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Learning the Alphabet

“Darn it. I know this word but can’t remember. What’s ijad? It’s a place?” I asked my brother via text. I had received the word in a message from my Hebrew teacher. Too embarrassed to ask her, since the word’s meaning hovered just out of reach in my mind, I reached out to him instead.”

“Ijad. One.”

I looked back at my notebook. AH-at, the feminine version of one. The capital ‘H’ meant it was a hard ‘ch’. The masculine version, I noted, was written eh-chad. I considered the reality that the two spellings meant two words in my mind.

I texted back, “Maybe I should actually learn the Hebrew alphabet. All these different spellings are messing up my word recognition.”

Wryly he concluded, “Usually the alphabet is the first thing you learn, but what do I know.”

“I didn’t think I needed it,” I replied. I only wanted to talk to my niece after all. I was trying to achieve that faster, but maybe it wasn’t a short cut. This wasn’t the first time we’d had a similar conversation. Normally, I was trying to lessen his parental fears when my niece couldn’t remember the names of letters she had seemed to know only moments before.

Literacy instruction was the first and closest to an almost specialization I had achieved in my professional development as an educator. I had memorized the debate points in phonics versus whole language instruction. I had subscribed and inscribed to balanced literacy instruction workshops multiple times. I knew that while letter identification and decoding were often gateway skills that they should not lock the gate. Other comprehension and critical thinking skills were as, if not more, important.

I had carried that belief along with an uncounted number of children’s picture books to Guatemala as for a variety of development positions. I had assumed the role often as the only student of that school of thought, a fact that solidified my position. If my view wasn’t centered, it could still contribute to overall balance in instruction and appreciation for children’s diversity of developing skills. Learning the Mayan language, Kaqchikel, pushed this ever forward. My teacher, in fact, was the one who cautioned against writing too much. He told me, I could learn to use the words without letters.

English. Spanish. Kaqchikel. Hebrew. Yet, I suddenly questioned more what learning the alphabet had meant to me professionally? To be completely honest, the adaptation of a wide educational lens that lacked a particular level of detail had passed unnoticed only up to a point, one that I had continued to ignore partly because I didn’t want to choose, to commit to a level of effort required for fluency. K-12, nonprofits, fitness, librarians, parents, coaches, I had become an oral practitioner, an interpreter, but not a true translator since I lacked the written, the official, academic, code. I stored this evidence in thirty cover letters. Final interview transcripts for my were full of youth development references that could read like an old Spanish journal where I wrote around the words I didn’t know instead of looking up the specific vocabulary or correct spellings. “Ijad”. “One”. When three spellings might be the one word, things just couldn’t make sense. Without belonging to any particular educator group, I had created a type of universal educational language that allowed me to speak and listen in any context to a variety of audiences in a broad way.

Almost five years had passed between my last attempts to learn a language, Kaqchikel, and the next, Hebrew. It also took just under five years, for a new educational language to accept me, that of Positive Youth Development. Similarly to my attempts with Hebrew, I had ignored key foundations in my attempts to be a part of the conversation. Just weeks ago on the horizon of my one year anniversary, a self-guided online course reminded me I hadn’t bothered to use theories in a data report that should be the A, B, Cs of what I do. General language structure, or educational practice, such as coaching, cultural relevance, marginalized populations, cultural capital, guided me but also gapped.

A few days after my original conversation with my brother, I returned to the original text. “Be ijad.” Something didn’t sit right. The ‘be’ changed something. ‘Be’ indicated ‘at’ or ‘on’. Made it somewhere? I checked with my brother one more time.

“Are you sure, it isn’t something else? There’s a ‘be’ in front of it.”

“Be ijad. Ah. Together.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that word.”

Together. The alphabet might not have helped me translate a particular word, but the lesson still stands. As a visitor, you can try and borrow words for your experiences and meanings. You can take notes with your own letters for someone else’s words. But, these are temporary actions. In the end, fluency means all in, all skills. Fluency means balance. Leading and following. “Language and communication are not the same,” I had once written. Yet, they are bound, together. Precision and purpose. Together. Correct spelling and understanding. I required balance, bits of the mundane to frame and steady the passionate pieces that had driven my educational career so far. And, my niece and I would continue to learn, together.

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