Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Impact of an Answer

     Phonemic awareness—the sensitivity to and awareness of the phonological structure of words.  Put another way, the metacognitive ability that involves the capability to notice, think about, and manipulate individual sounds in words.  It allows a child to identify letters, recognize individual sounds, and blend those sounds into words. 

     The first time my mother was familiarized with this term was when the resource teacher for learning-disabled children sat with her and expressed concern about my ability to read and write.  During my first- through third-grade years of elementary school, I was carrying all A’s; however, there was a slight problem.  My achievement test scores in reading and writing were extremely low.  I was unable to auditorily identify and distinguish sounds.  In my own words, “I couldn’t clearly hear and understand the different sounds in words.”  
     From the beginning of upper elementary until well into my middle school years, I was tutored for a learning disability.  Every other day for an hour I sat in a small room close to the library with a remedial reading aide, speaking aloud into a tape recorder while reading flashcards.  I remember it vividly; the different cards in the deck would contain single letters, entire words, and short phrases that I was asked to sound out syllable by syllable.  This type of exercise went on during the entire school year, including a number of sessions over summer break as well.
     “So, why is it important to learn how to read?”  That was the initial question asked of me as I took a seat at the desk designated for me during my first tutoring session.    
     Honestly, I didn’t pay much attention to the question at first.  I was more consumed by the variety of posters stuck to the walls with Plasti-tak.  It was like an art gallery.  Pictures of all sizes—some full of bright colors while others were more pastel—all projecting a sentence or two of encouraging words.  Even though I couldn’t pronounce many of the displayed words, I could sense the optimism in the images.   
     Each time that I would arrive at the well-worn maple desk my tutor would begin doing what she did best—teaching me all there was to know about the sounds and pronunciation of words.  I don’t recall if I gave an answer on day one to her question, but if I did, it must not have been correct.  Each session without fail, she would ask once again, “So, why is it important to learn how to read?”  While carefully positioning the microphone connected to a bulky black tape recorder, she would patiently sit and wait for my response.  
     I must say, in the beginning I came up with a laundry list of entertaining answers.  And from that list I moved on to more simple answers that made very little sense, but sounded good, at least at the time I thought they did.  With each answer given my tutor would simply sit in silence, unimpressed by my lack of effort. 
     Why is it important to learn how to read?  Good question, I mused, even though I thought I had the answer.  I knew I was not the best reader, or, for that matter, a decent writer.  I needed help; however, and it was becoming obvious to me how determined I was to hide my impediment.  Deep down beneath the surface I had developed quite a defense mechanism that stemmed from those select few classmates who were notorious for poking fun at me and making me feel inferior.  The giggling, finger pointing, and ridicule that sometimes comes along with having to be tutored was taking its toll.  That’s the type of treatment that stifles confidence and truly tempts anyone to fold. 

     Nevertheless, it was halfway through the third month of sessions when something strange happened.  Arriving at the tutoring room as usual, I noticed that all of the posters full of colorful illustrations, inspiring quotes, and life’s lessons were nowhere to be found.  “How bizarre,” I thought, as I looked at the four bare walls.  All I remember seeing were the square outlines of white cement blocks.  Then, something caught my eye.  Plastered midway up one wall, right next to a small chalkboard, was a large piece of poster board.  Neatly printed in big letters, the question, “So, why is it important to learn how to read?” was written at the top.  What followed underneath was a listing of every sarcastic answer I had given from day one.  “Totally odd,” I thought.
     “For weeks now Paul,” my tutor said, “I’ve been asking you, ‘So, why is it important to learn how to read?’ and these are the answers you have given.  Take a good look.  Are you proud of what you see?  Frankly, it doesn’t seem that too much thought went into your answers.”
     I will never forget the panic I felt when hearing the seriousness in her tone.  Had I done something wrong?  I thought I had given good answers.  The whole point of us coming together was to work on my reading and writing skills.  What did knowing the right answer to this one specific question have to do with that?  Looking back on it now, clearly it had everything to do with it; and for learning that lesson, I’m truly grateful.    

     My name is Paul Vitale and I make a living as a professional speaker and author, something that never would have happened without the patience and persistence of dedicated individuals.  “So, why is it important to learn how to read?” was only one of the questions asked during my days of being tutored.  This brief snippet serves as an excellent example of a teachable moment that has influenced me both personally and professionally throughout my lifetime.  My tutor (or actually tutors—I had three throughout the years) indeed taught me the answer to this critical question:

It is important to learn how to read for your own survival as a human being.  The better reader you are, the better writer you’ll become.  A better writer will then become a better speaker.  As one learns to read, write, and speak well, a complete education becomes attainable and holds a significant value in one’s life.  

     For me, learning how to sound out words and put sentences together was one thing, but to understand the power behind the meaning of the words and sentences being spoken was life changing.  When I finally started taking the question asked of me seriously, I grasped the significance of the written and spoken word.  That’s good, especially when you make your living delivering presentations and authoring books!   
     For all individuals who make up the school personnel in every district across our land, thank you for teaching, tutoring, coaching, and counseling those who have passed before you and those yet to come.  Your unwavering encouragement gives hope to those who really do want to believe that “Anything is possible with a good education.” 
     To my mother Carole, Dorothy Payne, Rebecca Havens, and Judith Carruth:  I will always be grateful for the commitment you shared in helping me improve as a student.  Not only did I receive an education in reading and writing, but you also taught me this important lesson grounded in humility:  

“Even though others might laugh at you and try to steal the thunder from your soul, strike with lightning—not in destructive actions, but in cultured words.  Always have the confidence to believe in yourself and speak from your heart.  Even if your voice shakes, you’ll still be speaking from your heart.”