It’s all about understanding


Several years ago I briefly taught a class in remedial English that focused on reading comprehension. Or, if you’re reading this and what follows, and you understand what’s being said, then your success in taking more instruction is guaranteed. But there were some challenges that came up which in some cases were never surmounted. Chief among them was trying to interest the bulk of the students in something they didn’t want to do in the first place — read, let alone try to help them comprehend what their eyes had just scanned. I had hoped that with time my own inexperience at teaching would evaporate and I’d be better at showing students how to improve their reading and writing skills, but life and ill health got in the way, and pretty much put the brakes on those plans.

But as has been said here previously, no experience is wasted and learning about understanding what we absorb each day from the news, work, the classroom, everyday experience and yes, casual reading, helped me as much as I hope it did the students. Getting at what a writer is saying, and I’m talking about expression of ideas in more than 140 characters on a tiny screen, opens up an opportunity at learning and exposure to a means of thinking beyond what’s found in normal conversation.

Okay, you might reject out of hand what the writer is passing along, but taking the time to read what’s said shows an interest in another viewpoint, like comparing two different accounts of an historical event, or even music reviews with divergent opinions on the artist and musical style. I mean no disrespect to Twitter as a source of ideas and information, because if what’s being said can be expressed succinctly and well, even brilliantly within its confines, there’s a sign of an effective communicator.

Understanding the volume of ideas, opinion and pure bluster surrounding us today makes reading and verbal comprehension that much more critical. It takes that kind of understanding to separate fact from fancy, to recognize the made-up from reality. As the political and cultural divide of our society appears to get wider, there is a corresponding growth in finding common ground and discussion over what makes us different. It demands we not only listen to each other, no matter how maddening and painful that can be, but also comprehend where we’re all coming from. I really don’t know how you can go about that given the events of recent weeks and the bile toward each other we see and hear just about every day, but we must learn to dial back the anger — it has been done before — and one of the keys is through the basics of comprehension we are taught when young.

I contend that teachers have their hands full with all of what’s now required of them in educating children, but fortunately, comprehension is one of the tools they routinely pass on to their students. When a child learns to read, part of the joy such a move creates is in understanding what they’re reading, as a story comes to life in their minds because each word is a building block in bringing the tale to life for the reader. If the word is unfamiliar, the context in which it’s used helps clarify the meaning, barring a check with the dictionary definition. It’s a learning experience that never ends for devoted readers. Yet I can recall the embarrassment inflicted on my parents when I’d ask what a certain word meant, only to be told never to use that word ever, and if I did and they heard me, expect the furies to be brought down on my head. So I never used it — when they were around.

In my own routine of late as I try to write more, I find myself consulting the well-worn, cover-less paperback Webster’s I bought for journalism classes back in the day to ensure I’m using the right word to make my point — and, as brain cells disappear, reacquaint myself with the correct spelling of that correct word. Further proof that in the end, it’s all about understanding.

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One thing I think we all comprehend and appreciate is laughter, which is why the loss of two famous comedians of widely different kinds of humor offer an interesting reflection for our popular culture.

Jerry Lewis, who was 91 when he passed away Aug. 20, created an audience that either adored or hated him for his manic style of slapstick and banter, the haters finding him childish and unsubtle, his real persona this side of repulsive. But to his fans, he was a cinematic comic genius on the level of Charlie Chaplin who, when his movie career pretty much fizzled by 1970, turned to the stage, night clubs and personal appearances. Lewis used the weight and force of his personality to make an institution of his annual Labor Day telethon in support of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, for which he served as its national chairman. For that achievement alone, his place in the hearts of many is assured.

On a different level was Dick Gregory, who was 84 when he died Aug. 19. Like Lewis, Gregory’s heyday was in the 1960s, but in the emerging world of social commentary in stand-up comedy as he held up a mirror to those socially divisive times (“I didn’t learn at home about hate, or shame. I went to school for that.”) Whether his message was hailed or reviled, he became one of the era’s iconic figures, poking fun at inequalities and prompting more than a little thought with his audiences. Gregory was also many other things, an activist, writer and occasional actor who remained current with the changing times.

May both men rest in peace.

P.S. — Allow me to put in a plug for a wonderfully insightful column on Dick Gregory by my old friend Tom Degan of Goshen, N.Y., available at “The Rant,” tomdegan@blogspot.com. It’s an engagingly personal look at a man who had a key role in a previously turbulent period in our history.

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It’s all about understanding

Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.