I believe in the power of the spoken word. Between 8:30 and 10:00 every Saturday morning, Joe and I undo what the spoken word has done to him for the last fifty-five years. For fifty-five years Joe has been told that he cannot read, that he cannot learn, that he cannot hope, that he cannot, he cannot, he cannot.
But he can, and he reads. And I am no one special. I am a harried IT professional with three hours training from my city’s adult literacy organization. What I do is believe. And say it out loud so that good finally falls on those aged, weary, beautiful black ears. “The problem is not in you, Joe,” “You have not failed.” “You are whole, Joe,” “You are not broken.” And I make him say out loud, three times, every time he calls himself stupid, which is often, “I am smart. I am smart. I am smart.”
I believe that anyone, any living human being, has the capacity to learn. And in our hearts we are wired for wonder and an ache to know more. That gets buried, more quickly in some than others, by the fury of a world that moves too fast. “You’re not keeping up,” speaks the world. “Something is wrong with you.” So said the world to Joe fifty five years ago, and every day since until he climbed the steps to the Nashville Adult Literacy Center. Until one voice told him differently.
I was lucky enough to learn to read the regular way – I saw letters on a page, someone told me the sound that went with them, and I was off. Because it came quickly, I was called “smart” and “good”, and I believed the words. Joe wasn’t so lucky. When the time came for him to match up letters and sound, they just didn’t go. It didn’t work the same way. And he was called “bad” and “dumb” and “different”. And he believed the words.
Thankfully, there are new tools now, and a simple recognition, called dyslexia, that not everyone matches up letters and sound the same way. There are programs, teaching methods and people who dedicate their lives to organizations like Nashville’s Adult Literacy Center. These organizations rebuild lives. Re-teaching grown men and women that they are not broken but beautiful, and that it is the rest of us, in our hurry and sameness who have failed them.
Things are changing. Late for Joe, but not too late. What did not change, what has remained beautifully and magnificently the same is his capacity to learn, his wonder, his ache to know more.
I believe in the power of the spoken word to confirm or deny the wonder innate in any child or grown man of sixty. Let our words confirm the wonder. For ninety minutes every Saturday, my spoken words win. And, more importantly, one Saturday at a time, Joe’s own words win. “I am smart. I am smart. I am smart.”
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