Part 2 of our interview between Event Co-Chair Ann Cramer and Honoree Comer Yates
Ann Cramer: How do you prepare professional development for adults to value it and then do it?
Comer Yates: I guess it’s around just having a value system in a school. You start with the idea that our job here is to liberate the goodness and genius of children. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the goodness and genius for a child who’s dyslexic won’t be revealed immediately through a read-aloud to their classmates. But from the time they are here, we can get them involved in the arts and develop liberating them through the art.
Ann Cramer: Literacy is something critical to you that came up at the luncheon. We talked a lot about literacy stories there. Tell us more about your literacy story and how that lives at the speech school.
Comer Yates: My most impactful literacy story is around reading To Kill a Mockingbird with our daughter [now a 26 year-old special education teacher receiving her speech language pathology masters] when she was in seventh grade. I read it as a high school student, but reading it through the lens of an adult, I think it’s the best book on parenting I’ve ever read. Because of how Atticus is a parent to Scout, along with just the brilliant writing of the book. For me, how that book lives on, is the scene where Scout’s first grade teacher gets furious with her because she had already learned how to read. She’s telling Scout, you’re going to have to forget who taught you to read. Scout responds, Oh, nobody taught me to read. The only thing I’ve ever done is sit on Atticus’ lap while he was reading the New York Times. Then the teacher goes on asking other children what they know. And Scout realizes all her classmates have spent their lives cutting cotton and feeding the hogs. Still, when the teacher points out objects above the blackboard and asks everybody what they are, of course they know their letters, because everybody had repeated them throughout the first grade. Scout sees the emptiness of letters without language, without a voice. And of course, that’s what we’ve done to our children. We’ve taught them the skills of the alphabet but not the language to attach to it. That language comes from the arts, comes from parents who engage with their children from the last trimester of pregnancy. In 1960 Harper Lee really defined what our literacy crisis is. That was 58 years ago. She, in three quarters of a page, identified what we’re still doing.
Ann Cramer: What would you do to advise parents in terms of their children’s literacy?
Comer Yates: If I could wave a wand, I’d make sure that every parent reads Thirty Million Words, which is a book around the importance of these first three years of life by Dr. Dana Suskind, who’s a neurosurgeon at the University of Chicago. At Grady Hospital, we’re working to have every parent equipped for this. The research is clear around the universal aspiration for parents to do the very best for their children. The differentiation point is around parents who feel powerless to do so based on if they’ve had generational access to educational opportunity. Programs that say things like, “Make sure you read 20 minutes a night to your child…” Well, if I was denied that because I was one of those children who’s cutting cotton and feeding the hogs…I’m supposed to dare to give my child every chance and now I realize I won’t be. At Grady, we’re coaching parents on how to be their baby’s conversational partner through what’s called Talk With Me Baby. We’re not going to let a Grady Birth Hospital baby leave without mom or dad’s capacity to provide language nutrition to their child. What we’re saying to mom is, there are lots of things in your life over which you don’t have control, but the most precious, most important thing in your life, your child—you have complete control because here is the undisputed truth: talking with your baby will make your baby’s brain smarter. Your child’s brain and heart are in your hands around this voice.
Ann Cramer: That’s the magic wand, then: integrating the literacy component with arts education, culture, and expression. So, for all children born and the adults in their lives, what would you wish?
Comer Yates: Well, what I’d wish is for them never to be told to be quiet. We’re doing damage to children neurologically in several areas of the brain by telling them to be quiet. Certainly, there are times where we need silence, but we’re seeking silence in order for children to be able to listen. At the Atlanta Speech School, we rely heavily upon the Chinese symbol for listening, which shows us that in order to listen, there are four things that are open in you: ears, eyes, heart, and mind. It would be redundant to have a part of that symbol include a closed mouth. Closed mouth will occur as a result of those four things being open. Yet the behavior upon which we’ve concentrated is the closed mouth: a willingness to give ourselves up to somebody else. To really hear another person, we respect what they have to say, take it to heart, act upon it. And of course, you know, that’s why the arts are so powerful. I mean, compliance for us in the south is a product of 400 years of danger for African American children having a voice. I remember my dad: it meant so much to him to get Paul Winfield to perform on the Alliance stage.
But this is connected to a study we did on implicit bias against African American boys in preschools. We partnered with Walter Gilliam who’s head of the Zigler Center at Yale on the developing child. This potential bias was measured by teachers looking at the behaviors of four age demographics: white boys, white girls, white African American girls, and African American boys. Video clips were shown of each group of children engaged in essentially the same behaviors. Teachers watched and clicked when they saw non-compliant behavior, and a large disparity was found in identification of African American boys. The teachers who demonstrated the greatest bias were actually African American women, because of their requirement to exalt those boys’ compliance—in order to keep them safe. So what they’ve done—what’s been forced on them by southern society—is a focus not on language, not on voice, but instead on critical and non-critical thinking. By focusing on obedience marching down the hall, we’re just destroying the frontal cortex around executive function, destroying the auditory channel, defeating and pruning all sorts of neurons. Not as a part of African American culture, but as a result of a society that made those voices dangerous.
When you see kids at a performance or you go out to schools and they’re telling kids Shh, you’re just seeing the outer bands of that deadly storm. It is a part of a brutal toxic existence that we brought children up to be chattel and to raise chattel: Jim Crow perpetuated in 2018. But it’s all in context around what the arts need to do to liberate the goodness in genius of children. That’s what has always struck me.
Ann Cramer: Comer, it’s been an honor to participate in this precious conversation. I’m humbled by the experience. Your statements at the luncheon were magical, marvelous, and motivational as well. Many, many thanks to you!