Not Just Words

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Words have power. Some people get it. Some people don’t. Emily La has this Perspective.

“They’re gonna rape you at your new school!” My student laughed after making his joke to his smiling but uncomfortable classmate. She didn’t know how to respond to this anymore than I would at fourteen.

What came next wasn’t easy. I knelt next to my student’s desk, fumbling with my thoughts before I whispered, “That’s not funny. That can be triggering for some people. And honestly, that’s...really triggering for me.”

He reacted with more laughter, sending me further into the trauma I’ve learned can never be buried. I walked out of the classroom as quickly as the tears weighed down my eyelashes.

My colleague watched over the class while I sat on a toilet in the staff bathroom gathering my memories into the “It’s-going-to-be-okay” box with each aching breath.


Growing up, ‘rape’ was just another word to my peers and me, and we didn’t mean it like that . But it is no longer just another word to me. It reminds me that he came to my apartment with alcohol on his breath, pushed my body into submission, and denied remembering what happened the next day.

This four-letter word alters my brain function. It freezes my body. It makes time travel possible, only I don’t choose my destination. It holds power I never knew words could hold. It heightens my attention to careless casual conversation.

Nobody stops to question the boys when they say to each other, “Look at that ass” or “I’d hit that” as a girl walks by in the hallway. Is it because words are just words? But they are not just words if they diminish a human being into a disposable object.

To my surprise, the student who made me cry showed up in my classroom after school. Before I could say anything, he did. While his eyes diverted from me, a voice of genuine care clearly rose: “I’m sorry for laughing at what you said today.” If you ask me, that’s more than enough from a proud teenager.

I don’t know if he still talks like that to his friends, but I’d like to think he doesn’t. I’d like to think he’s beginning to understand the power of words. Because there is power in all of that, isn’t there?

With a Perspective, I’m Emily La.

Emily La teaches high school English and English Language Development in East Side San Jose.