Rolling Meadows High School in suburban Chicago was devastated with the sudden passing of beloved security guard Don Griggs. Don was an amazing human and a vital part of the school. Rolling Meadows High School is resilient though, and they honored Don’s memory in several ways, including the Donald Griggs Memorial Scholarship provided by the school’s newly-formed chapter of the National English Honor Society under the sponsorship of dauntless educator Caleb Parnin. Students applying for the scholarship wrote essays on the importance of language. The winning essay was written by senior Natalie Anderson. (Although Natalie and I share a last name and a neighborhood, we are not related.) Natalie’s reflection on the timeless connection between our language, our actions, and their impact on others is inspiring, and I’m proud to share it here.
I imagine that in 431 BC, Pericles looked across the graveyard of Athens with weary eyes, surveying the coffins of his city’s dead soldiers. After a moment, his gaze would have turned to the living, and the exhaustion within him would deepen as if he were absorbing the weariness of their sunken faces. And still, even after Athens’ unsuccessful year of fighting in the Peloponnesian War, Pericles stood up and spoke to his city regarding their dead companions: “You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field [as they did].” Through his speech, Pericles conveyed one undeniable message to his people: they must continue to fight for their city.
Language is the cornerstone of shifting perspectives, of evolving attitudes, of social change. But every leader faces one problem while using language: it is an inherently complex tool. Every word has many definitions and connotations. Every metaphor adds layers of meaning. Every phrase adds another variable to an increasingly muddled equation.
Language must be transformed from chaos into order to create change. But in the hands of the right person, language can be a very simple thing.
In the hands of Pericles, language was molded from a jumbled mess into one undeniable message. War became a simple matter: the people of Athens had no choice but to fight. Victory and defeat, joy and pain, companionship and loneliness—Pericles’ words simplified these complexities of war and created an unprecedented social change. After shouldering the intense hopelessness of a single year of fighting, the soldiers renewed their efforts to protect their city.
In the hands of the right person, language can be a simple thing. Every day that Don Griggs came to work at Rolling Meadows High School, he used language to shout one unquestionable message, far and wide, to both students and staff. Whether he talked to us every day for four years or he’d never seen us before, Don shouted this to us: we are worthy. To him, every person had value.
And to him, it was important that every person understood that they had value. Pericles died two years after he addressed the Athenian citizens. The war efforts continued on for 26 years after his death. If a message truly reaches its audience, then something as insignificant as death can do nothing to hinder its success. The sense of worth Don has shared with every person he’s interacted with will stay with us far longer than just 26 years.
I feel honored to have the opportunity to apply for a scholarship in his name, answering a question that is so relevant to his life. The language he used every day transformed our messy identities into a simple but unquestionable confirmation of our worth. He created change in all of us, and therefore in our whole community. I hope that each and every one of us can honor Don’s memory by listening to his message, by understanding, as he did, that every person has value.
Please join me in sharing Natalie Anderson’s wise words with others, and as a model essay or mentor text.