Note: I share this sermon illustration both so that you’ll have it for your library but also because it is a good example for rooting out whether a story is “true” or not.
So, before the story, here’s the back story: If you’ve been reading leaderhelps for long, you know that I value true stories as sermon illustrations. They seem to add to the emotional impact and power of the story. Because of that, I often triple check facts when I represent stories as “true.” I want to be careful I don’t regard a story as actual history, when, really, it’s fiction. Nothing wrong with fiction, of course, except when it’s represented as fact.
In the process, it won’t surprise you that I’ve discovered that many well-used sermon illustrations that have often been represented as “true,” aren’t. Or, at least they can’t be verified through any reasonable process. It will shock you to learn that many things the Internet claims to be true, are made up (gasp).
To this point in my research, that’s what I’m discovering about a very well known and powerful sermon illustration – The Whisper Test, by Mary Ann Bird (included below). Do an Internet search and you’ll find it everywhere. I count at least 30 books, articles or blogs that have referenced the story. I’m certain it has been used countless times in sermons. They usually write something like this:
In her memoir, The Whisper Test, author Mary Ann Bird tells a powerful story of growing up as a disabled child…
And then they follow with the illustration below.
And it is a very moving story. Yet, not one of the sources who reference it offer a footnote as to its original source. It’s as if they are copying it from each other and assume that the person before them verified its authenticity.
Based on my research, I think (and that’s as far as I can go at this point) the Mary Ann Bird in question was a freelance writer who wrote a column for the Foxboro (Massachusetts) Reporter and served as the dispatcher for the police department there. She was a faithful Christian who passed away in 2012 at the age of 83. I can find no evidence that she ever wrote a “memoir” or anything that could be classified as a “book.” Some accounts claim that Mary Ann Bird became a teacher herself as a result of her experience with Miss Leonard. This Mary Ann Bird was never a teacher. I’m guessing that she wrote the story as part of her weekly column called “A Bird’s Eye View,” but I can’t find any evidence of it.
I have a friendly librarian working on it for me and I’ll let you know what I learn. And, of course, if you are aware of the original source of the story, please email that to me.
Overall, it is a very powerful story and a good example of the importance of doing a little digging before representing a story in your writing or preaching as “true.”
Several months after first posting this piece on The Whisper Test, I was thrilled to hear from Mary Ann Bird’s daughter who confirmed the story. Let me share part of her email messages.
I am writing to comment on an article that I saw online in your publication from July, 2015. The name of the article was “The Whisper Test”, originally written by Mary Ann Bird. You questioned the authenticity of the author. I want you to know that that was my mother. She wrote the story many years ago, about an experience from her own life. The story was hers. She was the original author.
Daughter of Mary Ann Bird
Mary Ann was born in Brooklyn, NY in Aug of 1928. She was born with a very severe cleft palate/lip, which required approximately 17 surgeries that went into her teen years. She married our Dad, Will when she was 18. Our family eventually ended up in Foxboro, Ma, where she wrote most of her stories. She was a weekly columnist for The Foxboro Reporter, writing “A Bird’s Eye View”, which was a human interest story about family, town’s people & events. She also was a reporter for The Patriot Ledger for a time.
She became the first civilian dispatcher for The Foxboro Police department, and was secretary to the Chief as well. They then moved to Florida for several years in 1976, returning to western MA, and eventually Hopkinton, MA until her death in May of 2012. She never did write a book. She was never a teacher. She wrote “The Whisper Test”, which was first published by Guidepost. They actually bought the story from her. This was sometime in the early 1980’s. It was then published in the Canadian Readers Digest. It was then picked up & published by the US Readers Digest. It has been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul, but my sister thinks they changed the name to “A Genius for Loving” or something similar. I have heard it used on Joel Osteen’s program.
When I google my Mom’s name, there are so many references relating to this story. Prior to her death, she heard it used on Joel Osteen’s program. She was so truly amazed that this story had traveled so far. It really warmed her heart. Mary Ann had a long, blessed marriage to Will, had 4 children, 2 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren. She was a great Mom, who was loving, supportive, & caring. She and my Dad were devout Christian, taught bible study in their local town, and attended The Vineyard Church (Pastor Rob Davis) in Hopkinton until her death.
Thank you for keeping her story going. She would be so pleased. Thanks for taking the time to respond to my email. You are welcome to use any information I have shared. If there is anything else I can add, please let me know.
The Whisper Test
Mary Ann was born with a cleft palate before the time when reparative surgery was easily available. She was also deaf in one ear. In school, her classmates teased her without mercy. She couldn’t blow up a balloon without holding her nose or drink from a water fountain successfully.
“Oh Mary Ann,” her classmates would say, “What happened to your lip?”
“I cut it on a piece of glass,” she would lie.
One of the worst experiences at school, she reported, was the day of the annual hearing test. The teacher would call each child to her desk, and the child would cover first one ear, and then the other. The teacher would whisper something to the child like “the sky is blue” or “you have new shoes.” This was “the whisper test.” If the teacher’s phrase was heard and repeated, the child passed the test. To avoid the humiliation of failure, Mary Ann would always cheat on the test, secretly cupping her hand over her one good ear so that she could still hear what the teacher said.
One year Mary Ann was in the class of Miss Leonard, one of the most beloved teachers in the school. Every student, including Mary Ann, wanted to be noticed by her, wanted to be her pet. Then came the day of the dreaded hearing test. When her turn came, Mary Ann was called to the teacher’s desk. As Mary Ann cupped her hand over her good ear, Miss Leonard leaned forward to whisper. “I waited for those words,” Mary Ann wrote, “which God must have put into her mouth, those seven words which changed my life.” Miss Leonard did not say, “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.” No, Miss Leonard carefully leaned over to get as close as possible and whispered, “I wish you were my little girl.”