57: The Code Reader

57: The Code Reader

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

The Code Reader

One of the basic needs of every human being is the need to be loved, to have our wishes and feelings taken seriously, to be validated as people who matter.

~Rabbi Harold S. Kushner

I was twelve when life overwhelmed my mother and she signed herself into a psychiatric facility. We lived in rural Northern California where my dad worked as a logger. He left the house before dawn and returned after dark. The oldest of five children, I did my best to help my elderly grandmother care for my three younger brothers and sister. Money was tight, but we always ate well, had clean clothes and a warm bed to sleep in.

In those days, my mother’s condition was called a “nervous breakdown.” I was just old enough to know she was in trouble, but not old enough to know where I fit into what “drove her crazy” or what might make her better. I wrote cheerful letters, hoping to boost her spirits and remind her how much she was missed. We loved her and hoped she would be home soon. Of course, we all promised to behave and not upset her.

No matter how much I tried to concentrate at school, my mind wandered and my grades slipped. My heart ached with confusion and uncertainty. Years later, I would learn the “problems at home” that I thought were invisible to a certain teacher were actually obvious to her.

Gladys Hue, the local high-school public-speaking teacher, also worked in the elementary schools as a speech therapist. She was tall, about fifty, with a blond pageboy and dancing blue eyes. The day she walked into my sixth grade classroom to screen children for her special program, Mrs. Hue, dressed in a pastel blue dress, reminded me of the golden-haired angel we always placed atop our Christmas tree.

She explained she was there to listen to each of us and, just like a hearing test, see who might need a little extra help with their words. In the company of a few colorful puppets, she commenced a student-by-student series of private interviews. By the time she got to me, I had perfected a heretofore nonexistent stutter.

When I sat down at the small table in the back of the room with Mrs. Hue, I became the center of her attention and sputtered out my name: “Ja-Ja-Jackie.” Her smile never faded as she asked several questions and listened intently to my now faltering pattern of speech. Not once did I sense judgment or suspicion. To the contrary, I felt important — like I used to feel with my mother. But most of all, deception aside, I felt like I was being heard.

For all the things I was about to learn from Mrs. Hue, the most profound remains the realization that a child’s inability to express her feelings is not a reflection of how deeply she feels. Fledgling humans that they are, children often communicate, for lack of a better term, in code. Gladys Hue was a code reader, and on that day she saw a freckle-faced girl with curly hair reaching for what we all long for — to feel valued and understood.

For a brief few weeks, Mrs. Hue’s speech-therapy class filled the void left by my mother. There were about ten students. Some had lisps; some substituted the letter “w” or “y” for the “r” sound; and others, like me, stuttered. We practiced enunciation with puppets, performed dramatic narrative sentences with dress-up hats, and sang with the accompaniment of tambourines and triangles. Miraculously, my stutter vanished within a few days!

Years later, I confessed to Mrs. Hue that I really hadn’t had a stutter. The ever-present twinkle in her eye brightened as she revealed she had known the truth all along. To my surprise, she added, “You know, you needed me as much as I needed you.” She went on to explain she didn’t have the heart to deny me something I so clearly wanted and secretly used me as a “diction model” for the other students.

Mom was home by the end of summer, and our family set about the business of trying to regain our stride. Unfortunately, turmoil in one form or another persisted. Headstrong and prone to help the most helpless, Mom took on a new role as a mental-health advocate, and our home became a local group-therapy hub. By the time I started high school, my parents were on their way to a divorce, and I again sought refuge in a class taught by Gladys Hue.

Popular opinion holds that most people are more afraid of public speaking than death. Perhaps if more people had a teacher like Mrs. Hue, that ratio would shift significantly. “Tell them what you’re going to tell them,” she taught us. “Then tell them, and then tell them what you told them.” This was her hallmark message to those of us who dragged our feet to stand behind the podium in her classroom, grateful the structure hid trembling knees and provided a handhold for sweating palms.

Religiously, she counted how many times speakers said “uh” to help us better string together words and thoughts. Her critique on organization and content balanced the positive and negative. “Jackie, this is a wonderful idea,” she once said to me about a speech on world peace, “but reading it is like trying to swim through a muddy pond.” Because her praise mattered so much to me, I did what any aspiring young public speaker would do: I broke into tears and ran to the library.

Eventually, through trial and error, I earned my way onto Mrs. Hue’s competitive forensic-speech team. The challenge was fraught with fear and doubt, but her unwavering faith in me, her magical ability to see potential where I saw none, kept me striving. I even achieved the highest honor of any of her students as a California state finalist in the 1968 Annual Lion’s Club Student Speaker Contest.

Shortly before I delivered my speech, Mrs. Hue, known for her stylish elegance, removed the sparkling earrings she wore. “Now that you’re a young lady,” she said, handing them to me, “we’re going to doll you up.”

I placed second that day, but had so far exceeded my own expectations that I came to realize the greater prize was having been one of Gladys Hue’s students. More than teaching, she embraced and inspired, nudging some, prodding others, tirelessly challenging each of us to wrangle our fears and fully engage our imaginations.

I last visited Mrs. Hue shortly before she passed away in 2010 at the age of ninety-five. I recall marveling at how little the years had diminished the graceful flick of her hand as she spoke or the all-knowing light in her eyes. I told her, “I owe so much to you.” She shrugged, alluding to a philosophy she shared with many teachers — she had simply opened doors for her students. It was up to us to walk through them. Her attempt at humility soon melted into a twinkling of delight and pride, and once again, decades later, student and teacher needed each other. I needed her to know as much as she needed to hear how deeply valued she was as a code-reading educator who changed my life.

~Jackie Boor

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