My son inherited very few of my traits, it’s clear. And not just the physical ones that have made him grow to twice my size and resemble all things paternal. For starters, he’s a whiz at anything technological while I have yet to purchase anything beginning with “i.” He could live on burgers and fries, two items I’ve shunned for a decade. We do both love music, but at 22 he’s glued to pop and Pink; my tastes have always run more toward blues and jazz.
One tendency we both share, though, is a fine-tuned sense of hearing. We’re both primarily auditory learners, a relative rarity today as more and more people prefer to learn visually or kinesthetically and are drawn to picture stimuli. Ray and I both instinctively cover our ears when loud noises assault us, and we’re both much more easily distracted by sounds than sights. I’m like the princess with the pea under her mattress, but change the pea to a low-pitched whine coming from somewhere in the ceiling and it’ll keep me up all night just the same. Ray can have very selective hearing when I’m talking to him from five feet away, but this morning while visiting friends, he interrupted our conversation to ask about a faint tinkling noise coming from her patio wind chime.
Generally, when asked, people claim they’d rather lose their hearing than their sight. Of four informal surveys I found online, the results ran about 4:1. However, those who answered that they’d rather keep their hearing wrote more impassioned responses – about their love of music, of voices, of nature. I count myself among that group. My favorite sound for many years has been that of the wind through the trees.
For my son, though, audio is the most integral aspect of his brain processing. Ray has autism, and he’s always loved books on tape. It got to where he would not even attempt to read a book unless he had the cassette tape to play along with it. When he did finally learn how to read, he’d make his own tape for a book that did not have one – and he was very good at it. With an actress/teacher for a mother, he’d heard his books read aloud with gusto and character voices, so this is how he reads aloud, too. His teachers would often tell me that they loved to let Ramon do the lion’s share of reading in class because he was so entertaining! His ability to sight-read words and intuit the necessary cadence in sentences actually led us for a time to believe he was more intelligent than he is, since he sounds as if he understands more than he really does.
What I didn’t realize for many years, though, was that Ramon literally could not read a book without hearing it. I discovered this one day when Ray was about 9 or 10 years old. I was sitting on the couch reading a book, and he approached me to ask what I was doing. When I told him I was reading a book and showed him the pages, he said, “How can you be reading it? You’re not talking.” Eureka. Suddenly, I understood why the guy preferred books on tape: he needed to hear the words in order to process them. And then: Eureka #2. This was why he never stopped talking! He even had to hear his own voice in order to process what he was thinking. (Not coincidentally, the first poem I had published was called “Wordstreams.” I’ll copy it below.)
Perhaps the increase of ADD, autism, and learning disabilities over the last few years has been one reason for the push for audio books, along with our ever-growing crunch for time. The ease with which we can now listen to audio – using itunes and tiny ear buds while we walk or ride a bike or clean the house – has made it possible to “read” anything just about anywhere. Many of us still prefer to scan the words with our eyes and sit quietly to do so, but in one generation, the number of people willing and able to do that has plummeted. Teaching high school for 28 years has allowed me to track this trend, and I’m saddened and worried about it. But that’s a topic for another day.
What I’m excited about currently has to do with new software that is going to enable me to record a book onto an MP3 file – this weekend. I, the technophobe, the near-Luddite, will do this in the comfort of my own dining room, using my school-issued laptop and a cheap set of headsets with microphone. The software, Audacity, is as easy to operate as a toddler’s toy. I mean this literally. You click on the red circle button to record, and you click on the yellow square button to stop. Then you save the file as an MP3 to your desktop, naming it anything you please. Audacious!
The book I will be reading aloud on Audacity is a short novel all the sophomores at my school must read, but it is not available on audio. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, by Luis Sepulveda, is a beautiful eco-fable set in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Our students love the book, and it works perfectly in our World Literature curriculum. However, we have more and more students in our classes who rely upon audio versions of texts in order to fully comprehend them. So, with no audio available, I volunteered to make one myself. After a quick upload of Audacity onto my laptop and a 5-minute tutorial from our friendly tech support staff, I’m ready. I’ll record a chapter at a time and email them to my colleagues, who can then post them on their websites for students to download into their itunes files, beginning Monday. Since an audiobook is not available professionally, we are not breaking any copyright laws by making our own to use for educational purposes.
It seems lately that each technology is obsolete before most of us learn how to use it. In the audio world, the clunky reel-to-reel system ruled for decades before getting downsized to cassette tapes, and then in less than half the lifespan of its predecessor, the cassette gave way to the MP3 and other digital formats. I can only hope that whatever it morphs into next will allow my voice to carry on as long as our students will benefit from hearing it.
And, if it’s fun, I just might be able to parlay this skill into another post-retirement option.
There is tenderness for what he is
and respect for what he may become.
words tumble from his mouth
bouncing into the air, surrounding him
curly figures, dots and lines
thickly filling the living room
he stands amidst the flurry of signs
neon-charged particles on parade
energy spins pure around his throat
crystal clear discus whirling
smooth with the truths he tells
repeating repeating questions
strands creating word quadrilles
a buzzing bright crescendo
radiating life force boy
ember once aglow in the womb
sparks on flint down grade school halls
effervescing into manhood with the
frothy force of Niagara Falls
deepening voice demanding
streams of words, rivers of ch’i
winding through the air, relentless
ribbons clamoring around my thighs
binding me breathless in the vortex
and knotted still – but only – deep inside
the tiny purple chamber of my heart
“Wordstreams” originally appeared in The Autism Advocate, Journal of the Autism Society of America, Dec. 2007.