Good Words

Good Words Hidden Language

What was your earliest lesson about the power of words? 

YOUNG SCOTT, at six years old, SKIPS DOWN a SIDEWALK along his grade school playground, DRAGGING A STICK along a CHAIN LINK FENCE. HE sees his GRANDPA waiting for him up ahead and RUNS to him.

SCOTT: My grade school, Hillcrest Elementary, was just a few blocks down from my house, my grandparents’ house — where I was once again living. Grandpa walked down every afternoon to walk me back home. I liked to drag sticks across the chain link fence as I ran up to him. And on this day, he had news. 

YOUNG SCOTT: Is he here yet? Is he here yet?

SCOTT: My little brother, Mike, had been born and had come home.   

YOUNG SCOTT RUNS up ahead along the street.


SCOTT: I was aware my mom was in the hospital having a baby and this was a time — in the mid 1970s — when hospitals would keep you beyond the current standard of one day after having a baby. It seems like my little brother was never going to come home. But, today, during the second week of September 1976, he did.

Grandpa and I walked up Jackson Street through the alleyway behind our neighbors’, including my best friend Raulito’s house. He had a poster of Farah Fawcett in his bedroom—that poster of Farrah Fawcett—hanging on the back of a door that led to a covered garage. HIs Mom would make fresh tortillas and set them out on the table in the carpeted dining room, just under velvet tapestries of the Last Supper and a later Elvis. 

We made our way along the crunch of the gravel and the sand and the rocks and the cracks of Texas Street. West Texas Street. There isn’t an East Texas Street, a mystery that had baffled generations of residents here in our small town of Carlsbad, New Mexico, set in the southeast corner of the state. It was hot that day, there in the desert, about 90 degrees on a mid-afternoon in September. We looked left to see if there were any cars coming along Texas Street, looking down to Texas Street Hardware. They had an old Coke machine where you put your change in, open a squeaky narrow door and pull out a glass bottle, forcing the one above to slank down. Don’t forget about the gumball machine right behind you. 

Traffic was clear and we kept on, up the small hill of Texas Street and into the backyard of our house, across more rocks and dirt, weeds and dust and dead vinegaroons, flattened horny toads. Over there to the right, there’s the water meter along the side of the road, along 9th street, where Texas Street corners up to. I was never allowed to just go up to the edge of the street near the water meter and play, though it was perfectly fine for me to cross 9th street by myself to skip over to Raulito’s. But I would play there anyway, by the side of the road, dropping little rocks into the keyhole of the cover of the rusty water meter.


Now, I don’t remember seeing my brother for the first time, not when Grandpa and I walked in the back door, through the screened-in porch, into the kitchen, and I don’t know where then. To the living room? To my grandparents’ bedroom? There wasn’t much choice. You could walk from one end of the house to the other in about twelve steps. But I don’t know where he was, how I greeted him, what I thought when I first saw him. At some point, though, I thought he was something to play with, so I would lift him up by his arms out of his bassinet. No one was looking, and I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong anyway, but apparently you shouldn’t pull a newborn up by his arms. Mom happened to come into the front bedroom where my brother had been lying and yelled at me to not do that. 

A couple of years later, she yelled at me again — to not do that. To not call my brother that. And, again, I didn’t know what I did wrong. But it was bad, I guess. 


SCOTT: You’re listening to Hidden Language — a podcast about tuning into place, bodies, and time and discovering the unexpected ways their stories can be told. I’m Scott Lunsford.

JAY: And I’m Jay Varner. Today, Scott pays homage to a younger self who’s learning how to navigate a world of words.



Nineteen Seventy Eight. And my grandparents had subscribed to HBO. My initiation to late 1970s sex and gratuitous profanity. I credit my love of language to HBO. My Mom, however, did not look at it as a credit but as debt. 

My grandparents’ living room was the hub of most action in the house. My two-year-old brother was sitting on a blanket in the center of the room, and I was walking toward my bedroom door, and I turned to him and said, 

YOUNG SCOTT: You ___________! 

SCOTT: And I went into my bedroom, thinking nothing of it. Until my mom rushed into the room and said something and I was in trouble and I don’t know what for. I may have been grounded — but if you had the kind of mom I had, you usually talked your way out of being grounded.

So I stayed in my room for a while. This had been my uncles’ room. I had three uncles, but they couldn’t possibly have lived in that room at the same time. Maybe. And there were two girls: my aunt and my mom. Maybe they lived in the adjoining room, where my mom now lived. Where she’d throw herself onto the bed and cry about losing another husband. A few years earlier, in 1975, she had learned that a previous husband had died. He had epilepsy and had a seizure and swallowed his tongue. I imagined how you could do that. So I would try it — to swallow my own tongue. I guess I wasn’t doing it right.

But my mom used that bed — and really, any bed, as a source of comfort — all throughout her life. Anytime anything went bad, or wrong, or not her way, she’d fling herself onto the comfort of a bed.

Her first husband was my dad. And they divorced just after I turned two. But we all lived in the same town, there in Carlsbad, and he’d drive into the rocky yard of my grandparents and pick me up in his El Camino on a Friday afternoon, and we’d drive down Ninth Street past Raulitio’s and the homes of other neighborhood kids. There’s Quintin’s house. We were playing baseball in his front yard, using his front porch as home plate. And I pitched the baseball right through the glass of his screen door. I think I still owe his dad some money for that. And we passed James’ house, and Kim’s. We merge onto Eighth Street and pass the DAV bingo hall and the house that had a driveway arch that read JESUS IS COMING SOON. That was fifty years ago. It still hangs there, rusted. We passed the high school that I would bever attend; mom had married another man who had a job that moved him to West Texas — the state, not the street — by the time I was 14. My dad and his new family were living just behind the high school.

Sometime later, one weekend when I was at Dad’s, I was doing something and needed to look up a word in the dictionary. So, I pulled it from the shelf, next to the World Book Encyclopedias — I don’t know what the word was, but it must have been close to another word, and I had to go to it instead. The word I had recently used against my brother. 

YOUNG SCOTT: You B——-!    

SCOTT: And I read the definition: “a child born to parents who are not married.” Oh, f—-.

When I got home that Sunday afternoon, after church, of course, with my dad, I told mom what I had discovered. “Mom, do you remember that word I called Michael? He really is one, isn’t he?”

I don’t think Mom knew what to say. All I know was that I was later huddled on Mom’s bed, my knees wrapped in my arms. And I heard the bedroom door open and I knew this was it. Whatever I had done, this was it.

It was my uncle Art. He had been a teacher all his life — an English teacher, a theatre teacher, actor, singer, director, dancer, he spoke fluent Spanish. The black sheep of a very conservative family. And he sat next to me on the bed, and he said, “There are some words that are used in bad ways. But many good words can sometimes be used as bad words — like the word table. The word table could one day become a bad word if it’s used in a bad way.”

He had a point, I guess. I mean, I was eight years old — and he tried to explain how language worked so that I could understand it — which was the point, of course: language only takes up meaning in certain contexts. And there are many contexts, and we have to learn how to navigate those contexts. 

And I don’t know why I remember this. I was precocious, I was in love with language at an early age — no thanks to HBO — and I spent time thinking about how language worked. In the fourth grade, I received an F in science on my report card, and another student taught me that an F looks a lot like an A, if you just draw a line down the right side of the F. This is, of course, when we were able to take our hard-copy report cards home to have signed. The next grading period, when I received my report card again, my teacher had circled that A and wrote a note — in red pen: “I can only assume that Scotty changed this grade from a F to an A.” 


Of course, when I showed that to my Mom, she didn’t know what to do. I again cuddled my knees on my Mom’s bed, and my uncle Art was sent in to teach me a lesson: “But your grade went from an F to a C this time, right?” he said. “So, that’s good, right?”

Yeah. That was good.


SCOTT: I earned a masters in writing theory and pedagogy — which, I guess, meant that I had intended to teach writing. And then I got a PhD and basically sealed my fate as a teacher of writing, teaching the great possibilities of how we might use language for good — even if its words are sometimes bad — of sitting next to students and talking about the ways they move through their worlds, move through their words, those students who now increasingly cuddle their own knees in their own arms on their own beds, in their dorms, because it is comforting. Because COVID, because mental health, because suicides, because stressors that I did not realize I must have had when I was nineteen, or fourteen, or eight, or six. When I spent my time walking home, dragging a stick along a chain link fence. 


SCOTT: You’ve been listening to Hidden Language. Music for this episode was provided by Johnny Ripper, Gnawledge, Scott Holmes Music, Lobo Loco, and Cryptic Scenery. Our theme music by Jay Varner. Thanks to Vivien Lunsford for lending her voice to this episode. And if you’re wondering, she did not really say any bad words. I, on the other hand, BLEEP. For a list of episodes, transcripts, and show notes, be sure to visit If you enjoy this podcast, please spread the word using whatever language you see fit. 

And if you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health challenges, struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, reach out. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.



Music was provided by the following artists through, with the respective Creative Commons licenses.

“Calvin and Hobbes,” by Johnny Ripper. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

“El Arte de Escuchar,” by Gnawledge. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

“Sport Rock,” by Scott Holmes Music. CC BY-NC 4.0

“Country Boy,” by Lobo Loco. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

“The Glacial Age,” by Cryptic Scenery. CC BY-SA 4.0

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