Thursday, April 21, 2011

My Dad, Roger Ebert and Finding Your Voice

If you haven't listened to Roger Ebert's talk on TED, "Remaking My Voice", then take a few minutes and listen to video posted below - I guarantee nineteen minutes well spent. Even if you don't have time for the entire video, just a few minutes will help you think about this critical idea: you have a responsibility to yourself, your community and to this exact moment in history to make your voice heard.

Roger Ebert's story, told by his friends and a computer voice named Alex is, for me, hauntingly gripping. I have been able to think of little else since I first saw this a few days ago. My father lived through the cancer that Ebert is recovering from now. In 1994, he was diagnosed with mouth cancer. A horrendous twelve and one half hour operation where surgeons performed almost the same operation as on Ebert, left him unable to make the smallest of sounds, swallow or even smell food. To say it was devastating is a gross understatement. My father was a tall, good looking man who used his voice and 'larger than life' personality, to whip life and people into shape to do his bidding. After the cancer and the operation, he was left weakened, withered and silenced.

During his long convalescence, we shared many very important 'conversations'. I spoke and he wrote. (This was 1994, before the laptops and computer generated voices that helped Ebert.) Sometimes, just to tease, he would write without vowels and expect me to understand his sentences. "What's the problem?", he teased. "It's just like ancient Hebrew!" One day he told me that he felt "resurrected", a new man with an opportunity to live in a new way. (He lived for seven more years after that.) The loss of his voice brought a new ability; listening. He became more receptive and empathetic to others.

I share this story with my readers not because of the similar operations both men had but because of the similar life lessons they learned. Our voice, the physical one that emanates from our larynx with the help of our tongue, and the abstract one created by stringing together words and ideas, is core to our identity. Both men lost their physical ability to speak and both realized the power of their voice in the world.

As Ebert shared his experiences, he referred to other TED speakers who had gone before him that week; Sal Khan whose ambition is to teach the world with Khan Academy and David Christian who tells the very BIG story of the history of life on Earth and the Goldilocks conditions that create complexity on the planet. What a contrast Ebert gives us; one man's voice against the backdrop of global education and universal complexity! But what a perfect opportunity to learn about the meaning of one voice; your own.

The memory of my father's tragedy (because the cancer claimed his life in 2002) and Ebert's reflections on the meaning of voice and identity have created a 'perfect storm' in me this week culminating in this blog post that is a poor attempt to express my deepest conviction: to teach is to help students find their voice, and in accomplishing that, I express my own. My success is tied to theirs; my voice must support theirs. We live in a time where expression and communication, so bewitchingly simple, is seemingly taken for granted. SMS, cell phones, instant voice and visual communications is the life blood of this time. Against the backdrop of the amazing array of communication mediums, I remind myself that one voice, even the small soft ones, counts and that as educators, our job is to help these voices find expression.

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