If I were to open my MyChart app for you, you’d see a scary list of my illnesses: ulcerative colitis, fibromyalgia, Ménière’s, and IBS–to name a few. And while they sucketh harder than all marathons ever run collectively, most of my chronic issues are hidden beneath my cracked wide-open and bleeding (thanks visible psoriasis), painful to the touch most days (thanks invisible fibromyalgia), and purple-then-blue-then-white-then-red (thanks visible Raynaud’s) epidermis.
But if you were to open my classroom door and stay for a while, you’d see another of my afflictions (and I’m not talking about my very visible llama problem). While it doesn’t cause me any physical pain, the emotional distress it inflicts upon me makes me feel embarrassed and like a failure.
You’d expect this funny, vibrant, spunky, whimsical (if I do say so myself) English teacher to be downright eloquent, a blonde version of John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society, but, y’all–I. Hate. To. Read. Aloud. In. Class. Because. I. Fuck. It. Up—-so hard.
- I read ALL the time but–to myself. And while my dad read the funnies out loud to me as a child, I don’t remember other adults consistently reading texts aloud to me. I might be misremembering, because my brain is fickle, but I’m fairly certain that by middle school, we did most of our reading for English class by ourselves. What does this boil down to? I haven’t heard a shit-ton of words that I would recognize in print ever pronounced. So throughout the years, I made up my own pronunciations. Yeah, I used to sit with a dictionary to look up a word’s meaning, but I never bothered with the pronunciation. It’s a whole hell of a lot easier now to stop and have Google’s online dictionary pronounce schadenfreude for you than it was in the 90s because a hardcover Webster’s Dictionary lacked that feature. I’ve blundered through words like caste, propitious, and scythe because I’d never heard them spoken only to have students correct me. That shit’s embarrassing. And it happens all the time. Once I even had a parent call to complain that I didn’t pronounce yeoman correctly while teaching The Canterbury Tales for the first time. Sorry that I’m not fluent in Middle English? How often is that word used in casual conversation? Also, get over yourself. I can’t ever get ahead of myself either because the curriculum is always changing. Next year? I get a brand-new curriculum (woohoo?), meaning new literature and an unexplored minefield of words I’ve never heard spoken.
- Y’all. The amount of Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, and Spanish that is embedded in the texts that we read throws me for a loop as well. This Midwesterner who relocated to the deep Cajun French South only knows how to say bonjour in French. I can read some Greek, from studying abroad, and am even better at reading Russian (thanks college), but pronouncing Greek and Russian words? Nope. I bombed every Russian oral exam. Last year I taught The Odyssey, and I told the students, hey, I’ve never taught this before, there’s a lot of Greek, let’s work through this together. And it took us several rounds to remember how to say Telemachus, Antinous, Aeaea, etc., correctly. We just finished Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize Lecture “Hope, Despair, and Memory” last week, and I know I mispronounced every single thing in Hebrew and several allusions–despite looking up how to say them beforehand. It takes time to commit how to say previously unknown words to memory.
- There are just some words I can’t say. Like magnanimity. Despite listening to how to say this word on repeat, I can’t say it. I go all Nemo trying to say anemone and start thinking about magma and then the Magna Carta, and now I’ve exposed you to the rabbit hole that is my brain. Sorry!!!!
- Fibromyalgia. Most of the time, my fibro is invisible, but I struggle with cognitive function and brain fog if I’m in a flare, making my fibro finally visible. It’s worse in the morning and at night. What’s it like? Not being able to pronounce words that you know how to say. Slurring your words when you’re reading or talking when you are dead sober. The inability to find the word you want to use, even when it’s staring you dead in the face. Transposing letters in words. Saying one word when you meant to use a different one. Not being able to form a sentence period in the morning when you’re supposed to get students excited about literature and the kids look at you like you’re stupid when language fails you. And now that I’ve written this, I wonder just how much my fibro prevents me from mastering numbers 2-3.
So how does this English teacher who hates to read aloud because she can’t spoken-word well cope? She relies heavily on audio versions of texts, and when she can’t find audio, she explains herself and asks for a little grace.
As a teacher, talk about your own struggles, issues, illnesses, etc., to normalize that it’s okay to discuss things that society would rather see swept under the rug. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “Hey, Mrs. Ram Jam is struggling today due to a fibro flare, so please excuse her as she tortures your eardrums while she reads this aloud to you.”
And answer their questions if they have any, and move on. Some of them will judge you, no matter what you say (or in my case how you say it), but you’d be surprised how forgiving students (and people in general) can be when you’re honest about your own limitations and invisible battles you might be fighting.