A book by Joan Didion
Speak for the Child
Author: Rhonda Johnson
Reviewed by Fran Lewis
Triumphs come to us in many different ways. Some when winning sports events, others when they land a great job of close a big deal. Important yet not all that startling in comparison to what others have done to create a world for themselves, quite different than we would ever known yet nonetheless remarkable, outstanding and triumphant. Imagine living in this world without your hearing and sight and those around you thinking you were not intelligent or smart? Imagine equating a hearing and vision problem to the capacity which a person can absorb knowledge or impart information to others. Prejudice comes in all forms and in many different medias, ways and forums. Prejudice is wrong and when one woman, whose story I will relate to you, decides to fight back, speak out and the let world know she counts and she is here, you will understand the true meanings of triumph and courage. Speak for the Child, the autobiography written by Rhonda Johnson will teach the reader many lessons as you hear Rhonda speaking out loud for herself and for others. Hear her inner most thoughts, read her words on each page and understand the battles that she fought as she relates her story in a unique and creative way. Thirty different streets each one comprising a chapter in this book as she takes you inside the journey of her life as you, the reader, experience each moment in time, second and event along with her. Thirty different streets, each having its own story like the squares of a special quilt, crocheted together into an intricate pattern each one telling its own story, each one so very dear.
We start at the beginning where she lived with her mother and her godparents. Learning from the start that life would not be easy for her. Learning that others would not understand, nor would she that her hearing loss was real, not caused by her lack of intelligence or her ability to speak for herself. As an educator I am sensitive to what she wrote about and to the fact that so many did not rise to the occasion and search for the reasons she could not understand, pronounce words correctly or appear, yet not really, hardheaded. Many equate lack of response to lack of intelligence or understanding. Calling a child names is never appropriate. Degrading a child and making that child feel inferior cruel and definitely more than unwarranted. Living in a world that she created for herself, allowing herself limited friendships we hear her thoughts and words as we meet her living on Street S and Rhode Avenue. Speak for the Child is Rhonda’s journey from being that young child who never spoke up to an adult who now has a strong a vibrant voice. Kids will live up to or down to what adults expect or don’t expect from them. It takes a rare and strong-minded individual to prove what others think they know to true wrong. But, Rhonda was strong in a different way. She developed her own personality and ability to survive by creating a Self that would disconnect her from the rest of the world and allow her to create her own way of dealing with others. Living with her godparents, then being sent back home was heartbreaking. A friend named Mary, who betrayed her and thrived on her being left out, picked on and ostracized was really no friend to her. Acceptance, love, belonging and understanding were what she hoped for but did not get. Teachers who did not fully understand her or try to find out why she did not have many friends or realize that the other kids were hurting her in more ways than one. A mother who believed what others told her because they were standing in front of children in a classroom and was too young to look past their words and feel her daughter’s pain. A young child who just felt out of place wherever she went except with her family in the Bronx. Growing up in the Bronx was great because the kids were great and everyone played together and everyone accepted you for who you were. Rhonda: I could never run fast or skip. I had bad feet that were totally flat. I understand how you felt. Getting picked on is not something foreign neither to kids today nor to me when growing up. Speaking for the Child you are speaking for so many today.
Things did not change for Rhonda that drastically in any school that she attended. Many of the teachers in my opinion did not handle the situations that she encountered at the hand of the other students in a professional manner nor did they seem to understand that she had a disability and was not stupid and it certainly had nothing to do with her intelligence of common sense. Moving around does not help and adjusting to new environments and trying to be accepted as a person and a soon to become young adult or teenager was not going to be easy for this author. But, one thing does ring true is that she accepted her responsibility to care for your younger sister when they were left with someone while her mother was setting up their new home in California. Even accepting her new stepfather was quite remarkable and trying to get her younger sister to speak and understand language. But, learning she had a hearing loss, wearing aides was not the solution that would bring the world to her and enable her to hear what most take fore granted just a simple conversation with friends. Loyalty to her family, the forgiveness she learned on her own and in Church comes through loud and clear in her younger years. The things she learned in the WOF church seemed to ring in her ears and in her mind. She understood the messages being taught and tried her best to become someone that was considered good. Yet, she was smart and no one really embraced her intelligence. Graduating from High School was a great event having both her father and stepfather attend. But, there is much more to tell. As Rhonda graduates High School and gets her BA from Biola and begins a whole new life as an adult on her own.
Throughout the entire book one thing is evident that she will never give up on herself even though others never gave her the true respect she deserved. The successes she might not think were many but each time you forged ahead, helped one of your sisters and realized your true potential and overcame another obstacle milestones were born and even more were to come.
Telling about her relationship with many different boys, her interaction with different family members you can tell the love and admiration she had for her stepfather and how she just wanted her mother to accept her for who she is. But, her hearing loss became a serious problem and how she learned to overcome it. But, then the same thing happened to her eyesight and things began to change for her one more time. Family strife, losses and more sadness followed her even as an adult.
Losing your hearing is difficult but losing your sight can really change your perspective on life and the way you handle things. Trying to find a job that she can succeed at, going to school and insisting she be treated like everyone else, getting a degree in teaching, and trying to find a real place for herself in this world, Rhonda Johnson learns many hard lessons in life that most should not have to endure or learn. Bullying is wrong. Families need to support you and not put you down. Common sense has nothing to do with a hearing or sight loss. Getting a machine to help her understand the words of others, use the phone and communicate allows the reader to know that she would not give up on herself no matter what.
Disappointments, operations, family strife, inner conflicts and many realizations about things ingrained in her by her mother, father and her church. At the end it is what lies within herself that really matters. Jobs that she succeeded at, betrayals she dealt with. Read this outstanding autobiography of Rhonda Johnson’s journey in life and understand that everyone is special, unique, and talented and hearing and vision disabilities are just that. People need to be treated for who they are and not what people think their limitations are. Read her story, listen to her voice and hear her as she Speaks For the Child, not just for herself but for every child that has endured the strong hand of a parent that hurts, the harsh words of others that sting and has the courage to overcome and succeed as she did. This is one autobiography that everyone should read. Straight from the heart, straightforward and honest.
Fran Lewis: reviewer
I am honored to have read and reviewed her story. My nephew is profoundly deaf. He can speak and sign but was born with severe nerve damage. His mother was told that he would never drive, sit up, walk, skate or do sports. He is a brilliant web designer, ice-skates, drives, father, and works for a major hotel chain. If you allow others to control your destiny they will. He did not nor did our author.
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