One of the most important aspects of teaching English, particularly to high school seniors, involves empowering students to communicate effectively so that they can self-advocate and positively shape their lives. Whether our students are college-bound or not, chances are that at some point, they will need to sign a rental or purchase agreement or contract. They will need to decode the fine print in credit offers. They will need to contact employers using appropriate tone and content for their purposes.
Many of us make these real-world connections in the classroom, and one of my colleagues, Mrs. Davenport, even gives her students the opportunity to play a “Game of Life” that she developed which features the very real and important texts that our students will one day read and write. Last May, I spoke with my students about the legal difference a comma can make. For example, if a will states that property should be evenly divided between X, Y, and Z, each person would receive 33 1/3%. However, if it states that the property should be evenly divided between X, Y and Z, X would receive 50% while both Y and Z would split the remaining 50% for 25% each. While that would work out well for X, Y and Z would not be as prosperous. We also talked about very real court cases in which commas changed the ruling one way or another.
So like many of you, I already stressed the importance of precise language, but then I was summoned to jury duty. On what would have been my first day of summer vacation, I watched as 260 people narrowed down to 30. After answering questions in the jury pool, my heart sank as mine was the 12th name to be called to the jury. I never win a door prize, but this: I won.
The case involved a relationship between a land developer and a property seller that began with a pretty standard contract. The dispute arose when, after failing to close on the property according to the original contract, the pair entered into some form of verbal agreement. In short, the developer continued to spend his own money to develop the property but the seller cancelled their partnership without warning. While the jury held sympathies for the developer, and it was clear that there was some form of verbal agreement, we repeatedly returned to the language in both the original contract, in the text messages between the parties, and in the charges as supplied by the judge to reach our verdict. Given how the jury felt, we would have reached a very different decision. However, the specific language gave us no choice but to dismiss the charges against the landowner because any verbal agreement they shared was not specific and did not contain precise terms. Therefore, it was not enforceable.
Millions of dollars were on the line in this case, and it all came down to a handful of words. It became clear through this process that it does not matter whether it is a contract dispute or the murder trial taking place down the hallway (I’m glad I wasn’t selected for that jury!), the very precise way that charges are written changes everything. Our students often fail to see the real-world consequences they might face in the future as a result of not being able to follow language precisely. Now, I have yet another story to share with them. I would love to hear from you – how do you help students understand the power of language in shaping their lives?