1 Akinogore

My Bad Personal Learning Experience Essay

Some experiences we wish wouldn't have happened to us

In the eighth grade, my reading teacher had each student read out loud for about 10 minutes. I was in the top reading group, so there was no question as to whether I could read or not. When it was my group's turn, I'd sit in my desk like an animal trapped in a cage. My heart would beat so loudly just anticipating being called upon to read. I was sure my neighbors could hear it. I would fight the "fight or flight" syndrome that would build up inside me-- how easy it might be to just get up and walk out! But I never did. I'd struggle through the eternity of those 10 minutes. To my classmates' credit, there was little or no teasing, but it didn't matter. I was filled with self-loathing and embarrassment that I couldn't read out loud.

One day as I was struggling along the teacher said, "Stand up. Do you mind reading out loud?"

Now, there I was with 35 kids looking at me, and I came out with "No, I don't mind." Of course I wanted to scream, " What do YOU think you stupid B.....?!!!!"

She should have taken me aside privately to talk about it.

It'd be easy to say I was made a stronger person because of it, blah, blah, blah.... But frankly, I wish she would have just skipped over me and spared me the constant humiliation. (Bernadette Repisky, September 2, 1999)

back in india in the eighties where stuttering was pretty much unknown. i used to have a teacher for my native language (tamil). my fluency in tamil was a lot less than in english. this person, knowing that i was a stutterer used to call on me to read aloud in class. i used to virtually struggle with every word in front of a class of 40. he used to condescendingly say "we need a 8 hour class to get this done this way" and would ask me to be seated while asking another person to read. his insensitivity shocks me even now. the embarrasment and humiliation i felt at that juncture should have been felt to be beleived. thank god, my class mates were understanding. its events like this which causes stuttering children to retreat further into themselves. (Balaji Krishnamurthy, September 3, 1999)

After my first severe block early in the year of my first grade, I started into therapy with a public school SLP. After that, I was never called on in class. However, my family moved and I entered 6th grade in another school. My teacher called on me frequently, often visibly showing her frustration with my stuttering. A couple of times at least, as far as I can remember, asking me why I couldn't say such and such a word. As horrendous as that was, my worst experiences in class lay ahead of me in high school. I was a student at Lenox School, a private sectarian secondary school. I started there in 8th grade. Right from the start from upperclass students, I was receiving taunts and other ridicule. There was another person there a grade or two above me who received teasing at a level I've seldom had. To this day I am still somewhat ashamed that I never established contact with him, never told him I understood, never offered my friendship. The next year he didn't come back. The abuse I experienced never let up. But, never from my classmates, only from upperclassmen or the faculty. I guess the last severe abuse occurred in my junior year at a special event celebrating the year's athletic seasons. The lacrosse coach for the varsity team, for which I had served as a kind of all-around lackey, imitated my stuttering before the whole school. I walked out of there that night absolutely devastated and in tears. But I knew then as I know now, I am more than my speech. These teasers are only reflecting on a external behavior. If I had ever believed that my speech is a complete reflection of what I am I would have committed suicide. I hope younger stutterers will take this to heart. Whatever others may say of your speech in a negative way, they don't know you and what they say is no reflection on you. Never let go of that inner sense of your worth. (Jonathan Bashor, September 3, 1999)

My school experiences... I know times have really changed for the better. When I went through school the teacher used to whip the palms of our hands with a ruler because we "wouldn't talk right", in the second grade. It didn't take long to become a mute. All through middle and high school some of the teachers would be sure and bring out the fact that there were people in the class we could make fun of . One gym teacher used to mock us. He would whip us with a paddle and raise us off the floor. He was a really sweet guy. I graduated in 1963. (anonymous, September 3, 1999)

My stuttering increased dramatically in the 5th and 6th grades. That is also the 1st time I "remember" stuttering even though I found out just 3 years ago (from my parents) that I was seeing school SLP's from 1st grade on for stuttering.

I, unfortunately, had many bad experiences with teachers and SLP's alike while in grades 5-12. Grade school teachers actually made me relieved most of the time - even though I now see it as something that made my severity worsen. They would go around the room most of the time for any sort of reading - the phrase "OK, let's go around the room" sent shivers throughout my body. Of course, I would scan ahead and see what paragraph was going to be mine and then scan the paragraph to see what words I would have the most trouble with. When it came to be my turn, I would almost be crying with fear and tension and - what do ya know - I almost always had a big block on the 1st word whether it was a hard one or not. After several seconds of this (an eternity to me back then) the teacher would just call on the next person to "read for me."

I had been a straight A student from 1st through 6th grade. All of a sudden, My sick days skyrocketed = there were oral assignments those days. And, since I never raised my hand again (until the 12th grade) and never did oral assignments or most written ones because we went over them the next day orally - my grades plummeted. I'm convinced I passed a couple subjects just because the teachers felt sorry for me.

Through all of this, stuttering was never talked about. Not one of my teachers or SLP's discussed stuttering. It was literally the forbidden topic of total shame. My parents had been told by the SLP and my pediatrician to never talk about stuttering because it'll go away. By the way, I went to grade school from 1981-1989 - so, this isn't that long ago. So, if I had one thing to tell teachers about students who stutter is to talk about the stuttering with the child. Make it a topic of conversation that is not taboo and does not bring shame. Have meetings with the school SLP (who hopefully is educated about stuttering) and the child to work things out, so the child can participate in class without the fear.

During some very good therapy in college, I decided to become a member of a very select group - a speech-language pathologist who also stutters. I just graduated with my master's degree in SLP this summer. (Andy Floyd - Wid4@AOL.COM - September 3, 1999)

In the ninth grade (which was still considered junior high back then), I was fortunate enough to have an English teacher who was very compassionate and caring towards my stuttering. She did everything in her power to make me feel comfortable when I had to recite in front of the class. I can remember giving an oral presentation and she told me that when I got stuck on a word, I could write it on the blackboard. The first few times that I did this, it was kind of funny, I joked about it. The further into my presentation I got, the more the blackboard filled up with words which I was unable to say. The more I wrote, the more embarassed I became and the worse my stuttering became. What had become an attempt by this caring teacher to help me in the best way she knew how, had become a complete disaster. Actually, I think that the teacher felt as bad as I did. After class, we had a little talk about what had happened and what she and I could do next time I had to speak in the class. By the way, this occurred at a time when I had not had any speech therapy for about five years, and I was ill equipped to really handle the situation at this time. (Bernie Weiner - Berniewin@aol.com - September 3, 1999)

The first week of school, it is the same each year. New people, new classes, new teachers, and the same fears. The fear of not being able to speak fluently in front of the class, and of how my fellow classmates will react to my stuttering. Some people think that because stuttering is strange, because the PWS (person who stutters) is strange. Last spring, I remember the first day of English 207. I registered for the smaller, writing intensive lecture. We had the usual get in a circle 'introduce yourselves and your hobbies' to the class. Speaking in front of a group of people is scary for people who stutter. Our pulse increases, our knees may shake, our body sweats,and our minds race with thoughts of fluency (ie., 'Damn it, I know I'm going to stutter and make a fool of myself in front of the whole *^&&%%6! class.). We think to ourselves, 'I'd rather be skipping class than embarrassing myself with my stuttering on this first day of class because I have to speak to a bunch of peers who don't know how to listen to a stutterer. 'M-m-m-my name is P-P-Paul.' And I continued to stutter through the remainder of my as brief as possible introduction. I hear laughter from several classmates. I dare not look up and see their faces. That would be too painful. Awareness is painful. I sit in embarrassment. I am thankful that the first day of class with 'speaking circles' is finished. (Paul Engleman, September 3, 1999)

I've had some bad experiences with my teachers, telling me what jobs and other things in life I COULDN'T do, but the worst was my geography teacher. I wasn't good in geography and because of the way she always treated me, my enthusiasm was not much. She mocked me, laughed at my work in front of the others and when I really did a good job she said aloud "I didn't expect that from you". She loved to check my homework by making me come forward, asking me questions, knowing I had two choices: saying I didn't know or stuttering. Even my father talked to her, but the situation really went bad after that. Why? When I met her at a high school reunion 10 years later I asked her why. Once again she gave me that condescending smile and told me she was a left-winged politician and my father a right-winged.....

Even as an adult I worked hard for my presentation in Swedish class. I asked her if I could do my presentation only in front of her, which she accepted. I did my very best, presenting not only written material with history and backgrounds, but pictures, overhead, tapes and a lot more, but was I nervous and I stuttered like crazy! When I was ready I was relieved and proud of myself, knowing I would surely get an A. Then she told me I went overtime and I got a C! I explained to her that half of my time was repeating words and that I even clocked my presentation at home, but no mercy. I had to think of that before........ (Anita Blom, Sweden, September 9, 1999)

I remember experiences in grade school where stuttering was simply something I did not talk about with my teachers. They never brought it up to me either. It would have been helpful if they had. I was in the third grade when I finally accepted that I had a speech problem. My teacher wanted to put me in the middle reading group, while I thought that my abilities indicated that I should be in the top reading group. I asked my mom what the word was that I did (stutter), and I talked to my teacher. I don't remember what her response was, but I think I stayed in the middle reading class. When I was in the seventh grade, we were required to give speeches in class. I had to give speeches even though I stuttered. At that time I did not know that I could talk to the teacher about getting out of it. So I did it anyway. My stuttering at that point was more repeating sounds. Throughout that year and the next, I was mimicked by some boys who lived in the same housing complex as I did. I quickly learned to try to avoid talking around them. That year my speech started changing to more blocking than repeating sounds. (update - Recently I got an e-mail from one of the guys from junior high who had teased me. He apologized for teasing me, and said that he admired me so much for giving speeches even though I had a stuttering problem. He told me that he had been petrified to give speeches and continues to be afraid to give speeches in public.) (Sarah Henderson, September 20, 1999)

Okay, picture this. My entire sixth grade class sitting in the cafeteria split into reading groups. Anyone else remember when reading groups were named after "birds?" This would have been in 1971-72. I loved my 6th grade teacher, she was old, strict but had a heart of gold. My group was at one of the tables reading silently, the group up front with the teacher was discussing the book that they were reading, a book about someone with a handicap. All the sudden I heard the teacher start to explain the word handicap to the group. Yep, you guessed it, she used me as an example. I remember feeling crushed and so hurt. I never thought of myself as having a handicap. I knew I stuttered, so did the rest of the school but a HANDICAP? I never quite thought of my teacher in the same way after that day. (posted to Stutt-l, July 22, 1999 by Sally Butcher)

I went to at least five different speech therapists in different public schools (my Dad was in the military so we moved around a lot) and I truly liked all but one. When I was in either 5th or 6th grade, my speech therapist told me that I stuttered because I wanted to, and that the reason I couldn't stop myself from stuttering was because I really didn't want to. And even though I initially thought she was crazy for suggesting something like this, I actually began to believe what she told me, and so did my parents. Thus, when I stuttered at home, it wasn't uncommon for my parents to criticize my stuttering and remind me that I could stop if I wanted to.

This woman did cure me of a problem I had with making eye contact with people when I stuttered, but that later resurfaced. When I sat in her speech room, I remember thinking, "I guess I'll do what she wants and think like she wants if it means I can get rid of my stuttering," but outside her room I really didn't believe or practice the skills she taught me in therapy. For example, she wanted me to ask my English teacher to tally the amount of dysfluencies I made on a daily basis and then bring that record to speech. She wrote a nice letter and designed a tally sheet, both of whhich she put in an envelope and gave me to deliver to my teacher. I ended up hiding it in my English folder and lying to my speech teacher that I had indeed delivered it, but that I just forgot to bring it with me to speech every week so we could review my daily dysfluencies.

Eventually, everyone found out about my deceptions--my speech therapist, my English teacher and my parents. My parents had a conference with my therapist--which I got to sit in on, too. While they were arguing--and I mean ARGUING--about what was best for me, I somehow told them all that 1) I no longer believed that I caused myself to stutter and that 2) I no longer would be needing any more speech therapy, ever again. The three of them asked me, "Then how will you learn to stop stuttering?" and I think I told them, "I'll do it myself," but I don't think I really believed that. And I did not return the next year to speech therapy even though two women doing screenings came calling. I didn't return to speech therapy until I was a junior in high school--which, thank God, was a very positive experience. (originally posted to Stutt-L on 31 Mar 1999 by Will McGee)

First embarrassing moment: In my elementary school, we often have to yell our grades on homework and quizzes outloud for the teacher to record in her book. I had trouble, especially with the numbers in the 90's. I was a smart student and hated getting A's and B's because I stuttered on those scores. One day, my teacher got tired of my quiet voice, not knowing that I was trying to hide my stuttering. She told her T.A. to go outside and listen for a number that I would yell! Yes, the entire class was watching. The teacher told me a number and I said it as loud as I could. The teacher orders the T.A. to come in. "What did you hear?" "23?" says the T.A. "Go back outside." The T.A. goes outside and the teacher turns to me and says, "She probably heard me say that one." Oh! The hurt! Oh the pain! Yes, this goes on with the teacher whispering numbers to me for me to yell out! For once I was smarter than the teacher knowing it was all futile and just a time of humility in front of the class! She was trying to break me out of my shell but really she can't accept the fact that not all people can be loud-talkers.

Second embarrassing moment: This was in the fifth grade. Actually this is a common experience always coming back to me. It is reading time and we're taking turns reading. I remember it came to my turn. The first word was "would." Would?!?! I can't say that! It got embarrassingly quiet when it came to my turn. I was busy whispering, "W-w-w-w-w-w-" I got angry with myself because it just wouldn't come out. The teacher finally yelled at me to start reading. Augh! The blind world we live in....

by Jenny Woo, age 17

Posted to Stutt-L on February 1, 2004: "A teacher was reprimanded today for yelling at a CWS for wasting the class�s time when she struggled on a word. Ironically, the word that she was stuttering on was Moses. The school responded by switching the student to another classroom. Unfortunately, she will still have that teacher for 2 subjects."

section added September 3, 1999
last modified February 3, 2004

Personal Observations, Experience, and Knowledge: How Learning to Write a GED Essay Helps Us Know Ourselves

by Cindy Strodel McCall on September 3, 2013

The topic is “What makes a good parent?” Our adult literacy student, a thirty-one-year-old mother of four who left school in seventh grade, hands me a neatly written two-page essay to review. She’s written one -and two -paragraph essays before but this is her first attempt at the General Educational Development (GED) test’s five-paragraph essay format. Her introductory paragraph states three qualities that make a good parent: (1) some disciplinary skills, (2) understanding, and (3) patience. I find it hard to comment further however, as the essay continues:

When I was little, my father would get drunk and beat me for the things my mother did, so it has taken me a long time to figure out how to discipline my kids. . . . I needed help from a mental health counselor. Before I had this help, I let my kids do anything they wanted, and I turned my older son into a monster.

My learner sees me pause as I read. “I have to work on my spelling, right?” she says. “Is it OK so far? The directions said use your personal experience.”

“It’s very OK,” I say, “It takes a lot of courage to write things down sometimes. This looks like a great essay. But you don’t have to be so personal in your writing if you don’t want to.”

“Oh, I want to,” she says firmly. She had never written about herself before, she said, but she found it made her feel better about the things that had happened to her in her life. It made her understand them better.

Standard directions for the GED essay are as follows: “In your essay, give specific details to explain your views. Use your personal observations, experience, and knowledge.”

The young Chin Burmese student in our program escaped from her war-torn village at the age of fourteen. The topic is: “‘Every cloud has a silver lining. Do you think it’s true that every bad thing that happens in life has a good side to it? Use your personal observations, experience, and knowledge.” She wrote:

I believe that bad things that happen to you can have a good side. Leaving my country was very difficult. I left my family, friends, church, and my village. I left because soldiers were taking girls from my village. I had a difficult journey and walked many days without food. I was thirsty and hungry. I was with strange people. I had to run and hide from the police. But there was a good side. I got to Malaysia. I met new family and friends. I learned a new language. I sent money home to my parents.

Located in a rural area of Central New York, Cazenovia Public Library (CPL) offers adult literacy tutoring in Adult Basic Education (ABE), English as a Second Language (ESL) and GED (high school equivalency exam preparation) at two public libraries and a local food pantry, CazCares. About eighty percent of CPL’s adult literacy students are enrolled in the GED program. Volunteer tutors are trained through Madison County Reads Ahead, a public library literacy consortium of eight Central New York libraries in the Mid-York Library System. Madison County Reads Ahead was a literacy initiative originally funded by Community Foundation of Central New York.

Many GED student referrals come from learners we meet at CazCares Food Pantry. It’s clear why refugees need educational programs like ours, but how about our native Central New Yorkers? We have excellent public schools in our area, and yet in some of our local communities twenty to thirty percent of adult residents did not complete high school. What interrupted their education?

The stories are both unique and similar. Foster care placement gone wrong, parents with mental health or addiction issues, families in crisis who moved children often from school to school. Drastic family change—such as divorce, imprisonment, or death of a parent—and even the familiar and yet devastating story of a high school culture that taunted or marginalized outsiders.

The tutoring process is learner-driven, and tailored to each student’s needs. Our students have learned for themselves the value of education, the value of honoring one’s own goals and dreams. They just need help in getting there.

Sometimes, we have to start with small goals. Keeping tutoring appointments and being where you should be—on time and ready to work—can be the first step. In learning to respect your volunteer tutor’s time and efforts, you learn to respect your own time and efforts.

Students must apply for a library card if they don’t have one. If they do have a card, it must be clear of fines. New learners have six to eight weeks to “clean up” their library cards as they work with their tutors on educational goals. A good step towards fiscal responsibility in all areas of life, this process of getting one’s library card in good order sometimes requires a little patience and forbearance on the part of our libraries. But we work together, and we work it out.

The GED students who come to us often tell us they feel stuck in their lives. They know how limited the job market is for those who lack a high school diploma. They want to move on, to career training programs, college, or better employment opportunities. Also, as their essays show us, they want to gain the personal and emotional satisfaction of finishing their high school education, for themselves and their families.

A nineteen-year-old GED learner in our program who wrote the essay excerpt that follows worked as a healthcare aide in a nursing home. After her stepfather died, she became injured at work, and was too distraught to sleep. She had trouble leaving the house, and found it hard to talk to people. A friend brought her to CazCares, where the two of them now attend weekly GED tutoring sessions. The two friends saved on gas, were more motivated to study, and helped each other keep their commitment to furthering their education.

The essay topic was: “Choose an important person that you have looked up to and who has helped you in your life. Explain who this person is, why you look up to her or him, and how the person has helped you.” She wrote:

My stepfather, who recently passed away, is the person I most look up to in life. The reason I want to get my GED is because of him. He was a good father. He was upset that I left school. Before he died, he told me that getting my GED was the one thing he wanted from me. . . He was the one person I could always count on whenever I needed him.

The essay became a five-page eulogy to her stepfather that moved her tutor (and myself) to tears. “I feel so much better after writing this, even though it was painful. I cried buckets all through it,” she told us, as we handed around the tissue box. “But I had the best night’s sleep after that.”

Writing about ourselves provides us with an opportunity to give the past a careful onceover. Life happens at warp speed, and often we become lost in the hurry of events, particularly troubling or tragic times that we feel deeply but have no time to understand and process. Our GED students are new to the healing possibilities of writing. They are uncomfortable with writing. But when the task presents itself, and they are required to focus on an experience, an idea, or a relationship, and explore what it meant to them personally, something unforeseen begins to happen—a learning experience greater than the sum of its parts.

A total of twelve to fifteen tutoring pairs work together over the course of a year in our literacy program. The learning process depends a lot on the ability of tutors to connect with their learners in a supportive yet instructional relationship. Often, the one-on-one attention our tutors offer students is all they need to succeed. We listen carefully to students, ask them to set their own learning goals, and talk through solutions for navigating the obstacles adult learners with jobs and young children face in studying for the GED. We identify academic gaps and then we find the needed review areas to fill them. As learners progress, they gain new confidence in themselves and their abilities. For learners with family responsibilities we offer a combined adult/early literacy program. Adults can receive GED tutoring while their little ones attend our preschool program.

None of this can be done without help from volunteers. But with a trained and dedicated core of volunteers, supported by library resources, much can be accomplished.

Families who attend the combined literacy program become very close to CazCares literacy volunteers, and to each other. They cheer each other on. They cheer each other’s children on. And when a learner passes the GED, we have a party and we celebrate together.

For many of the learners, their families are the reason they are pursuing their education. Their personal goals are often centered on their children, like the young single mother who wrote the following (on the essay topic “How do you define success?”):

For me, success is obtaining my GED. . . . The main reason I want to get my GED is my daughter. She is only four now, but someday she will be in high school. I don’t want her to say to me: “You left school when you were sixteen. Why can’t I? You never finished high school. Why should I?” . . . I don’t want to see my daughter make that same mistake.

A Collaboration Begins

GED tutoring at a food pantry? How is it that a public library has taken on such work? CPL Library Director Betsy Kennedy, the staff and Board of Trustees, literacy coordinators Carla Zimmerman and me—we all believe that part of our library’s mission is to be an educational resource to the community. Low-income and low-literacy families rarely attended the library’s adult programs or family preschool programs. How could the library reach those families?

In the area of early literacy, for example, grants were obtained in the past to offer educational programming at the library to low-income preschoolers. However, those library-based programs had low attendance and did not reach their target audience. In 2007, local food pantry CazCares moved to larger quarters, and Kennedy saw the opportunity to begin a literacy outreach. The Friends of the Library provided funding for the first year, and the collaboration between CPL and CazCares began.

From the start of the partnership, Caz-Cares Director Gigi Redmond provided CPL staff with the crucial onsite support needed to operate library literary programs. For CazCares-based learners, our GED program is most in demand.

When we first began tutoring at Caz-Cares, eight out of ten of our new learners did not have a library card. Our food pantry location brings library services to these new learners, and at the same time brings new library users to our libraries. The initial student contact is made at CazCares but tutoring can take place at any of our program sites, which include our home base at CPL, and the New Woodstock Library, which serves a rural population in southern Madison County about seven miles south of Cazenovia. Both libraries offer more extended hours than the food pantry for tutor-learner pairs to meet.

If a learner’s schedule doesn’t work well with food pantry hours (CazCares is open only three mornings a week) a program is set up at the library closest to the learner. In rural areas, transportation can be an issue, so the closer our programs can be to our learners, the better. If they are new library members, students are introduced personally to circulation desk staff. As literacy students, they are allowed longer lending periods for literacy materials they check out. They also have access to a library computer or laptop dedicated to literacy program use. All of this helps our students (and new library users) feel very at home at the library.

One of our fast-track learners did not need much tutoring to pass the GED. A very capable student, his math aptitude in particular was so strong that his tutor helped him connect right away to a community college counselor who eventually found him a scholarship. His essay topic was: “What is more important to a person’s education: things learned in school or through real life experiences?”

In my experience, both things are important. I just turned twenty-one but I’ve made many mistakes in my life. I spent six months in jail before I was nineteen. I was a good student but didn’t think it was worth my time to go to high school. Drugs and alcohol were the wrong choice, but no one at school could tell that to me. . . . For me, life experience showed me I needed to get my education. I want to get my GED, get a good paying job, and buy a house and land for my family. To achieve these goals, I need to go back to school. So, life experiences and things learned in school are both important in a person’s education.


No one can be taught the value of education. Our students had to learn that for themselves. What adult literacy programs can do is help students reach their goals through learning, and in learning there is personal growth. Finding your own voice, using that voice to connect with the world, and making your way in it, may be one of the most valuable things our students take away from the program. And indeed, completing your high school education opens the door to a host of educational and employment opportunities. But when the exam is over, what do our students bring forward into their lives? A new confidence and a newfound ability to look for the resources they need to reach their goals, along with the satisfaction of having accomplished an important educational milestone. And, hopefully, a new self awareness through the power of writing, as they use their personal observations, experience, and knowledge to gain a better understanding of the world and take their place in it.

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