The story of language, 2: Talking lessons

by Wolf Pascoe on December 9, 2010

Part 2 in a five part series.

Read: Part 1 . Part 3. Part 4. Part 5

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Because Nick had few words when he started at Fern Hill, his interactions with the other kids tended to be one-sided. Often as not, another little boy or girl would tell Nick what to do and he’d go along in silence. Fortunately, the teachers were expert at picking up non-verbal cues.

“I don’t think that works for Nick,” teacher Jessie would say, “Is that right, Nick?”

Nick would nod.

“Maybe another plan,” Jesse would say. “Would you want to ride the tire-swing now, Nick?”

Yes, he would nod.

So it went.

Particularly that first year of pre-school, parents were encouraged to spend as much time as possible in the Fern Hill yard. I hung around a lot, trading off with Nora.

Nick became a keen observer of other children, but needed help and encouragement to engage. One day another boy, Jason, hit him.

“Can you tell Jason your limits, Nick?” the teacher said.

Nick, tearful, shook his head.

“Nick,” I said, “Can you tell Jason, ‘No hit?'”

Nick struggled to get the words out.

“I don’t hear him,” said Jason.

“You can do it, Nick.” I said.

“No. Nit.”

“Got that, Jason?” the teacher said.

Jason nodded.

Meanwhile twice a week, we drove Nick to speech therapy. That office couldn’t have been more different from Fern Hill. There was a head therapist, under whom worked a score of young women, of whom one was assigned to Nick. It wasn’t exactly an assembly line, but close.

Parents were consigned to a large waiting room, although occasionally Nora and I were invited to observe Nick’s sessions through a two-way mirror.

“Watch my tongue,” Nick’s therapist would say, pointing to a toy. “Make your tongue do that.”

“Good job,” she would say, if Nick made the sound correctly.

“Again,” she would say, if he didn’t.

Once, she said to him, “Big boys don’t do that” in response to some silliness on his part.

“Do you really need to shame him?” I said to the mirror. “If you just tell him what you want straight out, he’ll do it.”

The head therapist knew that Nick went to Fern Hill, and told me she didn’t think much of the place.

“Do kids really learn anything there?” she said.

I thought Nick was learning plenty at Fern Hill. Mostly he was learning about his own abilities, which Nora and I considered essential. And maybe he’d learn to talk there too, eventually. But incidents like the time Jason hit him and Nick needed to defend himself by stating his limits were painful to watch. He clearly could use professional help.

I couldn’t argue with the progress of his speech at the therapist’s office. In a couple of weeks, Nick had ten new words. They weren’t perfect, but they were real words that he’d never uttered before, and Nora and I could understand them. We gritted our teeth and pressed on with speech therapy. But surely somewhere, I thought, there were other speech therapists who could be more respectful of children.

I had heard that one of the upper-level Fern Hill teachers had a daughter who needed speech therapy. I wondered if this teacher had had better luck with finding a therapist.

“Nope,” she said. “Mine were pretty much like yours, very old school,” she said.

“So…why did you send your kid?”

“Well,” she said, “I wanted her to talk.”

. . .

To be continued . . .

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