Fall in love with “On Being” podcasts. They crank open my brain each week just a little more, helping me see the world and our people with a deeper understanding. I bet you’ll love them.
This weeks podcast was an interview with Jean Berko Gleason titled “Unfolding Language”. I began half listening however in minutes she had me. How we communicate is of great interest to me and I remain certain it’s how we create peace between ourselves and our world.
A writing partner of mine teaches literacy and as I told her about my fascination with “unfolding language” she told me her story of the Nun, Sister Ann, who taught her how to teach people to read:
“I married at seventeen and immediately began my grown up life as a wife, dinner at the in-laws on Sunday, responsible bill paying, lights out at ten. Part of the deal of getting married so young was that my husband was going to pay for college – a story for another day for sure. In any case, my choice of colleges was limited to a small geographic area. I needed it to be local, easy and affordable. Down the street from our apartment was a tiny seriously Dutch Reformed College, in a beautiful wooded setting. I, unbeknownst to the admission department, was not Dutch Reformed but I had married a Dutch name, my grades were good and I had money in hand. I was in. I trained to be a teacher, a good profession my mother said, one I could manage if I had a family. I did not fit in at all. I was a secret hippie liberal, dropped into a religious conservative school. I am still amazed by how tolerant of me and my opinions they were. Not that they didn’t try to convert me, but how kind they were when they failed. While I didn’t fit it, I always felt welcomed, respected and important. Because of the school’s size, they were early adopters of outsourcing and so to meet the state certification requirements I needed to have a special reading class, which my college did not provide. So I left my very religious, very small, Dutch Reformed college for very short time to go farther afield and take the required reading course at another bastion of religious higher education.
I didn’t like it there nearly as much. I understood it better. Knew the rules and the regulations without asking. I’d spent much of my youth in Catholic schools. I knew that they would not care about or tolerate my opinions, not one whit. The halls smelled like every classroom I’d ever been in, even the color of the walls, the shiny beige on the coated block was familiar. But requirements being required, I gritted my teeth and sat quietly, the first day of class, wishing to be anywhere but here.
I heard her before I saw her. The click clack of her rosary beads at her waist, announcing g her, the swish – swish of her habit making me sit up straighter.
“Good morning Ladies,” she announced as she planted herself squarely in the front of the room. Straight as a ramrod, all five feet of her, the wimple covering her forehead bright white, her collar starched stiff. Rimless glasses, perched on a little button nose. Completely in command of the room.
“Ladies,” she said again, casting her eyes over us, “I am Sister Ann. I am here to teach you about reading. Let’s begin.”
We were well schooled in Catholic school protocol. As a group we opened our text books, readied our pens to take notes and looked up at her expectantly. Not an original thought in our heads.
“No one,” she said. “No one, truly understands exactly how we learn to read.”
We waited, pens poised over notebooks.
“Reading,” she continued, “is a miracle. A miracle.”
I wrote down miracle on the top of the blank page of my notebook.
“When you receive your teaching certificate, ladies, you will go into school systems. Systems that have carefully perused different reading curriculums and have spent tens of thousands of dollars determining what is best for the children under your care. You will be given clear instructions on how to teach, what to teach and how long to take to do it.”
I wrote under miracles: curriculum, how to teach, school system.
“But there is something important that you must understand.”
Bullet point on the paper waiting for what might be on the test.
“Reading is a miracle and no one, regardless of what they try to tell you, understands how children learn to read. It is a miracle and one we should take joy in.”
I put my pen down and listened harder, joy not being a word that I heard often from a nun.
“Consequently,” she said, still standing still in the front of the room. “Regardless of what the school systems says will work, it does not always work with each child in your care. Miracles sometimes take some help. Most of the children will learn, but there will be a few, the few they call failures, who do not learn from the system they will have you using. So.”
For the first time she raised her voice. “If something doesn’t work for heaven’s sake, try something else! While you are here to learn reading principles, I want you to understand the most important thing. If you have a student who is not learning to read using the curriculum your school is using, abandon their curriculum and TRY SOMETHING ELSE! It is the child, not the school who is important.”
She exhaled, relaxed, moved behind her desk, sat, opened the text book, and began quietly to instruct us in reading principles. “Turn to the first chapter please, ladies.”
Even then I knew something extraordinary had happened in that stuffy Catholic classroom but it took me years, and many different types of students, myself most of all, to recognize that what she taught me applies to everything. I am reminded, almost daily, that human beings are capable of amazing you just, when something isn’t working, try something else.”