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My parents served as my first educators. As my mom read to me, she would explain the unfamiliar words. If she was unclear on a definition, we would look up the meaning together in a dictionary. Languages—English and Spanish—became not only tools for communication, but playthings of a sort, and we proudly referred to ourselves as “word nerds.” My dad, likewise, patiently answered my childish questions, never “dumbing-down” his explanations. He pointed out Orion in the night sky and quizzed me on the names of the bright stars in the great hunter’s belt. When I asked, “Why is the sky blue?,” he taught me about Rayleigh scattering. I did not understand the concept as a preschooler, but I learned that asking questions lead to answers, and sometimes those answers lead to more questions.

As I started elementary school, being a “word nerd” was no longer a source of pride. If I used words like “pretentious” with my classmates, not only would I sound pretentious, but they wouldn’t understand me. I wrote a story about how I “careered” around a corner on my bike, and the teacher crossed the word out and wrote “careened.” I wanted “career”—to travel at a high rate speed and out of control—but I was too reserved to ever question a teacher. I...

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