One word that seems ready to change my life

for those of you who are not in education, public schools generally start each year with some kind of a theme which is intended to carry the staff through the year. sometimes the themes are more successful and will be continued for another year or two. more often the theme spirals into apathy and fades away long before the year is up. this year the theme is derived from a book called “one word that will change your life” by jon gordon. all the staff in the district were given a copy and asked to read it, follow its advice, and find their word for the year. i got my copy this morning and read it while my wife was driving us back home from my school.

the book is a religiously based motivational book. to find your word requires quiet contemplation and sincere prayer. you have to ask god for your word and the word will be a god word. examples are challenge, believe, love, intimacy, faith, and acceptance.

i am a longstanding agnostic. despite the high level of religious behavior amongst the professionals in my district i do not complain because i believe in allowing others a great deal of latitude in their personal beliefs. this provides a perplexing situation for me because with this i am being required to participate in a quasireligious process as part of my job. i know that if i raise the issue of being forced into a religious exercise against my will that my district will find reasons to terminate me which will appear unrelated to the “one word” exercise. it will also result in my becoming anathema to most of the people i work with including many i have worked with for 10-15 years or more and it will be spread into the community (appx. 48% baptist/48% catholic/2% other christian/1% muslim/1% other) that i am an atheist who is trying to disrupt the religious life of the community.

i’m really just venting unless someone here had a really bright idea besides being a huge hypocrite and pretending to follow through on things.


My friends and I often pick a word as a theme, usually on New Year’s Day. This is the first time I’ve heard it related to god-stuff.

To be honest, I thought this was a pagan thing, because all of us who do it are pagan.

From where I’m sitting, the exercise of picking a one-word personal theme is not religous, but the method you’ve been given to obtain it certainly is.

And that is crap.

So forget the prayers – they’ve never been part of the pagan version, never mind an agnostic one. I’ve always picked my word by having a good hard think about it. There’s usually a few obvious picks to choose from.

I’m sorry this got presented in a religious context. It’s neither necessary nor appropriate.

PS I worked in education for six years and never dealt with “themes”. Slogans, government decrees about pedagogy, sure, but no themes.


That really, really sucks.

If you can’t fight it, you could be passive-aggressive and make your god word “rationality.”


cradle atheist here. I feel ya, but have only had to deal with religious conformity issues in my personal life; I’m not in the professional class. I suppose I’m stating the obvious by advising to just pick a good word by your own criteria. I mean, your word doesn’t have to be accompanied by time-sheets logging prayer at your house of worship initialed by the priest, right? If the theme’s process really does involve discussing the background on deriving your word, perhaps a sympathetic (unitarian?) priest could actually help you if you just came clean to them, “hey, my job and community status is being threatened by theists, could you vouch?” Catholic priests might help as they are barred from divulging anything from a confessional–I dunno, just spit-balling that one.

ETA maybe catholic is the way to go–didn’t I read about how the current pope said that atheists can go to heaven as long as they lead upstanding-type lives now? seems like an in to me.


You have a couple of options, as I see it:

  1. Make a big show and disruption- call them out explicitly and file suit when/if they move to terminate you.
  2. Play along quietly. Fake it. Go through the motions.
  3. Pick a word like “rationality” or “reason” and stick by it. Do everything they ask with it. Buy in huge- but about your word.
  4. Pick a word that pokes them in the eye (I’m thinking Vonnegut’s “foma” or “grandfalloon” or some such) and STICK WITH THAT. Do everything they ask of you, all the way, and never, ever admit what you’re doing. This requires TOTAL CONVICTION.

I’m sorry you’re in this position. It’s shitty and indicative of a (in my opinion) lazy school administration. You’ll have to weigh the benefits consequences to you and your career, but I’d be shopping around other districts if it were me.
Good luck.


You could conform in some harmless way (“My word is HOPE.”)

Maybe you don’t want to do that.

Or you could troll them (“I fasted and prayed. An angel spoke to me. My word is JIHAD.”)

That might get you fired.

Or you could pick something so boring that they won’t want to hear any more or even think about it any further. (“My word is FOO. FOO is a METASYNTACTIC VARIABLE. The word FOO was used to label scram switches at the Tech Model Railroad Club at MIT in the 1950s.”)


That’s awful. I just learned today that my manager is a bible thumper, and he doesn’t know I am a Unitarian. He is pretty intense at times, but as a Unitarian I have been sorta trained on the ways to get the heck out of this sort of thing. One of my scout troops was decidedly Christian, my mentor in americorps was mormon and the type who liked to talk about it (and was also an amazing mentor, )

In my experience, what @gadgetgirl said above is fantastic. Make the exercise your own in a way that doesn’t offend - which is great practice really. Not for bowing to a power structure, but to out maneuver awful people so you can still get ahead - and that’s a necessary life skill. We can’t avoid awful people entirely, right?

Also, you might practice changing the subject by tangent when this stuff comes up. Take the least offensive concept shared with you and riff on that as best you can. Someone wants to ask you what you prayed about, tell them about the dust bunnies you found under your bed or how your knees ache sometimes before it rains. See what I mean? You don’t want to be rude, but you also don’t want to empower rudeness by taking it at face value.


(and I think y’all are in my karass)


You seem to be comfortable in your job and community, so I see no reason to to jeopardize that, and anyway, why offend people? Most of the sample words you give can be used in a secular sense (“acceptance” of the culture around you would fit nicely), and quiet contemplation is a good idea for anyone IMO. How about “mindfulness”?

Opening the dictionary at random gave me “resonance” and “insanity”. That’s better than my five seconds of meditation that only came up with “corduroy”.


This reminds me – a great way to get people thinking is to say you were fine with the idea but didn’t find the book useful. Instead you went on-line and read about how other people have chosen words (or whatever you posit as the truth). That opens people up to the limitations of the book rather than sounding like an attack on their religion.

Sigh. I am reminded of my favourite General Patton quote: “If everyone is thinking the same thing, then sometime isn’t thinking.”


What to do? Do whatever you want. At the beginning and end of every year, my doctoral program goes around to each person and solicits a word. Half the people say some obvious motivational thing, a quarter say something deeply personal, an eighth say more than a word (ugh, no one cares about your trip to Big Sur, Karen!), and then the remaining eighth say something silly, like “chimichanga.” It’s not about how you get there - it’s about being authentic and vulnerable. Even the silly people show themselves completely in that moment. Be you. Anything less will ring false and then people will side eye you.


the previous 3 years our theme had been “believe.” it was actually a record since most themes fizzle before the end of the school year it appears in. 8 years ago the theme was “the 212th degree.” this may be a texas thing.


this is the start of my 20th year in the district and it’s been a pretty good run. i am 6 years, at most, from retiring. i like the ideas expressed above about taking a word and making it mine. i’ll have to give it some thought but i will let you all know what i end up with.

thanks to all, this has been more helpful than i had hoped.


A lot of people want help solving their problems, but rather than describing the problem and asking for help, they find some solution to some vaguely similar problem and ask the people to implement that thing. It’s the duty of the professional to find the actual problem that they want solved and figure out how well the proposed solution would solve it (and what side-effects it would have) or whether there’s a better solution. Ultimately, they need their problem solved, the implementation of X is irrelevant (but they may not realize that).

One could envision a conversation like: “The themes that we dictate often don’t resonate. Let’s have people pick their own themes, something with personal meaning so they’ll stick.” “But what about people that won’t or don’t know how to pick a theme?” “Well, here’s a way to do that.” “Okay, we’ll tell them to do that.”

That may not be what happened, but it puts the focus back on solving a problem and sets the religious exercise as a means to that end. If you can achieve the end using your own means, that should be good.

Of course, just for the sake of fun, if you actually did want to be rebellious you could pick a strategic word:

  • ‘goodthink’ or ‘prolefeed’ from 1984 have legitimate educational meaning. (although some might pick up on a subtle double meaning)
  • find a word with many unrelated meanings (homonym/homophone) and state that the interpretation up to the observer, and your own perspective will be revealed at the end of the year
  • A totally neutral word like sidewalk, something zen and philosophical
  • Or an actual god word, Cthulhu or Discordia (that would likely cause some tension :wink: )

This probably isn’t helpful, but it reminded me of this:

I will never not take an opportunity to reference this movie.

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EDIT: Sorry, I started typing this a couple hours ago, then got sidetracked by dinner and putting my kids to bed. I hope what I say doesn’t complicate things, but anyway, here it is in two parts:

Well, you know what your options are. Leave, stay and try to assimilate, or stay and make a stand. Only you can judge which option you can stomach.

Your post didn’t make clear: how much follow-through are you required to give? Will you actually have to report what your magic word is, at some point? Or is this an entirely in-your-head exercise? If this will actually be some overt ongoing thing where you’re expected to post the Word in your classroom or something (or any other stupid public reveal of your Word, which would lead inevitably to six math teachers embarrassed to discover they’d all been shewn DISCIPLINE as the Word Of The Year), then you can reasonably assume this exercise is a thinly-veiled attempt to flush the godless nonconformists in their midst, and can react accordingly.

If you can stomach it, there are any number of admirable Words you could employ that won’t sell your soul to the theists. I personally love @Haystack’s suggestion of Rationality, but y’know, the ecclesiastically-minded don’t have any monopoly on Mercy, Forbearance, Tolerance, Love, or Forgiveness, either. It can be 100% accurate to say that your Word came to you through private introspection and serious thought, and if someone really tries to poke and prod and get you to talk about how you might pray, a cold glance and a stiffly polite rebuke that such matters are wholly private in your family are all the response such nosiness deserves.

My wife’s grandfather was famously asked in Congress if he was, or ever had been, a Communist. The reason he refused to answer, and for which he served eleven months in a federal prison for contempt of Congress, was a fairly simple principle he described thus:

I deny the right of Congress, or of any agent of government, or of any other group or persons to call American citizens to account for their political affiliations or sympathies. I affirm the basic constitutional principles that men may be questioned and prosecuted for their acts, never for their thoughts.

Hang on. This is turning into a manifesto. Let me go to my laptop; it’ll take forever on my phone.


Okay, now I can’t imagine it’ll be helpful to go around quoting card-carrying Communist Dalton Trumbo in the redder parts of Texas, but it belatedly occurs to me that Trumbo’s political pamphlet The Time of the Toad has become more relevant today than perhaps any time since it was published. I will quote Trumbo biographer Larry Ceplair here:

Trumbo opened the pamphlet with a definition of what he called “toad-time.” That designation was based on Émile Zola’s article “Le Crapaud” (The Toad), in which he advised a young writer to swallow a live toad every day. Only by doing so, Zola sarcastically wrote, could the writer strengthen his stomach sufficiently to digest all the abusive remarks his work would receive in the press. Trumbo defined “toad-time” as “an epoch long or short as the temper of the people may permit, fatal or merely debilitating as the vitality of the people may determine, in which the nation turns upon itself in a kind of compulsive madness to deny all in its traditions that is clean, to exalt all that is vile, and to destroy any heretical minority which asserts toad-meat not to be the delicacy which governmental edicts declare it. Triple heralds of the Time of the Toad are the loyalty oath, the compulsory revelation of faith, and the secret police.”

In my Pollyannaish mind, it’s certainly possible that this whole exercise is just meant to motivate the troops to get them through another year, no more sinister than a “Hang In There, Baby!” kitten poster. If that’s the case, nobody’s really gonna care what Word you choose as long as it seems blandly virtuous. If, however, you’re facing some low-grade combination of those first two toad-heralds, the loyalty oath and the affirmation of faith, then how you react will be more critical. One of the best things you have going for you is that you’re an actual Known Quantity. You’ve been there 20 years, and your professional reputation, friendships, and service record will certainly speak for themselves. Will they actually turn against you if they somehow discover some facet of your self, a facet that most of them should admit ain’t none of their dadburned business, varies somewhat from their own? Maybe. I think it’s probably a mistake to think they’re all monolithic in their depth of belief and intolerance of heretics, but really it only takes one or two intolerant troublemakers to wreck a career, and I know that in education in particular, it’s tough to recover from character assassination.

But I remember you mentioning how deep your roots go in that part of the world, so I don’t imagine moving outta state is a viable option. I’ve been lucky to grow up in an environment that is endlessly tolerant of my white male ass, no matter how often I blew off church. I do not know what it feels like to be surrounded by people who think I’m a hellbound sinner who possibly shouldn’t be teaching the local kids. It sounds like a horrible work environment.

But it’s not the Devil I know, it’s the Devil you know, and only you can know if you can take it. If you can, I’d recommend going with the flow and picking a word, maintaining privacy about any Divine Inspiration, and getting through the year like you always have. You know who your friends and allies are.

I wish I could be there to stand with you, though. Like my in-laws’ family, I strongly believe that what you’ve done in your life counts far more than how you think, and it’s nobody’s goddamned business what goes on in your heart of hearts. Maybe if I were young and single, I’d recommend Integrity as the Word, and settle in for a good old righteous fight. As it is, well… just do what’s right for you, your family, and your students.


Is this some sort of hardcore Masonic thing?:yum:


At first, I was dismissive of the exercise but then I decided to give it a go. Just dismiss my skepticism and try to really connect with God after a lifetime of not paying attention to Him. What harm could it do, right?

I didn’t expect God to answer at all but, to my great surprise, He offered me a whole load of words to ponder (the bush I was standing next to also caught fire but I’m going to attribute that to careless disposal of cigarettes in the smoking area). Here’s a few of the choicer highlights:


Turns out this Yahweh dude is pretty prolific. Thanks, G!


the concept there was that at 211 fahrenheit water is hot but not boiling, it takes the 212th degree to make it boil, be the 212th degree that makes the difference. that one didn’t even last the whole year before it was relegated to the junkheap of history and then forgotten.


you’ve given me much to think about and i’ve decided to take a word that actually means something to me and work with that. as far as i know we won’t have to discuss how we came to our word but the word will need to be a prominent part of our professional life this year.

initially i considered using the word “believe” which has been our district theme the past three years. it’s broad enough to cover many relevant concepts–i believe in myself, i believe in the mission of education, i believe in my students, i believe in my colleagues . . . you get the idea. i also have the word in place in prominent spots in my room as per the instructions of our central administration. i imagine that there will likely be several people across the district who use that but i have decided that would be a bit too lazy for my tastes.

i have narrowed it down to the following words–










i considered turning the above list into a poll but i’m going to have to live with the word all year so i think i want my choice to be my choice but i’d be happy to read any thoughts anyone had about the words i’m considering.