This assembly considers the significance of the letter X, which voters use to mark their ballot papers in the general election. Thinking about the many meanings of X can help us to understand ourselves and others

Resources

A Leader and two Readers: a question-and-answer format may be used if appropriate.

Engagement

(Adapt as necessary)

This is / Last week was the week of the general election. Thousands of people are going / went along to polling stations to pick up pencils and make a mark on a ballot paper. Most of them will place / placed an ‘X’ against the name of the person they wanted to be their MP. The power of the people is here shown by a simple mark – two lines across each other… the letter X. It’s easy to write – perhaps that’s why we use it for voting – but X has many other meanings too. Let’s think about some of them now.

Reflection

Leader: To start with, X is an odd letter. When we use it in the middle or at the end of words, it makes a sound that can also be spelt ‘cks’. So ‘box is spelt ‘b-o-x’ while ‘rocks’ is spelt ‘r-o-c-k-s’. But when the letter X begins a word – and you won’t find many of them in the dictionary – it sounds like a zed. Let’s hear a couple of examples.

Reader 1: ‘Xylophone: a musical instrument played by striking wooden bars.’

Reader 2: ‘Xenophobia: dislike or fear of people from other countries.’ (1)

Leader: We use the ‘zed’ sound because words that begin with X have been borrowed from the Greek language. The Greeks invented the letter X and passed it on to the Romans, who passed it on to us .The Romans used letters for numbers, and for them X meant ‘ten.’

We learnt a lot from the Romans but their letters-for-numbers system was clumsy, and so we began to use Arabic numbers instead. But this gave a new way to use the letter X. Instead of meaning ‘ten’ it came to stand for ‘something unknown’. In algebra, it’s the first unknown in an equation. And so, if 2 times x equals 6, then what is ‘x’?

Reader 1: That’s easy: three.

Leader: Back in 1895 scientists made an amazing discovery: they found a way to take a picture of parts of your body which allowed them to see below the skin and look at the bones inside. They weren’t sure how the strange powers which made the new discovery work, so they called them…

Reader 2: ‘X-rays’. (1)

Leader: And while X can mean ‘something unknown’ in maths and science, it can also stand for the mysterious ‘extra talent’ that may just make you into a famous singing star. It’s given its name to a popular TV programme, called – has anybody heard of it?

Readers 1 and 2: ‘The X Factor’

Leader: X may be applied to unknown people as well. ‘Mr. X’, ‘Ms. X,’ or ‘Mrs. X’ could be suspects in a murder investigation. Back in the last century, in the United States, there lived a man called ‘Malcolm Little’. He fought for the rights of African Americans and he didn’t like his surname. In the days of slavery, his ancestors had been given new names – like ‘Little’ – partly to make them forget their African past. Malcolm wondered what the names of those ancestors had been – and from what part of Africa they had come. But sadly, he couldn’t find out, and so he changed his surname and became famous as:

Reader 1: Malcom X (2)

Leader: X can also stand for something forbidden. Films for ‘adults only’ used to be classified as ‘Certificate X’ and something we really ought not to see is still often described as:

Reader 2: ‘X-rated’ (1)

Leader: And if your test paper comes back with lots of X’s on it the message is:

Readers 1 and 2: You got those answers wrong!

Leader: So ‘X’ can mean something wrong, forbidden or mysterious. But it can also be used to give us precise clues. It can pin-point a place which we want to pick out. In Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous pirate, Captain Flint, has buried his stolen gold and jewels on an island, and he has left a map which tells us where to find it So all we have to do is get hold of the secret map, sail to the island, and follow the directions, because:

Reader 1: ‘X marks the spot.’

Reader 2: In fact those exact words ‘X marks the spot’ don’t come in the book. But this hasn’t stopped ‘X marks the spot’ becoming a catch phrase.

Leader: And here’s another meaning for ‘X’. People who have never learnt to write, or perhaps can’t write because of injury, may sign their names by drawing an X. And then a witness – who can read – has to sign and add the comment:

Reader 1: ‘So and so – his – or her mark.’

Reader 2: And so for those who can’t write, X can mean ‘ME – and don’t forget it.’

Leader: There’s another possible meaning of X… the flag of Scotland – and some other countries too – have a big X.

Reader 1: It’s the cross of St Andrew, one of the first disciples of Jesus. People came to believe that he had been put to death on an X shaped cross. (3)

Leader: So X can also represent the courage of someone who was prepared to die for his beliefs.

Reflection

Let’s think now what we can learn from the various meanings of X.

Reader 1: X can mean strangers. Would they like to be friends or would they try to harm us? And fear of people who ‘look different’ can lead to that odd word beginning with X – fear of strangers… ’xenophobia’.

Reader 2: But ‘X’ is also the mark made by people who can’t write. Perhaps they are disabled, or never had the chance to go to school. For them, X can mean ‘me’. I can’t sign my name, I’m still human.

Reader 1: This week / Last week millions of people have been using people power to put that ‘X’ on their ballot paper. In a few years time we will have the right to do that too.

Reader 2: And the ‘X’ on the Scottish flag reminds us that some people – like St Andrew – have been ready to die rather than give up their beliefs.

Leader: There’s one more ‘X’ that we haven’t mentioned. Some people put a row of ‘Xs’ at the end of their letter with the letters S.W.A.L.K.

Reader 1: ‘ Sealed with a loving kiss.’

Leader: And so lastly – it turns out than an X can be a sign of love. Please listen now to – let’s call it – ‘the X prayer’:

Reader 2: Help us to overcome our fear of strangers and offer wise friendship to new people.

Reader 1: Help us to value our education and never to look down on those who have never learned to write.

Reader 2: Help us to value the right to vote, and use it for the good of our country and the wider world.

Reader 1: And may everything we do be wrapped up in kindness and love.

References

This e-bulletin issue was first published in April 2010

About the author: John Coutts has worked as secondary school principal in Nigeria, taught RE in Scotland, and has been involved in teaching and teacher training at the University of Greenwich. He currently works as a freelance writer, poet and performer www.johncoutts.eu

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