"Say “Lectern.”

A Sad Tale from One Who Did Not.


 Was startled this morning during my planning period when the English Usage Enforcement Special Operations Group, five burly, pedantic enforcers of proper, standard English wearing parchment-colored fatigues burst into my classroom.

            “Sit down--Please!” the lean one snarled, showing his teeth on the word “please.” The two meanest, most scholarly-looking thugs, fresh, no doubt, from a recent enhanced interrogation, menaced me with proximity, so I sat down in the closest accommodation, a student desk. The other two academic ruffians, after a brief search, found my dictionaries and began counting them and checking certain pages in them.

            “How did you gentlemen get into the school, sir?” I asked timidly. Couldn’t get the full authoritative deep tones I had mastered with students. The shock of the unexpected encounter with so much linguistic muscle had pushed my voice into the higher register.

            “Where did you learn English, please?” the lean leader sneered with an intonation that was more of an insult than a question.

            “Midwest Interstate TriCommercial Lender’s University, sir,” I answered meekly.

            He laughed deprecatingly, but it was more like a supercilious snort. “Well, that would explain it.”

            The two dictionary documenters desisted deliberating over the total tally of defining tomes and reported to their superior, “The American Heritage High School Dictionary, Team Chief, ten copies. Pages 773 and 1054 positively identified in every copy.” I believe he stifled a salute as his mouth snapped shut.

            “Then there’s no excuse,” Team Chief declared icily. He strolled to the heavy wooden stand with a slanted top from which I daily delivered educational exhortations. “And what, may I ask, is the standard English term for this sturdy piece of furniture?”

            I cleared my throat. “Well, that’s a lectern, sir.”

            “What did you say?”

            “A lectern.”


            “Yes sir! A lectern, sir”

            Team Leader stretched his oral aperture, malevolently mocking a smile. “And yet, just yesterday, you reportedly directed a student to—” he now read from an unfolded piece of paper-- “to put his assignment—and I quote—‘on top of the podium.’ You erroneously identified this lectern as a podium.”

            “I have tried to make them understand that it’s a lectern sir, but they resist, insisting their other teachers call it a ‘podium,’ sir.”

            “Ye-e-s…” Team Leader enunciated each phoneme in the affirmative slowly, as if each one clung to his tongue, as if each one was a dignified dictum, disinclined to deploy in the indecorous commonality of colloquial confabulation. “Many teachers misspeak, mistakenly labeling lecterns as podia, and you, a so-called educator of the English idiom, ostensibly a paragon of proper parlance, failed to correct them.”

            I whined before thinking, “It’s not my job to correct other teachers. Just students.”

            My utterance clearly came close to concussing all five commandos of communication beyond their ability to conceal. Only because they were in top physical and verbal shape did they not faint at my feet. But I think each stunted a stagger, stunned by my abject abandonment of an acceptable minimum of academic altruism.

            It must have been ten billion nanoseconds before Team Leader could consolidate his composure, and comment, “I have no words to express my… disgust.” He was aghast beyond anger. I even espied an ephemeral emission of lachrymosity exiting his eyeballs, an expression, evidently, of exasperated erudition. For the sake of brevity, I decline to add that this involuntary physical demonstration of his ocular organs may have been an admission of educational, emotional exhaustion. Who knows?

            Team Leader drew himself up to his full, unabridged stature and produced this pronouncement: “You will never have the right, as other teachers do, to demand the respect of students.”

            I frowned. I thought. I scanned the holdings in my cranial lexicon and located a liability in Team Leader’s asseveration. I conceived a counterattack.

            “You err, sir!” I intoned, getting back a bit of my authoritative vocal weight. “No one can demand respect. Respect is largely an involuntary response to the perception of quality or competence in another. For example, one may hate his enemy, yet respect him. A person cannot demand the respect of another person. Respect can only be earned.”

            Team Leader looked dazed as he followed my line of reasoning. He stumbled back a step. I had him on the ropes, metaphorically, of course. I drew back my figurative fist to deliver the knockout knowledge. “You can demand courtesy, Team Leader, not respect. That’s what you should have said. Courtesy is what we owe to one another, not respect.” I was now booming righteously. “And you have shown me none,” I fumed, advancing aggressively toward the withdrawing word-warriors.

            Team Leader retreated, and fell backwards over a desk. His accompanying quartet hastened clumsily to help him to his feet, but I exploited my sudden advantage and managed to aggravate their collective disequilibrium, and steer the struggling bunch to the door, effecting an exit of the entire entourage. In this semi-public record, I hereby state that I would never hurl a valuable book at anyone, much less a paralingual agent of the state of contemporary grammar, but I must admit that a big one with nice hard corners did sail out from somewhere, and delivered a well-deserved collision with Team Leader’s brain covering, hopefully re-tuning his brain’s language generation area in the frontal lobes.

            So, please be advised. A lectern is “a stand that serves as a support for the notes or books of a speaker” and a podium is “an elevated platform, as for a public speaker.”

And even if a person never deserves respect, he can still demand courtesy.


P.S. I quickly received a reply from one of my esteemed colleagues regarding the quality of writing toward which I have striven in this account. “There’s a lot more to good writing than repetitious alliteration,” he or she sniffed.

            I agree.


P.P.S. I seem to have misplaced my hardbound copy of Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre. If anyone finds it around the campus, please wedge it into my mailbox.


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