Essay: Sight and Singing

My three-part essay, “Sight and Singing,” appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Breath & Shadow: A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature:

I enter the large conference room, holding Kerry’s elbow. High ceilings and bare floors amplify the sound of our students’ voices as we find seats at the long folding tables. Most of our students are sitting at the table in front, so we choose seats behind them. For the next six hours, we will occupy cold, metal folding chairs – and mine makes an unnecessary amount of noise when I draw it away from the table. It scrapes along the floor, the sound intensified by the chair’s hollow legs.

Read the full essay here.

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Exploring a Writing Tutor’s Magic

This article appeared in the National College Learning Center Association (NCLCA) Summer 2014 newsletter under the section, The Tutor’s Voice.

*  *  *

The lobby of our campus tutoring center resembles a doctor’s office. Students occupy moderately comfortable chairs, waiting to hear their names from the friendly voice from the writing room. A writing tutor steps forward, calls the student’s name, and leads her into our small space. I am the only tutor who performs this ritual with a white cane in hand.

I imagine that some students are perplexed to see that their tutor is blind. My questioned competence hangs in the air, but “Will she be able to read my paper?” changes quickly to “How will she read my paper?” Students want to know how I will judge them – their ability to write. Their competence, not mine, becomes the central question.

I begin with brisk instructions: “I’m Emily and I’ll be helping you today. What are you working on?” The student offers a nursing paper, a teaching portfolio, a literature essay. Whether a student brings a digital or paper copy of her assignment, I ask her to read it aloud. My request inspires several insecurities; students are self-conscious about their voices, affected by accent or infrequent practice. I insist that they won’t be the worst reader I’ve ever heard; everyone feels awkward when reading aloud.

As we read, I get used to the students’ voices. Some are slow and meticulous, correcting every slip of the tongue, while others read so quickly I can barely catch each word. I ask them to slow down, helping them laugh at their occasional spoken errors. The moment of pure triumph comes when they recognize that the out-loud process catches issues glossed over in silent reading. When the student becomes adept at hearing her mistakes, I’m an audience the student needs because she can’t imagine reading to an empty room. I am her writer’s training wheels.

To bridge diffidence and triumph, I emphasize the inherent power of writing: I shamelessly craft a persona of grammar mystic and blind magician. I love the revelation of audible punctuation.

A student reads a sentence aloud, and I ask her to stop: “Do you have a comma there?”

“Yes, how did you know?”

I meet this question with a silent smile.

“You heard it?”

“Of course.”
Other grammar magicians and linguistic wizards will not be surprised by this apparent talent of mine; punctuation wants to be heard. But students unfamiliar with descriptive grammar are dazzled. My ability to hear punctuation initiates them into the craft of writing. Using examples from their work, I transfer the gift – making them aware that they, too, can hear the place of punctuation. Though I use the rhetoric of revelation, I am only helping students discover what they already know. So much of writing is remembering – pulling disparate pieces of experience and knowledge together – and it is not a student’s voice that matters: it is her willingness to search for that voice. Schools frame this search as standardized obligation, but writers know the working truth. We find linguistic power from a place of dreams and fantasy.

Author bio: Emily K. Michael is a writing instructor and tutor at the University of North Florida. Her work has been published in Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, and Artemis Journal.

The Character of Sound

In his book Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, John Hull calls himself a “whole body seer,” one who lives in a world seamlessly comprised of four senses. Like many blind people, Hull can detect seemingly visual features of his world through senses other than vision. He can understand where and how the rain falls by ear. Undoubtedly, he can tell whether he walks into an empty room or a room filled with furniture – just by how the air in the room feels as he moves. Describing how the brain of the blind person processes voices, he writes, “For the blind, people are not there unless they speak…When you are blind, a hand suddenly grabs you. A voice suddenly addresses you. There is no anticipation or preparation…people are in motion, they are temporal, they come and they go.”

I frequently experience Hull’s brand of vocal navigation. I am aware of an approaching person only by his or her audible personality. I must weave a narrative from the sounds around me. I will present two vignettes.

The first vignette places me in an environment where noises abound. Katie and I have plans to meet for coffee, and I arrive early. I sit down at a small, round table and pile my bags on the tabletop. I wait for the familiar jingling of keys that indicates Katie’s approach. As I wait, a person approaches me–through sound. A voice happens upon my ears. “Hilary? Is your name Hilary?”

I look up and search for the speaker. This is a complex spatial calculation; my mind places the woman in front of me, diagonally to my right—at two o’clock. I ask if she is speaking to me.

“Yes,” she says. “There’s a drink up for Hilary, so I wanted to see if it was yours.”

I explain that I am not Hilary, and I assume she walks away. She grows silent, so she ceases to hold my attention.

Moments later, a second voice emerges on my left—another woman, another courtesy. “Emily, I want to let you know I’ve just mopped this area. So be careful.”

I thank the unseen employee, whose voice is vaguely familiar. Unable to read her name tag, I don’t know who she is. I only know I’ve made small talk with her while she took my order and prepared my countless soy chai lattes.

Soon the jingling of keys – I think they’re keys, they sound like keys  – alerts me to Katie’s approach. Without fail, I can calculate about 3 seconds between the musical sound and Katie’s equally musical, “Hey Em!”

The second vignette finds me in a calmer, quieter place: the classroom. Here, I learn the location of students by the unzipping of bags, the shuffling of papers, the crunching of granola bars, and the beeping of cell phones. On final exam day, a new sound signals an approaching student—the chattering ice in a plastic Starbucks cup. I can construct a probable scenario from this ice, rattling as the student walks past. The noisy beverage tells me two things: the student was up late last night and the weather is hot today.

For the curious, I’ll add this: you can tell what kind of cup the student is carrying by listening to the ice. The ice in a plastic cup rattles more noisily than the ice in a styrofoam cup. You can also guess the quality and amount of liquid in the cup, depending on the speed and attitude of the rattling ice. I know from the sloshy rattling that my students are drinking iced coffees, iced lattes, or iced green teas. Frappuccinos, because of their smooth, blended texture, do not make a lot of noise until you get to the last few, desperate sips.

As students approach my desk to drop off their exam papers, I marvel at how many carry iced coffee drinks. To me, these students present identical audible profiles; each drink rattles in much the same way. When a student chooses to give a parting word, I can distinguish him or her from the crowd of iced coffee drinkers. I wonder if they realize their own anonymity in this case.

John Hull’s description of hearing voices makes the blind person seem like a solitary figure, suspended in a passive sea of sound. Unable to control who and what comes near, this auditory observer must discern and build his world. And from this perspective, this world-building seems like a lonely, vulnerable task.

However, building a world from sounds can create powerful realizations. Whenever I attend a concert, I intentionally sit far from the stage so that I won’t be distracted by scraps of visual perception. Sitting several rows back, I listen and find a place where the music itself rises upward—a unified fabric of sound, infused with human vitality. I often forget that the instruments, both human and man-made, are attached to human bodies. For me, the music becomes a seamless presence. Somehow the human endeavors are elevated, transformed. I forget about individuals holding bows, pressing keys, bringing the air that fuels the beautiful tones. I forget that the human voice resides in a human body. I can’t hear the boundaries of the human body, so the sound has no boundaries.

Beginning as perception, the boundlessness of music becomes poetry for me; it becomes the cornerstone of my musical philosophy. I immerse myself in the collaboration, only to be carried upward beyond my own body. In the audience, I forget that musicians are tied to the earth; as a performer, I nourish my sound on this perception.

My auditory world-building exceeds the task of telling me who is near and what they’re doing. It creates or conveys the personalities of others and shapes the deeper core of my understanding.

Hearing Voices

It’s the first day of classes for the spring semester. I am a graduate teaching assistant for a Disability Studies course, and my professor wants to introduce me to the rest of the students. Skillfully, he guides me to the front of the room, and I greet the class. I explain to them that, while he will be matching names to faces, I’ll be learning to recognize their voices. My professor turns to me and says, “Oh, are you good at that?”

Here, I am tempted to respond, “Not really, but I like to stick to the same method whether it works or not!” Instead, I decide to say, “Yes, I am good at it.”

My simple declaration is rewarded by a student in the front row who exclaims, “That’s amazing!”

I demur, but time does not permit me to explain why my ability to recognize voices isn’t really amazing. The human ear can recognize and distinguish a staggering number of voices. I think that my ability must seem amazing and other-worldly because the average sighted person prefers or prioritizes visual recognition.

With this particular class, I am surprised at how quickly I learn their names and voices. As a student, I don’t feel pressured to learn my classmates’ names, but, as a TA, I feel compelled to know them. I am anxious that I will be violating some kind of sacred teacher-student code if I can’t identify my students after they utter a few words. As I’m trying not to be so hard on myself, I also ask the students to say who they are when they speak up. I slowly start to pin down their vocal characteristics.

Here’s how I begin to work it out:

  • There are 3 guys in the class. Two have very distinct accents and one does not. One has a very Southern accent, one has a slight Spanish accent, and the third, whose speech is not so drastically shaped by a different accent, rarely speaks up.
  • There are two girls with the same name. One speaks up regularly and always sits just behind me. She has a strong accent, and her voice is low, with a cool, crisp edge.
  • A talkative and intelligent girl who sits on the right side of the room (if I am facing the front of the class) uses a lot of frontal resonance when she speaks. This means that you could pinpoint locations around her mouth, teeth, and cheeks that give her tone a bright, young sound.

Observations like these come to the forefront of my consciousness when I am learning new voices. After I’ve learned to recognize a voice, the classifying thoughts slip beyond my conscious awareness. I can still unearth them if I sit and think about what makes each voice unique.

If I replay the voices that I really enjoy, I notice a series of recurring characteristics. I love bright, sunny voices – people who greet you as if the greeting and your name are their favorite words. My Disability Studies professor and my friend Katie epitomize this characteristic. What particularly delights me about Katie’s voice is that its consistent sunniness contrasts drastically with how her voice sweeps into a lower register when she’s disgruntled.

Other voices appeal to me for their texture or timbre (tone color). Voices that sound thick, substantial, and lively are particularly enjoyable. When I hear them, I ask myself, How can such a big voice be so agile and expressive?

I always appreciate when people tell me who they are. Because a greeting is usually brief, only a handful of syllables, I may not recognize a voice right away. Sometimes, I need a few full sentences before I can accurately identify a person. When I converse regularly with someone, I learn to recognize his or her voice pretty quickly.

Other times, I only need a word or two, especially if the person greets me in a unique way. A woman in my chorus always sings my name so that I will know who she is. Another told me, “I am going to keep saying my name until you can recognize my voice,” a statement I greatly appreciated.

Unfortunately, there are still people who insist on saying, “Hey Emily, do you know who this is?” or “Can you recognize my voice?” Though they may not intend to test me or put me on the spot, these situations are frustrating. Once, a former classmate spent a few minutes quizzing me about her voice and refusing to tell me her name, until my friend Melissa broke in, saying, “Emily, don’t you find it annoying when people won’t tell you who they are?”

Now, when people ask me if I can recognize their voices, I feign delirium and say, “Jesus, is that you?”

Another common frustration occurs when people try to disguise their voices so that they can test my “amazing” skills. Unfailingly, each person who attempts this maneuver thinks that he or she is the first to think of it. People distort the pitch of their voices and say, “Do you know who this is?” In these situations, I don’t hold back. I usually respond, “I forget the name but it’s someone really annoying” or “Some inconsiderate person?” (My friend Crystal says I should swing my cane in a wide arc and shout, “No, you weirdo! Get away from me!”) When people disguise their voices so that they can be dazzled when I correctly guess their identity, I feel like a low-budget carnival attraction. Do they realize that their antics are thoroughly insulting?

I find it endearing when people announce who they are long after I have learned to recognize their voices. Occasionally, someone – a professor, classmate, colleague – will start a conversation with me and add their introduction as an afterthought: “It’s Dr. So-and-so, by the way.” These little attentions are endearing because they’re considerate. They show me that the person speaking can empathize with the agitation I feel when I don’t know who is talking with me.

It is interesting and challenging to attempt to put my auditory perceptions on paper. I find that we have a rich and fairly consistent vocabulary when we’re talking about someone’s appearance – we rarely dispute characteristics like tallness, eye color, or skin tone. We agree that redheads are redheads.

When it comes to voices, I like to talk about resonance, placement, texture, timbre, and speech patterns. The terms I haven’t snagged from linguistics courses and singing lessons are usually my own, tailored to my perceptions. When I say that a voice is “thick,” “honey-colored,” or “bevelled,” I can’t expect others to know what I mean. I’m trying to pin words to the sound-feelings in my head. For this reason, I particularly enjoy writing poetry that explores the voices that stay with me.

For most, I think that the voice is an undervalued aspect of our sensory experience. When a voice captures my attention, I am willing to listen for hours – so that I can analyze patterns of pronunciation, inflection, and timbre. When I find a voice I like, I can’t wait to tell someone about it, hoping that they will appreciate it with me – in the same wild, fanciful language.

Rich, warm, wavery, or light, voices invite me to understand how people feel at any moment of utterance. They invite me to ask, How does this person sound? How does she/he want to sound? I believe that our voices hold more expression than we realize.