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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 5, March 2007

A gift from music

by Robert Stelmach

When I was young, I hated and feared books. I have a short-term memory problem, perhaps as a result of falling out of a two-story window at 18 months. My short-term memory has been tested at a 50 percentile; not very conducive to learning how to read, since reading depends so much on memorization. Both the spelling and the meaning of words too often escaped me. The image I now have of my early experience as a reader is of a tiger jumping out at me from the jungle. I was so frightened of books, I crossed my eyes when reading, making the task impossible.

Although I was not told stories or read to as a child, I loved singing. And luckily for me, I had a reasonably good voice, so my choir teacher invited me, periodically, to lead the school choir in a song. If it were not for my love of singing and the support and appreciation of my choir teacher, I might never have learned to read, and ultimately would not have become a writer. But since I loved singing and most other kids (especially boys) did not, I ended up on a more level playing field. The task was also made easier because I only had to concentrate on a few words at a time and did far more listening than reading. Rhyme, rhythm, and the fact that others, particularly my choir teacher, liked my singing, also made the learning process easier. So much so that at choir practice, my fear of reading never raised its ugly head.

I was in Grade 8 when the importance of reading suddenly hit me like a baseball bat across the back of the head. The principal at my school, Mr. H. D. Veres, called me into his office. He warned me against taking Liberal Arts in secondary school, and said that Industrial Arts was best for me. "Robert," he concluded rather sadly, "you’ll never graduate from high school, let alone university."

I was shocked, but I also knew the facts-I was a lousy reader. At the time, I didn’t know what Liberal Arts was and had nothing against Industrial Arts, but knew the latter was not for me. So I decided to change my ways and learn how to read. But how? By that time, I was so far behind it seemed impossible.

The strange thing was; the answer came from a grade school drop-out.

At age 16, I had a summer job with a tile company. One day, we were short of work, so I was loaned out to another contractor to level gravel in the basement of a new house. A truckload of gravel had been dumped through a basement window. I was given a rake and shovel and told to get to work, levelling the gravel. I didn’t mind the work; I enjoyed physical labour. But there was a problem. Back in the mid-1960s, at least in Ontario, where I lived, there was no such thing as portable toilets; and it was the custom of construction workers, at that time, to use the mounds of gravel in unfinished basements to do their business. I soon found proof of this and almost lost my breakfast.

To get the job done, I had to concentrate on something else.

Much to my surprise, I started writing a poem in my head. It wasn’t a long poem, so I worked it and reworked it. Whenever I thought I had finished and remembered my nose, I dug back into my poem, rewriting, until all of the gravel was raked flat. Then I ran upstairs for a breath of fresh air.

I was soon heading home in the company van with the foreman of the tile company driving. It was a long drive home. Part way, I remembered my poem, found an old envelope on the floor of the van, and brushed off the dry mud. I found a broken pencil in the ashtray, bit it sharp, and scribbled down my poem. The foreman was silent until I finished. I even forgot he was there. Then he asked what I had written. I was embarrassed.

I stuffed the envelope into my pocket, then leaned my head against the right-front window of the van, pretending, as any self-respecting teenager would have done, that I was deaf. Undeterred, the foreman pulled to the side of the road and said, "We aren’t going anywhere unless you tell me what you wrote." After much kafuffle on my part, I admitted that I had written a poem. Still determined, he cajoled me into reading it out loud.

"Wonderful!" he said. I was shocked. "How many poems have you written?"

"Just one," I said.

The foreman said, "I quit school when I was in Grade 2, but I think you’re a poet."

I’d never heard anything like it before in my life. Someone had told me I was something–not that I couldn’t read and was stupid, but that I was a poet. What a gift, a gift I would never forget. He turned my life around, for he saw in me something no one, not even I, had ever seen before. He saw potential. He empowered me. It took years of reading—yes reading—and a lot of it, before I was able to write as good a poem as I did that first day. And it took even longer, until long after I had graduated from university, to figure out how I was able to write that first poem.

I was able to write it because I had loved to sing and because my school choir teacher had encouraged me. Without her, I would never have been able to write that first poem. Without her, I may never have learned the basics of reading, and ultimately the fascination for reading. And without her, I probably would never have become a writer. So, my choir teacher was a gift giver too, the first of many.

There are many young people today, young adults included, who are very much like I was when I was young. Reading for them is either a chore, something foreign, something frightening, or all three. They are second-language students, some of them refugees, children of First Nations, children from broken homes, or children whose parents have never been readers themselves so never read to their children. I feel it my duty and joy to pass my love of both reading and music on to as many of these young people as possible. As one of my songs says:

I’m six or sixty, I’m not sure.
But in my words there lies a cure
For tummy sadness and older tears;
A little gift to last for years.
For when these children all grow up,
They’ll tell their children after sup’
These stories, songs and poems—mine—
Then in their eyes my star will shine.
They are gifts that can last forever.

Robert Stelmach is a professional writer, storyteller, and educator. For more information, go to www.maxtell.ca.

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