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How A Blind Priest Taught Me To Speak

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I wasn't expecting a priest to equip me for life but he did. It started on the first day of theology class in catholic high school in Pennsylvania.

My theology teacher was a blind priest. In our discussion-based religion course, he identified students by the sound of their voices. Like many high school girls, I was an upspeak offender. When I talked out loud in class, everything had the spoken equivalent of an ellipsis or a question mark on the end of it.

My impression of this cassock-wearing-magnifying-glass-carrying clergy was a cross between an amused version of fear and complete bewilderment. In high school, I was pretty quiet. I liked to read and write. I even had an interest in religion. His class was supposed to be a breeze. Yet even the space itself was tough to wrap my head around. The priest loved ships. The classroom was decked out in nautical paraphernalia. The hall pass was in the shape of an anchor.

In an effort to prepare us for life, the priest would halt discussion until his students pronounced statements with periods, often having us repeat things over and over until they sounded authoritative.

If I sounded nervous in his class, it's because I was. Class discussion had to be spoken self-assuredly but that wasn't the priest's only demand. He insisted that our names be said with extra confidence. Before participating, you announced your name so the priest knew who was speaking. If you didn't say your name with power, the priest made you try again. And again.

When I was 16, the last thing I wanted to do was say my name with power in a room full of eye rolling sophomores. It wasn't that I was particularly shy or insecure, but I used upspeak to prevent myself from sounding like the theology-loving dork that I really was. Upspeak helped me blend in to the attitude of apathy that some high school students often revert to for social safety. Mostly my tone revealed what I had picked up subliminally through teen pop culture - that being liked was more important than sounding smart.

My teenage battle with upspeak happened long before the NY Times analyzed the vocal trend of high rising tone by painting young women as vocal trendsetters for knowing how to signal likeable social cues. Yet the priest wasn't concerned with any of that. He told his students that one day, they would be interviewing for an important job and if they didn't say their name with authority, they wouldn't get hired.

In the years to follow, I thought of him on job interviews and in everyday introductions where I say my name out loud with a period just like he insisted I do.

When I contacted him years later to say thank you for all of the solid name-saying practice, he told me his slogan is "down with upspeak". When I asked him where his personal campaign against speaking with a question mark came from, he said, "Since I do not pick up on facial expressions, I rely more heavily on vocal inflections. Most people, I think, are influenced by vocal intonations but do not realize it."

I recently remembered an actual assignment from his class. Our big paper was to write a reaction for a volunteer project. Using Bible verses, we had to illustrate the deeper meaning of service. When the priest got to my name in the stack of graded papers, I cringed when he asked where I was. Sighing, I braced myself for more speech workshop madness. When he got to my name, he said, "Your paper had my reader in tears."

He had an employee read student papers out loud for him so he could grade them. I don't remember what I wrote about but I do remember pouring my heart into it like I usually did with that sort of stuff. When he passed along that whatever I had written made an adult male cry, I was flattered. However, what he said didn't really resonate until I put all the pieces together as an adult who is starting to write about faith for a living. Not only did he teach me how to speak, but he also encouraged me to find my voice - something both the priest and I needed to find in order to make our way in this world.

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