A Thought Deferred

A Thought Deferred

One of my favorite poems is “A Dream Deferred” by the preeminent poet, Langston Hughes.  “A Dream Deferred” is a short but powerful poem that has stayed with me for many years and I think of it when I get reflective about my life and wonder what might have been had I pursued career and other dreams that I kept putting off, things like my dreams of being a sports broadcaster, a husband, father, and grandfather.  Age has a tendency of sneaking up on you as time flies by until one day you look in the mirror and wonder just who it is you are looking at.  I’m bald?  When did that happen?  I have wrinkles?  How on earth did those get there?  Cancer has a way of accelerating the aging process, and that person in the mirror more rapidly and more dramatically becomes a completely unrecognized figure.  Since I have had cancer I have more frequently asked myself about my life and about dreams deferred, and why?  Why didn’t I do this?  Why didn’t I do that?  No regrets?  I can’t honestly say that because I do have regrets, but I must say that it is true that when we face a situation such as this it’s not so much the things we did that we regret, but the things we didn’t do.  Dreams deferred are over time regrets.

Now an odd thing just happened, and I suppose I can write like this since this is a blog or journal and if I get a little tangential I suppose it’s okay.  I wrote that paragraph as an intro into a discussion of the superior journal written by Roger Ebert entitled, “Trying to get a word in edgewise.”  My brother, Jim, was out on this cold Saturday morning collecting donations for a local charity, Charity Newsies.  He stopped in dressed in his wintry red outfit and we took pictures of him with Dad and then with me.  Jim and Dad looked good and are photogenic but I didn’t know that other guy in the photo with the swollen cheeks, messed up smile, and even balder head tilted to the side.  When did that happen?  Yesterday, Friday, December 10, 2010 was the one year anniversary of my tongue being removed and I suppose that transitional figure in the photo began to look that way a year ago.

There’s nothing I can do about that and given I am not going to meet someone with whom to share my life I am not so sure it matters.  I have bigger fish to fry than how I look right now, frankly.  As long as I can stay clean and take care of myself, which of course I can, then it’s all good.

To the issue at hand of dreams deferred and Roger’s journal regarding the inability to speak, the inherent shortcomings of these various text to speech devices, and what it is like when we try to share our thoughts but can’t, well, it makes me think of thoughts deferred.  In the Langston Hughes poem he wonders what happens to a dream deferred – “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?  Or fester like a sore – and then run?”

In every meeting I have attended since my return to work and in every conversation with family and friends I have erased or deleted far more comments than I have been able to share.  This is because of the nature of human conversation.  No machine, no app, no technological advance can change the inherent problem associated with human communication.  Given that I am now a more astute observer of the manner in which we communicate I have noticed that even a relaxing conversation has to be seemingly filled with words without pause.  Heaven forbid a person be allowed to pause and think to properly formulate a thought and share it in a more intellectual and thoughtful manner.  I blame television, especially 24-hour news, entertainment, and sports programs primarily for the demise of the art of listening, thinking before we talk, and allowing a person time to think and share rather than thinking of what we want to say and then leaping the very second a person pauses to think.  Watch any news program, and they are all the same whether you watch Jay Leno, Chris Mathews, Bill O’Reilly, the lovely Megyn Kelly, or even the popular Glenn Beck.  They all do the same thing.  No guest is ever allowed to talk for more than 20 seconds without interruption and the very split second a guest pauses to collect his or her thoughts here comes the interruption.  Of course, they all like to talk over each other and somehow that is supposed to make for good television.  It certainly makes for poor conversation and as someone who can no longer have a conversation I cry out at the TV and say, “Don’t you understand the beautiful gift you have that you are abusing!”  It’s not just the gift of speech I miss, I can get my ipad app to do that, it’s the gift of conversation, part of which is thinking and listening, not just talking.  In the meetings Roger and I have discussed we have experienced incredible frustration at not being able to share our thoughts.  It is not the machine, the app, or the pad we are using, it’s the nature of conversation that is too often abused.

It’s important to keep a conversation flowing, but it’s an art rooted in respect.  When I was teaching I always gave my students time to formulate their thoughts before they spoke.  Some young children, well actually kids of all ages, need more time than others.  Some need advance warning you are coming their way, and others need a second chance.  If you respect your students, if you want to hear what they have to say, then as a teacher you must allow them time to formulate those thoughts in their own way.  Many a time during a literature share I would call on a student and he or she would begin to talk and then anxiety or something else would interrupt his or her thought process and they would freeze. I’d just reassure them that I wanted to hear what they had to say and to keep thinking and when you want me to I’ll come back, and I would make certain I followed up.  Other students need time to prepare, in part for anxiety reasons, while others just need more time to organize their thoughts. I’d merely respectfully and softly say that I would be calling on them when they were ready, and sure enough even the quietest and most reluctant students would get to share their thoughts.  Thoughts are part of who we are – a very important part.  Our thoughts are as much a part of us as, well, our tongue.  My tongue has been removed and I cannot talk in a coherent manner, but my thoughts and dreams are alive and well, wishing to burst forth and be shared.  Will someone listen?  Is it possible for me to share my thoughts in a meeting?!  No, is the answer.  Not until we solve this larger issue of the way we communicate.

In school districts across the country the latest rage is a discussion of 21st century skills and when the issue comes up the first thing people jump on is technology and its incredible advances.  That stuff is wonderful and trust me I am into it.  I was Princeton’s Technology Teacher of the Year back in 2001 and I’ve tried to stay ahead of the curve, but that stuff takes you only so far.  Here are some 21st century skills we could all use – the skill of listening, the skill of thinking, the skill of conversation, the skill of valuing the thoughts of others enough that we will wait for them.  Are thoughts something worth waiting for?  A thought is rather like a warm, comforting meal.  Is a bowl of soup better when we wait and let it warm, or do we rush and for crying out loud not even wait for a microwave to warm it?  Certainly we all have our microwave thoughts that race through our minds and we have to express them lest we lose them, but it’s the deeper thought, the thought that first touches the soul that takes a little time to brew before sharing.  But will we wait?  Will we give it time?  I dare say a lesson I have learned is that most meetings are largely unproductive because of this very issue.  I’ve also learned that writing is a kinder form of communication for me.  I like to think about what I write, and yes, I change a sentence here and there, though mostly I am thinking and writing correspondingly.  It is in writing that my thoughts are not deferred, but does anyone read these thoughts?  What would happen if we all went to a meeting having actually prepared our thoughts and if we further were prepared to listen?  Would the meeting be more productive?  Would it be more efficient?  That is not to say that a meeting cannot be dynamic with thoughts flying around a room, because such meetings are wonderful and effective, but who catches those flying thoughts?  Do we give them time to make a safe landing?

The problem of failed communication is going to get worse, I fear.  Like a bad cell phone connection more and more thoughts are likely to get dropped.  Why? Those lovely cell phones we all have are both a blessing and a curse.  In my most recent meeting I observed participants “multitasking” with one ear on the presenter, and one eye on e-mail on the cell phone, all the while talking off task to a neighbor.  If a presenter were to pause to think then even more cell phones would get turned on with even more e-mails flashing about.  Is that listening?  Is that sharing thoughts?  Is that respectful?

So what about the issue faced by Roger, me, and thousands of others?  What happens to our thoughts when they get deferred?  Part of us is forever lost.  I didn’t need to have my tongue removed for that pain to occur.  I can tell you that losing my thoughts is in fact a greater loss than that of my tongue.  I want to live, I want to participate fully in life, I want to share my thoughts, I want to have a conversation! When I go to meetings I get so frustrated that I think my mind is going to burst because there is no release of my thoughts.  It hurts!  I often have to rub my dome in exasperation and I admit to fighting back tears on many occasions.  What to do?  What to do?

Langston Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?  Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?  Or fester like a sore – and then run? … Or does it explode?”

What happens to a thought deferred?  Does it cry out to be heard, then fade away?  Is it tossed away with the shriveled paper upon which it was written?     Or does it explode?


Read Roger Ebert’s article “Trying to get a word in edgewise”:  rogerebert.com


3 thoughts on “A Thought Deferred

  1. Hello Pat,

    I read Roger’s post about your email, and I was deeply moved by it. I lost my hearing suddenly and totally at the age of 39. The most painful and profound result of that loss, one I didn’t see coming at all, was the loneliness and frustration that resulted in no longer being able to participate in conversation, or in meetings. My experiences were very much like yours and Roger’s – trying to participate through written notes (received when people were kind enough to update me on what was being said – and always, always being behind the conversation, which had moved on. The most painful and crushing four words that a deaf or hard-of-hearing person can hear, in response to asking “What did she say?” is: “I’ll tell you later.” Because it’s not important enough to bother telling you now, and keeping you in the flow of the moment.

    I was extraordinarily fortunate in that my husband and our closest friend went along with me to ASL classes, the better to be able to communicate with me. But as has been noted, ASL is a complex and dynamic language, and it takes years of constant usage to become anything like fluent in it. It helped, to be sure, but it was – like the technical apps you and Roger write about – woefully inadequate, at least at the paltry levels we were able to achieve. At best we had a dozen or so signs that we could use consistently. That is not communication.

    But I am also extraordinarily lucky that I qualified for a Cochlear Implant, and a little more than a year after going deaf, I received one. (And thank god for the Canadian public health care system, which paid for it.) In the intervening years I’ve regained much of my ability to hear, although I cannot understand what’s going on in group situations. So I am blessed to have been released to a large degree from that prison I found myself in. But I am keenly aware every day of what I lost, and how fragile my situation is, and that I could lose it again any day due to a failure.

    I agree that people take their senses and abilities enormously for granted. My blood boils every time I see some idiot in a car with the music turned up way too loud, or see someone wearing headphones with the sound turned up so much that I can hear it. I want to shout at them that they can’t imagine what it will be like when they are older and suffering the isolation that their inevitable hearing loss will bring to them.

    I wish you well on your journey. You have an amazing spirit and I believe there may be more happy surprises for you in your future than you can anticipate now. Thank you for sharing your story. It had never occurred to me that the loss of speech could lead to experiences so similar to those I experienced as a deaf person (something which I will always be). I have bookmarked your blog and look forward to checking in now and then to watch your story unfold.

    very best,


    • Ronnie,
      Thank you for your comments and for sharing your moving story. Whether our issue is hearing, speech, or something else all we can ask for is understanding and empathy. Ronnie, I understand. I can understand your frustration with, “I’ll tell you later” and the hurt feelings and inner tears that accompany such a remark. I am genuinely happy for you that you regained much of your hearing, and as you said that you have been released from that prison. That is rather what it is like, and in some cases a life sentence, so I am happy for your reprieve. Thank you for your kindness and understanding.

  2. Mr. Bowes,
    I discovered your blog through Roger’s.

    Your article was interesting and reminded me of a time when I wrote a letter to my friends post graduation. It was a letter I posted on facebook where I thanked a number of my high school colleagues. My graduating class was relatively close with less than 200 people. Before I gave thanks, I expressed our need to take a step back and be thankful for what we take for granted most, and what we would be so devastated without: our bodies. My mobility, senses, brain, all of a sudden seemed so precious.

    The next day, a friend of mine thanked me for writing the letter and said he couldn’t help but scoff and giggle while reading the beginning. “You want us to be thankful for our senses? Haha.. don’t worry everything after that was good.”

    I can’t help but think that in America, the land of you can have it all, we foster a people who take everything for granted. We are a growing nation of easy access and faster connections and we don’t stop to slow down and breathe and realize how lucky we are. Your blog, Roger’s blog brings me back. While reading, I am able to take a look at the bigger picture. Thank you for your brilliance, insight, and wisdom.

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