Student and instructor share an extraordinary journey

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 June, 2007, 12:00am

Kumon has many impressive and touching stories about successful instructor-student relationships, but none perhaps as extraordinary, life-affirming and moving as that of Sharyn Gormley and her student, Michelle Herbst, both from Gladstone, Queensland in Australia.

Ms Gormley and Ms Herbst were special guests at the recent Kumon China Instructors' Conference 2007, where they told the audience about their shared experience and the long and winding learning road they had travelled together.

In November 2005, Ms Gormley, a Kumon instructor, got a call from Ms Herbst's mother, who was distraught and was looking for someone who could help her 29-year-old daughter to learn to speak again. Ms Herbst - an assistant librarian, married, and a mother of two young boys - had suffered a massive stroke a year earlier which had left her paralysed on one side and unable to communicate.

A month of rehabilitation in Brisbane and three months back home with her husband and sons had not resulted in much progress in Ms Herbst's condition. Finally, she returned home to Gladstone to join her husband and children with her mother's support.

Regional areas in Australia tend not to have the specialised physiotherapy support that stroke victims require, and when Ms Herbst's mother sought a speech therapist, she was told that therapy would be available only once a month, and just for half an hour. It was at this desperate point that Ms Herbst's mother turned to Kumon for help.

When Ms Gormley heard Ms Herbst's story over the telephone and agreed to accept her as a student, she had no concept of the challenge she was taking on. But when she saw mother and daughter, she knew there was no turning back.

'When I met Michelle and her mother for the first time, I immediately felt drawn to help them,' Ms Gormley said. 'But to be frank, I wondered what on Earth I could do. I am a Kumon instructor, not an expert in brain injuries.'

What followed was a protracted, trial-by-error effort to get Ms Herbst to talk again. As a trained Kumon instructor, Ms Gormley used Kumon methods and Kumon education philosophy as the basis for her speech therapy programme for Ms Herbst.

There was great determination on both sides: student showing every desire to master words, starting with the simplest, most basic sounds, and instructor casting around for anything that could help her in this task.

'I would not give up because I wanted my life back,' recalled Ms Herbst.

Ms Gormley knew that progress would be excruciatingly slow. 'She knew exactly what she wanted to say, but the thoughts and words were jumbled. Michelle was very aware most times when she said the wrong word or could not find the words she needed. It was heart-wrenching to see her struggle with such simple tasks.'

It so happened that some time earlier Ms Gormley had read a magazine article that had made a strong impression on her. It was about a stroke victim, a doctor in Japan, and his therapist, Fumiko Nakamura. Ms Gormley was especially struck by a quote from Ms Nakamura: 'Everyone has potential, without exception'.

She recalled a breakthrough moment when she was suddenly inspired to sing a nursery rhyme to Ms Herbst.

'I started singing 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star', and instantly I noticed a little twinkle of recognition in Michelle's eyes.' It was the moment when both instructor and student knew they were on their way.

During their sessions together, Ms Gormley used sign language and Kumon flash cards to prompt Ms Herbst. They began with the letters of the alphabet. Soon verbal sounds began to take shape as articulated words, one painful syllable at a time.

'Michelle gradually learnt to hold more than one word in her head at a time, then a whole sentence. When in one session she repeated five words accurately, I felt this was a breakthrough and that maybe I did have something to offer her.'

Ms Herbst was also learning to write words, shakily at first. It was all uphill, but the progress was apparent.

Slowly, over the months, Ms Herbst went through level after level of the Kumon language course. And now, more than 1? years and hundreds of Kumon worksheets later, she is able to use language again. She is communicating freely with family and friends, she is back at the wheel of her car and, best of all, she is back at her job at the Gladstone City Library.

'Going back to work has been terrific for her self-esteem, confidence and feeling of worth,' Ms Gormley said.

When Ms Herbst and Ms Gormley were invited to speak at the Kumon China Instructors' Conference 2007 in Hong Kong, instructor suggested to student that they use a short speech that Ms Herbst had recently given at a national conference in Brisbane.

'But Michelle scoffed at the idea of rehashing a used text,' Ms Gormley said. 'She insisted on preparing a fresh and longer speech for China.' This speech came to about 200 words. In it, Ms Herbst said: 'I had a dream that one day I could go back to work. The doctors said no, but I wanted that so much that I kept fighting.'

For Ms Gormley, it has been a life lesson. She said she had a quote she wished to share - words by the American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson: 'Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.'



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