The Power of Words – Gordon Barnhart

Words are power, and to see someone who has always struggled with words learn how to read is the most powerful experience.
I should know. I feel that power every single day.

My name is Gordon Barnhart, and I am president of the University of Saskatchewan. Words fascinate me. Words inspire me. And for my entire life, words have been a huge difficulty.

When I was growing up in Saltcoats, Saskatchewan, school was a huge challenge for me. My mother had a glimpse of what was wrong. “I can see that you are very smart,” she said, “but for some reason you are struggling to read.”

In those days, there weren’t all the kinds of tests that are available now. So I carried on struggling, all the while my mother doing all she could to encourage me to keep trying.

Our house was always filled with books, and even though it was very hard for me I never rebelled against reading. My mother used to seek out books that might interest me. She got me into the Hardy Boys series, which some might say isn’t great literature, but it was this series that really whet my appetite for words and helped me to keep trying.

But I still continued to struggle.

I never knew what the problem was until my son was born and started to read. My wife noticed that he was struggling too. He seems to be very bright, she noted, but he just can’t seem to read.

Thankfully by this time, there were many more resources available. After a series of assessments he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and a type of dyslexia.

When I saw what he was struggling with, I realized “this is what I have.”

I say have, not had, because the struggle is still there for me to this day.

I still struggle with words. I do a tremendous amount of reading, and I still get frustrated with myself when I don’t notice the subtle difference between the words “house” and “horse.” But I keep going. And I commit to giving myself the space I need to keep learning so I can do my very best every day.

I simply can’t imagine what it would be like to not be able to read at all. Language is so powerful, and if you struggled with the most basic tasks, the world would be a very difficult place. Looking up an address in a phone book. Reading a prescription. Or forming a relationship with your child through reading together at bedtime. If all these things were difficult or impossible, life would be very hard indeed.

But I can’t begin to express the joy I feel when I see people coming to language. So many people in our society struggle – more than we even realize – but taking charge of your learning is something worth celebrating.

The stigma of having a literacy problem is a high mountain to climb, but because of personal tenacity and great community support, it’s very climbable.

Thank goodness for organizations like READ Saskatoon who are prepared to tutor, mentor and teach those who struggle. People from here and people who come to us from all over the world can receive the help they need to embrace the power of words.

So, during Freedom to Read week this February, I hope that you will take some time to reflect upon the power of words in your own life, and consider the struggles that people right here in our own community face in their own journeys towards literacy.

Organizations like READ Saskatoon rely so heavily on volunteers and community support. So if, like me, you consider yourself an advocate for words, I hope you will consider giving your time to help someone who is just beginning to climb their own mountain.

Yours truly,
Gordon Barnhart
Interim President,
University of Saskatchewan

Credit: READ Saskatoon