A Golden Oldie
It was my first job out of college and with great pride I finally considered myself a professional. My new identity and title was speech therapist in Baltimore’s city schools.
As I examined my case load and formed my schedule I looked at the challenges ahead.
The biggest question, after teaching a child to produce a corrected sound, is finding a way to help him use the sound in all positions of words, consonant blends and then in sentences. Speech therapists call it “carry over” when it is finally used in conversation. What a challenge it is to break a child’s years of incorrect speech habits. Even after the child learns the correct pronunciation, the new way of saying the sound is strange to him, and he tries to hold on to old familiar patterns. Often the parents are so used to the child’s speech pattern that the corrected sound sounds strange to them as well.
David was a second grader coming to see me for help with the “R” sound. As I compiled a list of objects containing these sounds for him to practice, I remembered a silly song from the early 1960’s, “Purple People Eater”, recorded by Sheb Wooley. It was a perfect grouping of words for him to practice. They were silly, colorful and current. Just right for a seven year old boy. If he enjoyed saying the words he would be more likely to practice them, while practicing the sounds at the same time.
The word “purple” has an “R” in the middle and the word “eater” has an “R” at the end. Those medial and final positions were the most difficult for David to produce; even now that he could say “Rabbit” instead of “Wabbit”. I sent the list of words home with him with a note requesting his parents to help him practice.
How shocked and incredulous I was later that week to receive an insulting, disparaging letter from David’s father. In the rudest tone I could imagine, he demanded to know how I dare assign his son to say “Purple People Eater”.
I had never been verbally assaulted before, or addressed so rudely and so angrily. I could not understand the reason for his furious outburst. I was doing a good job with his son. Why did the man sound so hateful?
To this day I wonder what he was thinking. Did he think the Purple People Eater was a monster and a frightening image; was he afraid his son would have nightmares? Did he think the title was sexually suggestive? Or maybe he simply thought the song was too frivolous to be taught in school.
I wrote the Dad an immediate note, explaining my reasons for asking his son to practice that phrase. I never heard from him again.
Recently I saw a television infomercial selling “Golden Oldies”. The channel played songs from the 1960s. Sure enough, “Purple People Eater” came on the screen and immediately transported me back to Baltimore.
I will always wonder: did that little boy ever master the “R” sound and carry it over to conversational speech, did his father ever develop a sense of fun or humor, and are speech therapists’ home assignments now controlled, managed and censured?
How does a person with good intentions and desire to help be so misunderstood and offensive to somebody else?