Arts & Events

In the Beginning is the Word

By Joey Yovino-Young
Friday December 28, 2007

In the late 1970s, when we were about 19 years old, my friend Russ and I got jobs as teachers at a before-and-after-school program that was housed in a separate bungalow from the school. Largely left to our own devices, we made up the day’s activities as we went. After several months we had our routine down with circle-time, drawing-time and outside playtime being everyone’s favorites. 

From that very first day we found out how exhausting being a teacher can be, yet at the end of each day we felt richly rewarded for our work. Being around six- to nine-year-olds for that brief period taught me more about others and myself than I could have imagined. Their insights and wisdom belied their ages, and when the social atmosphere was hovering at their peer level, I could close my eyes and listen to the conversations going on and imagine they were in their late teens having the same conversations. Those days with “my kids” were ones I will always cherish, and I hope someday I will come across some of them in my life travels. 

My story revolves around one particular day. It was Russ’ turn to take the boys out to play ball. The girls and I sat around a large round table, drawing with crayons and pens and talking about anything and everything. The conversation along with their body language spoke volumes about their individual worldviews and where the power relationships resided within their group. I was totally aware of my roll in keeping those relationships on a level playing field, and what abilities I had were put to the test. 

Talking commenced along with the drawing, and as I listened to their voices, I found myself in a mild trance while drawing what was shaping up to be a flag with a peace sign on it, with lots of colors wafting all over the page. Unbeknownst to me, the girl on my right was closely copying my drawing. I suddenly became aware of this when she loudly accused the girl next to her of copying her picture. 

“Well, hold on there, Danielle,” I interrupted. “What’s the problem with that?” 

“She’s copying me, and that ain’t right!” she retorted. 

“I am not!” came the weak response from the accused. 

“Yes you are! Look!” 

And yes, by gosh, the similarities were clearly evident. “Well, wait a minute.” I ventured, “It looks to me like your picture is very much like mine, is it not?” A sudden silence came over the group. Danielle was top dog among them, and was known for her temper. This situation had made everyone nervous. Most kept their eyes to their drawings, and those that looked up did so cautiously. I too was nervous about how to handle what was brewing to be a volatile situation. I took the plunge. 

“Why get upset over someone’s liking your drawing enough to copy it? As you can see, I have no problem with you copying my peace flag. In fact, I’m pleased that you like it enough to draw it for yourself. It makes me feel good to know you like it that much. I’m totally cool with that.” After a moment, Danielle slowly nodded her head and a smile emerged from the scowl of just a moment before.  

With this sudden end to the “situation,” a flush of victory came over me. Just as quickly as the brouhaha had started, it was history and the chatter flow at the table resumed as if nothing had happened. 

Then, in the midst of a silent moment at the drawing table, one of the girls asked me, “Joey, what’s a peace flag?” “Well, a peace flag is a flag that speaks for a vision of peace. It’s a flag with a peace sign on it. Maybe you’ve seen them somewhere?” Silence ensued. Then Danielle, in a perfect moment of irony, asked, “What’s peace?” “What’s peace? Can any of you tell us what the word peace means?” I asked gently, trying not to create a hint of competitiveness at the table. All heads shook in unison. I was stunned.  

“Okay, peace is . . . peace is . . . well, peace is the opposite of war,” I lamely coughed up. It was a new one on me and I was dumbfounded for a decent description. Again, silence greeted my definition. I could tell they were all thinking hard about what I had said. “Um, do you guys know what opposites are?” All shook their heads as one. 

Okay, I thought, here we go! I felt the moment expanding somehow, like big light bulbs were poised to go off if I called the right shots. I went to the blackboard, and everyone stopped drawing and watched without a sound. I wrote the word “opposites” on the board, and turned to address their curious faces. “Opposites are like, um, like two things that are very different from each other.” OK, bro, don’t get lame on me! Their attention span wasn’t to be messed with — my time was precious.  

“Like this,” I said finally. I went to the board to write examples. “The opposite of hot is ... cold. The opposite of up is .. .” “Down!” came the reply. Everyone was on it pronto. “Here ...” “There!” came the chorus. Yes! “There you go—opposites!” I was stoked. And now to make the Big Connect.  

“Now you all know what war is, right?” “Oh yeah, of course, everybody knows that,” they replied. “Well then, peace is the opposite of war.” “OOOOOOH...” The collective recognition made my hair stand on end. A triumph of learning had just taken place and I felt humbled by the experience. I wondered how old I was when I learned what opposites were, let alone what the word peace meant.  

The concept of war was well known to all my young charges. It’s all over the TV, movies, everywhere you look. You couldn’t miss it if you tried! Yet the word that symbolized the deepest hopes of the community was unknown to them. How could anyone appreciate the concept of peace if that very word is missing from his or her vocabulary? 

After this "breakthrough," the kids and I had several spirited discussions about what peace stood for, chose names of those dedicated to a peaceful world and, most importantly, brainstormed on what each of us could do to help bring peace into our own lives. No doubt about it, the word was a hit! 

Ever since that day, I’ve marveled at how powerful a word can be. A small group of children dramatically illustrated to me how important it is to know words that ultimately can make or break a society’s ability to progress into what we all dream of it becoming: a world without war, a world dedicated to peace. 

It all starts with a word. Let the word Peace be one you pass on to those still wondering what opposites are. Trust me, they’ll get it big time!