Twenty-nine years ago, I wrote a story about my 3-year-old son, Joe. I typed it using an infernal machine that worked by having metal keys strike an inked ribbon. I sent it as a gift to a friend of mine, who was just starting her career as a speech therapist at a local high school. I never expected to see it again — because we couldn’t “save” documents in those primitive times. When she retired last week and was cleaning out her office, she came across it and mailed me a copy. So, here is the long lost “Conversations with O”:
My son, Joe, has invented his own language. It’s loosely based on English but Joe uses only five of the available 26 letters and these letters happen to be vowels. Because I am not fluent in Joe’s language, I find conversation with him rather difficult. For instance, his word “ee” could refer to a wide range of subjects including “street,” “tree,” “see” — you get the picture.
Despite this difficulty, Joe has very high standards of communication. If he says something, he expects you to repeat it to show you have comprehended, like he’s giving a military command. You can’t get around him with, “Oh, I see,” or “Sure, Joe.” He’s like a Gila monster with a word. He gets a death grip on it and won’t let go until his listener can repeat it in English. If you don’t understand it the first time, he says it louder, like an ignorant tourist in a foreign country. This increase in volume does not make things any easier but distorts Joe’s word further.
Although Joe is a man without a consonant, I’ve made great progress in learning his language and can usually figure out a word’s meaning from its context. Occasionally, though, Joe introduces a new vocabulary word unexpectedly. This happened not long ago, when he came into the kitchen and asked for an “aa.”
Now if we were playing baseball, “aa” would refer to the bat. I tried every object in the kitchen that had an “aa” sound. “Do you want an apple, an ashtray? Do you want to wear a hat?” This was getting nowhere and poor Joe was frustrated saying “aa” louder and louder. Then I thought of pantomime. “Joe, point to what you want!”
It turned out that what he wanted was somewhat abstract and couldn’t be pointed to. Close to tears, Joe changed from “aa” to his consonant-less version of “granola bar” which I can’t begin to reproduce here. Then I understood, “You want a snack?”
“Yeah, an ‘aa,’ Joe said with relief.
Although I admire the minimalism of Joe’s language and the economy with which it can be written and spoken, I don’t know whether he should use it in place of English. It’s not so difficult for Joe to be understood around the house but not many strangers can converse with him. I finally heard about a program at the local school that I thought could help him.
I’m proud to say that next week Joe is starting his Spanish lessons.
Twenty-nine years later, Joe is a smooth-talking Realtor with the precise diction of a TV news anchor. Our “miracle worker” was speech therapist Sandy Kupensky. Sandy retired from District 91 in 1994 but is still going strong, helping children overcome their speech problems. When I reminded her of the difficulties of a student named “O,” she instantly remembered Joe going through that phase.
So I’d like to thank my friend, Cedes, for returning the story and Sandy for helping our kids. There’s a special place in heaven for both of you.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.