Shoulder the Lion

Seems like I’ve been thinking about abilities/disabilities a lot lately. I’ve written about Brenda Brueggemann’s brilliant work—and recommended her “Why I Mind,” which is on YouTube—and our Bread Loaf class has been doing quite a bit of soul searching in terms of our relationships, as teachers, to students with varying abilities/disabilities.  And now comes Shoulder the Lion, a documentary film by Erinnisse Heuver and Patryk Rebisz.  Because a good friend is featured in the film, I drove to the Rafael Cinema House in San Rafael a few days ago to see a screening.  Knowing my friend, I expected it to be good: but in fact it was so far above good that I was just stunned.  You will want to check it out at

This searing documentary tells the stories of three artists:  Alice Wingwall, an artist and photographer who lost her sight in 2000; Graham Sharpe, an Irish musician whose advancing Tinnitus makes it impossible for him to participate in his beloved band; and Katie Dallam, a veteran and psychologist who lost half her brain in a boxing match (“Million Dollar Baby” was inspired by this event).  The film moves back and forth among these stories, as the artists speak directly to viewers of their ongoing work and the emotions that accompany it.  In the Dallam sections, we learn that losing half her brain left her with “nothing, nothing at all.” She had no memory, and she had to re-learn absolutely everything, from eating to speaking.  Eventually, Dallam discovered art and found that her “disability” had taken away all her inhibitions.  The results are fantastical, larger than life, monstrous, fabulous, riveting sculptures and paintings.

Sharpe never tells us how his tinnitus developed or whether doctors have tried any treatments, but he dwells on his emotional state as he sank into and eventually accepted the fact that no matter what he would hear ringing in his ears:  the sound, he says, is like TV static, with no reception, and it’s LOUD.  He turned his talents to building a music festival in Ireland, which after ten years had won the reputation of “Best Small Festival” in the country. At the end of the film, we see him sitting in a field, strumming his guitar, and writing lyrics, something he continues to do even though he can’t really play them.

Alice Wingwall, a dear friend for well over a decade now, speaks eloquently of losing her vision, of her deep anger at being blind, of her realization that “seeing” is about more than vision, of her sadness that so many sighted people today do very little true seeing—bombarded by images as we are—and of her determination to keep on capturing images.  And so she does, as brilliantly and dramatically displayed in the film.  With her husband, architect and writer Donlyn Lyndon, she answered questions after the film in her typical straightforward, witty way.  And we met Rumba, her guide dog, who took the entire screening in stride, as though she knew she was a “star” of the show.

This film, and the artists represented in it, give testimony to an argument Shirley Brice Heath has made throughout her career:  that some form of art (music, dance, sculpture, painting, drama) is essential to human development.  Heath’s work with youth groups across the country has engaged young people in artistic endeavors, and for decades she has documented the progress they have made and the way in which art has enriched and changed their lives.

Of course, I think of writing as an art—and speaking as well.  That’s one reason I want writing teachers everywhere to focus on the ART of and in writing/speaking.  The style, the rhythm, the cadences, the syntax, all of which bring a written or spoken performance to life.  As teachers, we need to remember that all people have artistic potential (just ask comics artist Lynda Barry, and check out her books!), and especially so those with “disabilities.”

Michelle Obama’s speech to the DNC

¬¬Like many Americans, I stayed close to a TV on July 26, listening to the prime time speeches during day one of the Democratic Convention, just as I had done a week before during the Republican Convention. I knew there would be protests, that Sanders supporters were set to make a stand, and that Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Michelle Obama, and Bernie Sanders would speak.
I expected all the speakers to do well—to deliver their messages with pride and passion. And they did. But from the moment the first lady stepped onto the stage, I sensed a change in the convention hall. She was radiant in deep blue, with that wide smile and direct way of looking at her audience. As she began to speak, the raucous crowd quieted; all eyes on her, and then she delivered what to me was the most impressive speech of either convention so far. In roughly 1500 words, she supported her husband’s legacy, showed why Trump would be an inadequate president at best (without ever mentioning his name), explained why she supports Hillary Clinton (and why it’s important that girls everywhere think of it as routine for a woman to be President), and underscored her (and Clinton’s) focus on children and families. This brief speech packed a powerful yet subtle punch.
I took a closer look at the speech today, and came away impressed again with our first lady’s ability to connect to audiences and with the strategies she uses to do so. Of the roughly 1500 words in this speech, 43 of them are “we” “our,” or “us”—and another 35 are words that refer to young people—“kids,” “daughters,” “sons,” “children,” “our children,” and so on. The repetition of these key words hammers home her message: that the decision we make in November will affect how our children are able to lead their lives. And in this endeavor—this focus on the good of our nation’s children—Ms. Obama aligns herself with Secretary Clinton, as mothers who care above all for “our children.”
So repetition is one key to the power of this speech, but alliteration and parallelism also work to make the words very memorable: “the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation”; “character and conviction”; “guts and grace”; and many more. And the use of simple word choice and syntax underscores and amplifies sentences like “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”
So this is a speech to savor, and to save. I plan to use it in classes, asking students to read it and then carry out their own mini rhetorical analyses, then to watch the speech as Michelle Obama delivered it, noting her pacing (flawless), her pauses, her facial expressions and body language. My guess is that students will learn a lot about how they can improve as speakers and presenters. And that they will have more insightful and thoughtful responses to the message the speech sends from having done so. You and they can watch the speech here: