hope. . . and by the way, if you need a red pencil to make a few corrections, I think Dad may have an extra one or maybe a dozen kicking around.
© 2010 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.