19 May 2014

'Joyful Jim's Grand Adventure' - A Graduation Address

(Commencement Speech – School of Speech Language Pathology
San Jose State University, 16 May 2014)

His given name is Ian Christian Marsh.

He is my dear eldest son.

But early on in his unique and amazing journey, he inadvertently received another name.

When Ian was a wee lad, we bought him some little blue jeans. And we noticed that the ones that fit him the best were the 'slim' cut.

So, once we got the jeans and were heading out of the store, i simply called out to him, 'C'mon, let's go, Slim Jim.'

And a 'legend' was born.

It's not that 'Ian' is such a challenging name to pronounce that we had to shorten it. It's just that 'Slim Jim' rolls off the tongue in such a sing-songish kind of manner. It's fun to say. And 'Jim' is a great name because you can put any combination of adjectives in front of it and create a seemingly infinite list of new nicknames.

Ian laughs (which happens quite often) = 'Giggling Jim'.
Ian is excited about something (which is most hours of most days) = 'Jubilant Jim' or 'Jovial Jim' or 'Jocular Jim' or 'Jumping Jim'.
Ian smiles for the camera = 'Grin Jim'.
Ian jumps in any body of water = 'Swim Jim'.
Ian dances = 'Bust-A-Move Jim' or 'Boogie Down Jim' or 'Funky Monkey Jim'
Ian pushes the buttons on our answering machine quickly and repeatedly like a DJ = 'Rapmaster Jim'.
Ian pushes OUR internal buttons = 'Jeez, Jim!'
Ian just being himself = 'Joyful Jim'.

You get the idea. The possibilities are endless.

I even made up a little song about it that I still sing to him this day...

Slim Jim
Slim Jim
He's sneaky, slick and slim

Terrible songwriting, I know (I could have easily found a way to not use the word 'slim' three times in an eight-word rhyme). But it's catchy. And Ian loves it. (Especially on the repeat when I pause after the second ‘Slim Jim’, and then whisper the last line into his ear… ‘He’s sneaky, slick and slim!’ Giggling Jim EVERY time.)

And the song is true on multiple levels. Why, you ask?

Well, after a pregnancy that included modified bed rest for 4 weeks plus a case of toxemia thrown in for good measure, an induced labour lasting 17 hours, all of which led to a C-section delivery just after 1am, Ian arrived on the scene in his own unique and inimitable way. For my wife, Kirsten, and I, the experience took our breath away. It left us speechless, basking in boundless joy and wordless wonder.

Early on, Ian hit all his developmental ‘benchmarks’, just in a slightly delayed fashion. And while he certainly wasn’t chattering up a storm, the sounds he made were clearly the first steps towards developing expressive language.

Until he turned two. And then, all the sounds STOPPED.

His pediatrician referred us to a neurologist who assessed him. And out of her interactions with Ian and his wordless responses, she shared with us one word that no parent ever wishes to hear in connection with their child.


And in that moment, we found ourselves in a place very similar to where Ian was living his life:

Overwhelmed by a tempest of thoughts and emotions swirling within us.

And unable to express any of them with words.

Since Ian didn't have expressive language, he was very quiet, and therefore, seemed to be VERY sneaky and slick in his ability to appear and disappear from rooms, vehicles, stores, shopping malls, front yards, back yards, anywhere imaginable. Hence, the layers of truth in the song.

Our journey into life with a ‘typical’ child ended that day of his diagnosis, along with all the hopes and dreams that parents carry along that road. And our journey with a child with special gifts and needs began.

Those two proverbial ‘roads in a wood’ diverged. We didn’t choose the road less traveled – it was chosen for us. Or it chose us. Or maybe both. It doesn’t really matter now. Because however we got there, traveling that road truly has made ALL the difference in the world.

The sign markers along that road are different:

AGE 3 – Early intervention pre-school in Tustin, CA, five half-days a week, with four 20-minute intensive speech therapy sessions per week. Ian was categorized as ‘high functioning autistic’ with high-level receptive language and severely delayed expressive language.

To our surprise, he loved his first school experience. Not to our surprise, he loved riding the school bus even more (part of a lifelong love for anything that transports people).

AGES 4-7 – Continued interventions at Joseph Cappello School in West Windsor, NJ, five full-days a week, with increased one-on-one and group speech therapy. Continued riding of school bus as well (with increasing giddiness).

It was during this period of time that we received an updated prognosis:

If Ian did not start talking by age 7, he would most likely never talk.

His 7th birthday came and went with lots of cake and ice cream, jubilation and celebration and gifts. But no words.

His IEP deemed him as ‘essentially non-verbal’.

The road marks continued in similar fashion through moves back to CA (up the 101 to Burlingame) and then on to Missoula, MT, through childhood and adolescence, with new technologies and strategies, challenges and opportunities, realities and possibilities, hopes and fears, laughter and tears.

It was a developmental and emotional roller coaster scaling the heights of happiness and dropping to the depths of despair. And while his mother and I more often than not held on for dear life, Ian rode those ups and downs with his innate simplicity of spirit and joyfulness of heart.

In fact, it was through his simple spirit and joyful heart that we came to realize that Ian was not merely a person with ‘special needs’. While he does face unique challenges in his life, Ian has even more special GIFTS to offer the world.

For one, he is a person in whom there is literally no guile. Authentic inside and out. What you see is what you get. Naïve to a fault. The boy who at age 3 would streak out the front door of our apartment in his birthday suit in a ‘victory dance’ of joy after tub time is also the young man who at age 17 once jumped out of the shower and answered the front door in that same birthday suit in sheer anticipation of dear friends arriving for a party (thankfully, it was just his younger brother, Trevor, who was locked out of the house!).

Why did he respond in these ways? Pure, unadultered, innocent JOY.

He also is able to appreciate and celebrate the simplest experiences in life. Dancing and clapping as the cars and motorcycles and trucks rumble past our house in Missoula. Riding an elevator or escalator in a mall or an airport. Rising at the crack of dawn (or before) without an alarm simply for the excitement of a new day. Giggling with glee as the clock strikes 9pm and climbing instantly into bed at the end of that day.

Why? Pure, unadultered, innocent JOY.

In his unique and special simplicity, Ian reflects and reveals the profound undercurrent of radiant joy and hope and love that gives us life, that makes life worth living, that makes ALL the difference in the world.

A couple of months after Ian turned 8, we were making the usual bi-weekly sojourn from Burlingame to Redwood City for Ian to work with a private Speech Language Pathologist who was doing very creative work with him. Her name was Ms. Kerri.

When we returned to pick him up, we could sense that something was different. Something had changed. It was not only the look of astonished amazement on Kerri’s face that revealed this. It was the five words that she shared with us that took our breath away.

‘Ian spoke 14 words today!’

And in the rush of ecstatic excitement that followed, we were awestruck to discover that our breath that had been taken away was being given back to us through the words that came brokenly and beautifully from the depths of Ian’s heart and soul, surging up through his lungs and reverberating magnificently over his vocal chords and out of his mouth.

New gifts emerged from our specially gifted boy into our lives.

After all those years of silence, can you imagine what it’s like to hear your child say, ‘Hi DAD(dah)! Hi MOM(mah)!’ for the very first time?

Can you conceive of a parent feeling JOY at having to tell their child to be QUIET?

Extensive time and talent had been invested in Ian up to that point (and has continued up to this day). Numerous strategies and tactics have been employed to help empower his expressive language – the Picture Exchange Communication (or PEC’s) method, the DynaMite 3100 computerized augmentative device (an ancient precursor to the iPad) that was his ‘voice’ for a season, play therapy and picture/word association games, tongue manipulation and sign language, even blowing bubbles.

But while these techniques and tools were extremely helpful in Ian’s journey towards expressive language, they didn’t make the most profound and lasting impact on his life and ours. Rather, it was Ms. Kerri…and Ms. Linda…and Ms. Sherri and Ms. Susan…and Ms. Marshall and Mr. Moller…and Ms. Cheng and Ms. Chisholm…his dear SLP’s, along with Ms. Linda and Ms. Lisa and Ms. Jeanne and Mr. Bill and Ms. Sue and Mrs. B and Ms. Hynson and Ms. WyAnn, his dear teachers…the people who invested so much of their time and talent, energy and encouragement, creativity and care into Ian’s life. The ones who, at times, were our only hope when there was none to be found. The ones who joined us in believing in Ian when it seemed like there were so many more obvious reasons not to.

They recognized that Ian was not a problem to be solved but a person to be embraced.

They understood that their primary calling was not to cure him but to care about him.

They used their talents and techniques not only to fix what was broken within him, but to empower him to discover and express what was already whole within him.

We are all here tonight to celebrate a great achievement. You students have passed all your classes and comps, survived all your clinicals and placements (or you will very soon!). You’ve learned many of the tools and techniques of the trade as an SLP, and you’re ready to put your time and talents to use in service to others. Congratulations!

But you’re here not only because you’ve worked hard and reached the goal of graduating the Speech Language Pathology program at SJSU.

I sense that you are here because at some point or another in your life, you’ve had one or several profound moments connected to language that you cannot describe in language.

You’ve had experiences engaging with words for which there are no words.

You’ve encountered the breath of human communication in ways that have taken your breath away.

And you long to have the privilege of helping to give that breath back to someone else. To empower them to express their wisdom and wonder with words. To share their longings and love in language.

Believe it or not, you’ve been CALLED to this vocation. You may have chosen this road or it may have chosen you. But it really doesn’t matter. Because this much-less-traveled road you will travel is so worth it. And while that road will make a difference in you, I hope you realize that YOU will make an incredible difference on that road.

So as you begin your journey down that road…

May you remember that it is not merely your praxis that will make that difference. It is your PRESENCE.

May you seek to EMBRACE the PEOPLE before you strive to solve the problems.

May you use your talents and techniques not only to fix what’s broken, but even more to unearth what’s WHOLE.

On behalf of all the children, teenagers, adults and their families whose lives you will touch (and who will touch your lives)…

THANK YOU for choosing or being chosen to travel that road much less traveled.

THANK YOU for being willing to be a source of hope when none can be found.

THANK YOU for preparing to invest yourselves into the lives of all the ‘Joyful Jims’ (and ‘Janes’) out there on their weary and wondrous grand adventures through life.

Two years ago, Ian graduated high school with high honors. 

Next week, he’ll be turning 21 (and ordering his first beer, which I will then consume while he enjoys his Sprite).

I look at him in wonder and awe at all the challenges he has faced, all the expectations he has exceeded, thanks in large part to dear, faithful SLP’s.

And I look at all of you dear, faithful SLP’s (and soon-to-be-SLP's), and wonder…

Will you be instruments not only of information but transformation?

Will you change lives and change our world for the better?

As Ian would say in his heartfelt and simple wisdom, ‘YES. OKAY.’

Congratulations, cheers, blessings and deep peace to you all.

Joyful Jim & 'Dad(dah)' :)

SPECIAL thanks to Kristin Boyd, my favourite former-student-babysitter-turned-Master-of-Speech-Language-Pathology, for being inspired to become an SLP in part because of her interactions with Ian, and for graciously inviting me to speak at her graduation. 


  1. Love, love, love! What a genuinely inspiring and life-giving message, Brian. Those students were lucky to get you as their speaker!

  2. Thank you for sharing your amazing inspirational speech with your blogger fans - I wish I could have heard it, as I am sure it was even more moving in person! We all have beautiful gifts to share: Ian, these graduating SLP's, and YOU, Brian. God Bless

    1. thanks so much, Debbie…all the best to all of you :)

  3. Wonderful, Brian, just wonderful. Thanks for sharing your address with all of us.