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Listening for others

Kamryn Paulsen

"Skeletal" Anna Turning

As a kid, I was often told that I was a good listener. I’m sure this was meant to be a compliment, but instead, it swirled around my head in never-ending waves of confusion. In my straightforward mechanical mind, listening wasn’t a skill, rather, something anyone could do. This praise seemed to make its way to my life right around the time my brother Ryan turned three. As his birthday emerged that year, he began to talk in a whirlwind, and with this, we noticed he had developed a slight speech impediment. His R’s became W’s, S’s became Th’s, the whole works. 


Friends and family tried their best to figure out what he was saying, but the majority of them fell short. I was the one exception. Maybe it was the bond of siblings, tied together with some invisible string, or maybe it was simply because we were kids, fresh with an aptitude of understanding. Either way, our parents soon realized that I could understand Ryan right through his mistakes. I became what is known as a familiar listener to him. 


For me—someone who lived with him, knew his interests, and understood his problem words—he was easy to figure out. As a result, my parents put me to work as an in-house translator. I took great pride in this job, and I developed a slight ego because of it. Despite this, our friendship began to grow like vines, faster and faster with each day. Although we had each other, being misunderstood so often began to enrage him, and even little misunderstandings sent him into fits, like pouring hot rain in the summer. This made me realize that nothing is more frustrating than feeling like no one can understand you, so I made it my goal to be the one to stop the downpours.


While most of our childhood passed by like a gentle breeze, there were some days like tropical rainstorms where Ryan was unpredictable and furious over his speaking problems. One of these days came during a hot sticky week in August. I was annoyed with the scorching weather, but fall would be on its way soon enough. That morning, Ryan and I had just been dropped off at our favorite place: our daycare. It belonged to one of my mom’s closest friends and the house seemed to glow from the inside out. It was small but cozy and contained our best memories and treasured friends. 


We began to play, screaming and running all around. After a quick game of hide and seek, the idea of Halloween was brought up. As we dreamed of creepy crawlies and sticky candy, we decided to go around the circle sharing our Halloween costume ideas. All of us were smiling and laughing, but my smile dropped when I realized it was Ryan’s turn.


“I want to be a ceninin,” he said. 


“What does that mean?” I thought to myself. 

The room grew pitch-black with confusion swirling around our heads. The calm of the day became windy and restless as each second went by. The other kids asked him to repeat himself.


“A ceninin,” he said. 


Once again everyone was stunned with confusion. He looked to me for help, but this time I was frozen. Not even I knew what he said. I racked my brain over and over again, and I began to feel embarrassed that I couldn’t figure it out. We took turns guessing but tensions rose like a tide. Ideas were thrown out one by one, all sent sinking to the ground by Ryan’s face. 


As the minutes went on, Ryan looked more and more uncomfortable. His fists began to clench up and his jaw tightened. The attention and embarrassment were making him antsy and agitated. He didn’t want to be left out. He wanted to share, too. What started as a rain cloud had turned into a full-blown hurricane. His rage turned to frustration as big hot tears began rolling down his cheeks. 


Soon, the other kids became uncomfortable, and one by one they were carried away by the wind to play other games. Only me and one other boy remained. The boy had a kind face and mismatched blue and red socks. I was at a loss until the boy broke me from my trance. He asked Ryan, “Can you tell us about your costume?” 


Ryan sat in silence for a moment until he thought of just the right word. “Bone,” he said.


After a couple of beats, the boy asked, “Do you want to be a skeleton?”


I watched as Ryan’s face turned from frustration to relief. The storm clouds began to move away, and the sun began to peek out from the clouds. His eyes had a slight glimmer as he wiped his tears away and nodded. The boy laughed while I sat in shock. I failed to understand him when a stranger could. What did he do differently? This thought followed me the rest of the day until my mom came to get us again. My jealousy melted away when I saw Ryan’s smiling face explaining to my mom that he was going to be a skeleton. She understood him after only a couple of tries as we had been practicing the word with him. The drive home passed by quietly, with feelings of comfort and happiness and not one cloud in the sky.


Ryan is thirteen now and no longer struggles with any sort of speaking issues. Even so, this day often pops in my head as a thought that won’t go away. Now, many years later, I finally realize why the boy understood him and I didn’t. One of the most important parts of listening is getting to know someone, and I lost sight of that. I didn’t want to hear about his costume or why he wanted to wear it. I only wanted to figure it out for myself, to show that I was a great listener. On that day I thought I lost my role in his life, and that we wouldn’t be as close. However, I soon realized that it didn’t change our bond and that he didn’t need me there babying him. True listening isn’t just hearing but is also understanding and responding. When I finally stepped out of this role, he was able to get out of his comfort zone and I was able to be a better listener. Listening for others, and not for yourself, can be the key to truly understanding someone.

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