Monday, February 07, 2011

Recovering Voice

by John T. Spencer

A professor once told me that true authors need to learn French and cultivate a taste for Bordeaux and Rachmananav. He said that anyone who wants to know the cost of a word should buy a good fountain pen and a Moleskin and think twice before scribbling out a few lines on a cheap notebook.  I watched students nod their heads.

The cost of words.  Ask a kid who has been called "an illegal anchor baby" about the cost of words.

So, I bought myself a six pack of Widmer, spent a day speaking in Pig Latin and played the Greatest Hits of The Band. I decided that the apostles Paul and Simon were right in the notion that the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls and that much of academia is designed not to cultivate a love of language, but a dissection of it.

In other words, I learned to hate words. I learned to be ashamed of my voice and to play pretend with my vocabulary. I learned to like, you know, try and avoid big words and stuff. Then I learned to wear the heavy academic jargon like a necklace before the elite crowd, only to wonder if they could recognize it was gaudy costume jewelry from a kid playing make-believe.

I didn't recover my voice until I began teaching. I found it impossible to play pretend around a group of people who only cared about whether I cared about them and I cared about the subject. I couldn't be the teacher who pretended to know (or care to know) about the slang and they weren't impressed with a word like "pulchritudinous."

I began to ask them to find their own voice that had been silenced in a sea of worksheets. I found that their voices were often rougher than I'd imagined, shaped by more pain than I've experienced and filled with a strength that I hadn't seen. I found that their voices weren't always expressed in written format and that some of the most powerful messages required a canvas or a podcast or a dance or a skit.


  1. As a writing teacher, I often found that students were reluctant to use their own voices. They insisted on asking "what do you want?" instead of trying to figure out what they had to say and how they wanted to say it. Most of us have various ways we use our voice that we modify in different settings. I think it is important to help students learn that, once they discover their authentic voice, they can adapt it to fit their audience and setting. (My example: You don't talk to your grandma and your best friend in the same way--but both are your voice.) By fitting the voice to the situation, they learn how to navigate many of life's complexities.

    Thanks for a great post.

  2. Great...I feel your expressions in my classroom as well. Great post!

  3. Loved the post and particularly the phrase "silenced in a sea of worksheets". I do feel that our critical analysis of language can kill it. I used to get so fed up of looking at just what Shakespeare meant by a certain line.. I only really discovered and enjoyed Shakespeare once I had left school.

  4. such a great need for this John.
    what an beautiful way to express it.

    thank you.

  5. I love this post as well. Voice is an essential life skill. The more awareness we bring to the factors, environment and relationships that empower voice, especially in our students is critical. I love that you shared this!

  6. Your post resonates with all teachers who have shared the experience of finding themselves and their truths in front of their young audience who smells the pretense of authority a mile away and repudiates hypocrisy. Think of it - didn't we also do the same when we sat in their place?

  7. I have connected the ipod to my Powerbook G4 manually and have gone into the recording folder but have found that there is no voice memo file.I know this is not the first time this has happened: that is, that a voice memo which has bbeen stored in my ipod has 'mysteriously' disappeared.


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