Self-Esteem and Shame              


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SHAME: The Dark Heart of Reading Difficulties
Shame

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Real Cost is Lost Self-Esteem 

I think the main thing to emphasize for anyone who has worked with a child or with an adult who has a reading problem, either who is low literate or is just struggling with reading, is that it is very apparent that it is the lost human potential, the lost self-esteemÖthat is the most poignant. And, in the end itís the most significant, because the loss in self-esteem is what leads to a whole host of social pathologies that are very difficult to look in the face. Crime, substance abuse, and the school drop out rate -any of those things - they are very difficult to face. And there is a line to be drawn between low literacy skills and those social pathologies.

There is a twenty-seven percent drop out rate of students with learning disabilities; that is more than twice the rate of the general population Ölost human potential. And there are problems with substance abuse and juvenile justice problems.   And certainly looking at the general population of students that drop out, one can go to prisons and see that it is very apparent the majority of inmates lack reading skill.  

James Wendorf, Executive Director, National Center for Learning DisabilitiesSource: COTC Interview - http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/wendorf.htm#TheRealCostisLostSelfEsteem

Preservation of Self-Concept

David Boulton: The work of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in summarizing the reading research, seems to indicate that while thereís many different problems, thereís a spectrum of related problems involved here and that one of the first consequences, almost across the board to children who struggle with learning to read, is that they feel ashamed of themselves. They feel as if there is something wrong with them.

Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst: Part of the complex of reading failure is increasing frustration by individuals, children who are failing to read at their success in school and what school is all about. And it can in some cases, in desirable cases, resolve in greater motivation to try to get help and succeed. But in many cases it generates a sense on the childís part of helplessness; helplessness not only with reading, but helplessness with school. You find those children turning to other avenues to gain reward to gain self satisfaction.

So, they donít read well, so they donít read. They may play a computer game because theyíre better at that. So you find individuals shifting their activities into areas which they are getting a sense of satisfaction, a sense of reward, and away from activities that are frustrating, and thatís certainly the case for reading.

So, you see a pathway taken for children who are failing to read and itís a way of preserving their self-concept of succeeding, but itís a pathway that is not ultimately to their benefit because it takes them away from the activities from which they can derive knowledge and develop the skills that are important for success in school and in life. 

David Boulton: At a somewhat more implicate level the emerging emotional sciences, with respect to Ďaffectí and its driving and directing influence over cognition, have suggested that we operate in a way that once shame gets to a certain threshold level we want to move away from it. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development research studies are saying that children, because of the way we contextualize this whole reading experience, are feeling that there is something wrong with them because they canít do this. 

Again, weíre back to our beginning points: most of our children are to some degree in this space, for some degree of their education, feeling ashamed of how theyíre learning. And if shame causes us to want to move away from what causes shame, then we want to move away from learning. 

Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst: Yes, thatís certainly true. And we need solutions to this. We need curriculum solutions so that fewer children experience frustration and difficulty during the task of learning to read. We need to change the context of schooling so that the child whoís struggling in reading in third grade can have that problem addressed in a way that isnít stigmatizing to the child and doesnít generate the sense of shame. We need in some way to break out of the lock-step nature of elementary education so that if you donít have what the other children have in first grade for some reason you are forever doomed and will never get the opportunities to pick up that information.

So, it is a very significant problem and the emotional and social consequences of reading failure are extremely important and are the soquali of the bad experiences that come from sitting down with text and not being able to figure out whatís going on, or not being able to figure out whatís going on at the level of oneís peers.

Itís often the implicit comparison with what other kids are doing in the classroom that generates not only the shame, but in some cases, the lack of motivation to do better. That is, if the overall expectations for that classroom, those children are low, then thereís no shame on anyoneís part with reading failure or low level reading success. The teacher isnít ashamed, the school district isnít ashamed and the state isnít ashamed.

We need to create a context in which people understand that there is a problem, that they need to deal with it, but the child doesnít experience shame for having not benefited from the type of instruction or societal support necessary.  

Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, Ex-Director (2002-08), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Source: COTC Interview:  http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/whitehurst.htm#Shame

Difficulties in Reading Profoundly Undermine Self-Esteem

It's hard to separate language from the development of self-esteem, self-worth and struggling at school. Although Iíve heard many parents say you know, ĎItís such a frustrating problem: dyslexia or language learning problems because everyone looks at your child and thinks theyíre fine. If they just worked a little harder they would be just fine.' And yet you can see a child literally who started off being fine begin to wither on the vine as they begin to struggle at school and lose so much of their self esteem in the process.

So, this is a major problem. Not only is it a major problem for the long term economic development of the country - which of course is why I think thereís such a huge focus on literacy  - but I think itís also a huge problem for society to recognize the tremendous toll failure in school, which usually manifests itself earliest as failure learning to read, has on the development and the maintenance of self- esteem. on the sense of self of the individuals who have had difficulty learning to talk or learning to read or learning to communicate. Even when they have become successful adults, even doing very, very well, many times if you ask them about their earlier experiences you can still see the pain of that failure -  the sense of failure has never left them.   

Paula Tallal. Board of Governor's Chair of Neuroscience and Co-Director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers University. Source: COTC Interview - http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/tallal.htm#DifficultiesinReadingProfoundlyUnder

Ripple Effects of Reading Difficulty

I do see some very interesting ripple effects when kids are not acquiring reading skills. For example, it might be that a particular child in fourth grade is having difficulty keeping pace with reading comprehension or with decoding, and because he's having trouble with reading, he hates to read. And when he does read, he gets almost nothing out of it because he's reading very passively. And because he's reading very passively, he's not able to use reading as a way of building his language abilities. 

So, what oddly happens is that his language problems caused his reading problems, and his reading problems are now causing much more aggravated language problems. Those language problems, in turn, are going to make it hard for him to follow directions, communicate well with other people, and even use language inside his mind for something called 'verbal mediation.' Verbal mediation is the process through with which you regulate your behavior and feelings by talking to yourself. And believe it or not, a lot of kids with language problems really don't use language as a way of regulating themselves.

They get in trouble, they get depressed, because they don't have a voice inside that says, 'Yeah, I could take that medicine. I could take that drug from that kid, and hey I'm a cool dude. But oh, if I take it, I could like wreck my brain, and I could get addicted and my mother will kill me if she finds out, and I could get arrested.' And all of that comes out of language, that sort of verbal conscience that's guiding you.

So, if you go all the way back to the language problem and say, yeah, it's causing a reading problem, and the reading problem is causing the language problem, and the language problem is causing a behavior problem, and the fact that this kid can't read, and other people around him can read much better is eroding his self-esteem, making him feel pretty worthless.

Mel Levine, Professor of Pediatrics; Co-founder, All Kinds of Minds Institute; Director, University of North Carolina Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning; Author, A Mind at a Time, The Myth of Laziness and Ready or Not, Here Life Comes. Source: COTC Interview: http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/levine.htm#NegativeCollateralEffects  

Self-Esteem and the Affect of Shame 

I think the low self-esteem, the sense of shame, is life-long. At the National Center for Learning Disabilities, we have a wonderful board of directors. We have at least two individuals on that board, both of whom have dyslexia and both of whom are former governors. They are extraordinarily accomplished individuals, both of them dyslexic. And both have talked at length about the continuing sense, not just of frustration or memories of failure, but precisely a sense of shame that is still rememberedÖclassroom based, other children around, a teacher, not being able to do what other children seem to be able to do so easily. It stays for a lifetime. (More "shame stories") 

James Wendorf, Executive Director, National Center for Learning DisabilitiesSource: COTC Interview - http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/wendorf.htm#SelfEsteemShame

Reading Consequences on Self-Esteem

This business of being unable to decipher whatís on the printed page has huge consequences for a childís self esteem. That is the childís general concept of who he or she is has huge consequences for how we see ourselves relative to our peers and forces us to defend against this bad feeling in a number of ways that I call the Compass of Shame.       

Donald L. Nathanson. M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College, and founding Executive Director of the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute. Source: COTC Interview - http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/nathanson.htm#DownwardSpiralShame

Lost Potential and Suffering from Self-Esteem Loss 

David Boulton: I want to circle back to the self-esteem conversation because, in addition to the economic things, and as you said thereís this huge cost, from the childís point of view, from the familyís point of view: it is suffering.

James Wendorf:  Yes, well anyone who works with children who have learning disabilities confronts the issue of low self-esteem head on. By the time a child is usually identified with a problem in reading and the further identification is made that there is a learning disabilityÖthat child usually needs to be put back together in some way. Thereís been failure, and usually over a long period of time. And usually by the time that special education services are provided or some other kinds of services are provided, the child needs some serious help with self-esteem.

Now weíve actually looked into this at the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Weíve worked with researchers, and one of the best ways to address the self-esteem problem is through skill development. And children who actually are able to build their skills show an increase in self-esteem that is every bit as high as programs that might address their self esteem head on.

So by focusing on skill development, working on instructional issues, you can often bring the self-esteem up in the same way that might happen if a child were involved in some kind of social emotional development program that directly addresses the issue of self esteem.

David Boulton:  Parenthetically, a good friend of mine, JohnVasconcellos, a State Senator in California, is one of self-esteem's most visible proponents.  Heís the one Gary Trudeau cartooned for creating the California Task Force to investigate the relationship between self-esteem and personal and social responsibility. Back in the 80ís his work brought self-esteem to national attention.

My own sense, based on engaging in dialogue with philosophers, scientists and researchers in that space, is that the issue isnít self-esteem, rather what happens to children who learn to be self dis-esteeming. They learn to not trust, to not feel good about themselves. Itís an acquired shame.

James Wendorf:  I think low self-esteem causes a child to pull back, to not engage. Why go out there and put yourself on the line if you know itís going to be another failure and youíre going to be called on it either by your teacher or your classmates and you will be open to shame, to disapproval. Kids arenít dumb; they know when something isnít working and they know whatís going to hurt, so they pull back.

What children need is the experience of having success. That is what nourishes self-esteem.  And success in building skills is one of the best ways to do it. When children have shown that they can actually master something and they have proof, they can point to it and they can be legitimately praised for it. Thatís what works.      

James Wendorf, Executive Director, National Center for Learning DisabilitiesSource: COTC Interview - http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/wendorf.htm#LostPotentialalsoSuffering

Slow Readers Need More Time 

Dr. Sally Shaywitz: What I say now is that dyslexia simply robs a person of time, accommodations like extra time return part of it, and that a person who is dyslexic has as much a physiologic need for extra time as a diabetic needs for insulin.

David Boulton: Yes.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz: Now that we can show that with our brain imaging, that's made an extraordinary difference. Because I've seen too many young people who were applying to graduate school or professional school who struggled their lives to reach the point where they can read accurately, but not automatically, are turned down for extra time. It's like somebody climbing to the top of a mountain and you suddenly step on their fingers, and don't let them take that last step, and knock them down. So, it may not sound like an important thing to you, but for all those people who have had difficulty reading it is.

David Boulton: All of these dimensions are critical. We're looking at the family context, the social context, very particularly at the emotional affective context as well as the cognitive processing challenge.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz: That's at the very -- that's at the heart.

David Boulton: Yes.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz: That's the heart and soul of it. Because you can teach a person to read, and you can do all the things, but if they've had that hurt and that pain and that blow to their self-esteem, that's the most difficult. We have no medicine for that.

David Boulton: Yes. And it's not just a bad feeling they're having; it's fundamentally processing-level debilitating, draining of the efficiency that's necessary to process the thing that could make them feel better. It works in a downward spiral.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz: That's right.  

Sally Shaywitz, Pediatric Neuroscience, Yale University, Author of Overcoming Dyslexia. Source: COTC Phone Interview - http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/shaywitz.htm#SlowReaders

Shame, Self-Esteem and Neuromodulation

David Boulton: Have you done anything to actually isolate shame, develop a kind of signature of what shame looks like when itís triggered in the brain?

Dr. Michael Merzenich: No. Iíve thought about it primarily from the point and read about it primarily from the point of, you could say, itís obverse; which is self-esteem or positive self-awareness or self-healing and havenít really thought about it as you raise the issue.  Itís a wonderful thing to think about in the obverse. Iíve primarily thought and read about it in a sense in another thing that would reflect it and thatís the sort of the ongoing loss of self-esteem, of self-confidence, or in terms of self-doubting and what can be done about it.

David Boulton: I spent a lot of time in the self-esteem world before getting into the reading world. Iím interested in the reading world because of what itís doing to self-esteem. Although I donít like the term self-esteem, itís got a lot of baggage with it. 

Dr. Michael Merzenich: It does and itís confusing.

David Boulton: I think of it as a buoyant absence of self-negativity rather than a positive accumulationÖ.

Dr. Michael Merzenich: Right, exactly.You can have a boy thatís very self-confident, and yet in a sense, identifies himself in a broad domain as a failure and, in fact, his self-confidence is a kind of compensation. Actually, what Iíve really been interested in is the origins of bad conduct behavior because I think it would be a tremendously positive thing if we could understand it. Again, it relates to the development of emotional control and these complex reactions that occur in the brain that govern, in this overriding way, the general behavior of a child.

David Boulton: The sum of our view is thisÖ We think that children are being overwhelmed with a form of confusion that is unnatural to them and they are learning to associate the feeling of that confusion with shame. We are all shame avoiders, escape artists; we donít like to feel shame. So just as reading involves an assembly thatís faster than conscious, thereís a faster than conscious aversion to shame which is associated with feeling certain kinds of confusion, which in turn decapitates learning because learning involves extending through confusion.

Dr. Michael Merzenich: I love that description, although I donít really understand its neurology. I love the description.

David Boulton: One of the things weíre trying to do is bring about some new explorations into the effects of negative affect triggering in the stream of cognitive processing. It seems to me itís got to be dis-entraining. 

Dr. Michael Merzenich: Right, right. I think itíd be a great leap if you could understand that. I mean, if you have a child that enters school and the child fails at school, which means that theyíre experiencing, theyíre reacting in these ways to it and if theyíre misbehaving, they have about an even money chance later in life to commit a felony. I mean the simple fact is we have to figure out how to get to those kids more reliably and more completely and it doesnít necessarily involve cultural re-education. The more deeply we understand the neurology the more we could understand how to drive true correction of it. 

David Boulton: Unless the neurology work embraces and includes the interdynamics between the more mechanically cognitive processes and the affectual processes that are orienting, contextualizing, powering, the cognitive activity, I donít see how we can get there.

Dr. Michael Merzenich: Well, I donít know. I believe all these things are at some level accessible. Whether they could be, whether such training could be easily incorporated under conditions of something like a public school where an aspect of the training might include some level of social training, whether thatís really necessary or not, I donít know.

David Boulton: Well, itís also a matter of re-contextualizing the kinds of challenges that most trouble children so that they are less provoking of shame.

Dr. Michael Merzenich: Well, one of the ways weíve tried to design the software that weíve applied to children, the training programs we provide to children, is to absolutely ensure a high level of success in every kid and this is a big part of it. A big part of it is to find ways in the course of every kid in a significant part of their life and day to ensure that they succeed in things. I mean one of the magic things that has to happen to every kid is they have to find something, something that theyíre good at and everybody acknowledges and everybody tells them and they tell themselves. As long as you have enough of those things happening in your young life you can accept the things someone else is better than you at.

David Boulton: And the danger there is that it can be that the thing that I feel good about myself is that I can beat up everybody around me, right?

Dr. Michael Merzenich: Right, I mean there is that. There has to be things outside of that realm.

David Boulton: All right. I think weíve talked about many of the things weíre both most interested in. Is there anything that weíve inspired in the course of our conversation, anything youíd like to touch on that we havenít yet?

Dr. Michael Merzenich: Only to say that, this is a great quest. There is great hope that we can progress in understanding the neurological origins of things like this and the crucial dimensions as youíve expressed, in this relationship between the emotional side of life and the overriding behavioral things that relate to neuromodulatory control in emotion.

I mean when you talk about neuromodulators and you talk about the things that condition learning, youíre also talking about the overlay of emotional baggage that comes with them, that are expressed with them, but also derive from them. You also talked about the fact that each one of us is basically creating the complex conditions under which they are constructed and they are inhabiting our heads and controlling our behaviors in our life.  

One of the crucial things is to understand this complicated interplay between these modulators and understand how they evolve - how plastic they are. Thatís been studied almost not at all. People have studied the axis of neuromodulation. Dopamine cells and dopamine chemistry has been manipulated in hundreds of ways partly because people see that thereís profit in it Ė to manipulate it because itís so clearly involved in so much malfunction and so much disease in psychiatry and neurology. But still almost nobody has studied in any detail, or in any intelligent way, how this capacity, how this control, how this incredibly differentiated nuances of emotional control, as they influence learning and behavior are actually created and developed in an individual way and in an individual person. Thereís high stakes in such understanding.  

So, one of the things I think is evolving or will gradually evolve is a level of science in that area that will parallel the level of science in learning as it relates to the sort of dry side of learning, and thatís skill learning. As that evolves I think weíre going to generate more and more powerful ways to intervene in real human problems. 

David Boulton: Thatís excellent and thatís being echoed in other circles. Russ Whitehurst realizes that it is a weakness in the whole assessment paradigms of education. Other scientists that weíre talking to are also recognizing that this is a huge lacuna in our overall understanding and that itís too significant to leave out of the equation.

Dr. Michael Merzenich: Right, and not just for kids. Itís a big part of what weíre trying to do with older individuals. I mean with a seventy, eighty or ninety year old this machinery is now falling apart and you have to think about how you can reinvigorate it, revitalize it, re-enrich it. You know, we have to. Peopleís attitudes can be better. There are things that are rewarding to them and can be made stronger and more elaborate and they should be. Itís part of being healthier and happier in older age.  And guess what emerges when you get older? Shame. What emerges is a lack of confidence. Iím now worried about whether I can succeed, whether I can keep my end up. I mean all of these things enter in again in spades. 

David Boulton: Thatís why I think itís so important that we understand that there is a biological basis for the core affects and that shame seems to be, when we think about the human animal, a fundamental learning prompt, a really great thing. But if we become averse to the feeling of shame before it actually bubbles up, before we can think about it, itís steering us away from what we need to learn about.

Dr. Michael Merzenich: Absolutely.

David Boulton: And it seems to be happening on a grand scale.

Dr. Michael Merzenich: Right, right.  It just basically shuts you down.  

Michael Merzenich, Chair of Otolaryngology at the Keck Center for Integrative Neurosciences at the University of California at San Francisco. He is a scientist and educator, and found of Scientific Learning Corporation and Posit Science Corporation. Source: COTC Interview - http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/merzenich.htm#ShameSelf-EsteemandNeuromodulation


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Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst  Director, Institute of Education Sciences, Assistant Secretary of Education, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Jack Shonkoff Chair, The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child; Co-Editor: From Neurons to Neighborhoods
Dr. Edward Kame'enui Commissioner for Special Education Research, U.S. Department of Education; Director, IDEA, University  of Oregon
Dr. G. Reid Lyon  Past Director, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Dr. Keith Stanovich  Canadian Chair of Cognitive Science, University of Toronto
Dr. Mel Levine Co-Chair and Co-Founder, All Kinds of Minds; Author: A Mind at a Time, The Myth of Laziness & Ready or Not Here Life Comes
Dr. Alex Granzin  School District Psychologist, Past President, Oregon School Psychologists Association 
Dr. James J. Heckman Nobel Laureate, Economic Sciences 2000; Lead Author: The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children
Dr. Timothy Shanahan President (2006) International Reading Association, Chair National Early Literacy Panel, Member National Reading Panel
Nancy Hennessy  President, 2003-2005, International Dyslexia Association
Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams Senior ScientistSoliloquy Learning, Author: Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print
Dr. Michael Merzenich Chair of Otolaryngology, Integrative Neurosciences, UCSF;  Member National Academy of Sciences
Dr. Maryanne Wolf Director, Center for Reading & Language Research; Professor of Child Development, Tufts University
Dr. Todd Risley  Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Alaska, Co-author: Meaningful Differences
Dr. Sally Shaywitz  Neuroscientist, Department of Pediatrics, Yale University, Author: Overcoming Dyslexia
Dr. Louisa Moats  Director, Professional Development and Research Initiatives, Sopris West Educational Services
Dr. Zvia Breznitz Professor, Neuropsychology of Reading & Dyslexia, University of Haifa, Israel 
Rick Lavoie Learning Disabilities Specialist, Creator: How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop & Last One Picked, First One Picked On
Dr.Charles Perfetti Professor, Psychology & Linguistics; Senior Scientist and Associate Director, Learning R&D Center, U. of Pittsburgh, PA
Arthur J. Rolnick Senior V.P. & Dir. of Research,  Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis;  Co- Author: The Economics of Early Childhood Development  
Dr. Richard Venezky  Professor, Educational Studies, Computer and  Information Sciences, and Linguistics, University of Delaware
Dr. Keith Rayner  Distinguished  Professor, University of Massachusetts, Author: Eye Movements in Reading and Information Processing
Dr. Paula Tallal  Professor of Neuroscience, Co-Director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University
Dr.John Searle  Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language, University of California-Berkeley, Author: Mind, A Brief Introduction
Dr.Mark T. Greenberg Director, Prevention Research Center, Penn State Dept. of Human Development & Family Studies; CASEL Leadership Team
Dr. Terrence Deacon  Professor of Biological Anthropology and Linguistics at University of California- Berkeley
Chris Doherty  Ex-Program Director, National Reading First Program, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Erik Hanushek Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Dr. Marketa Caravolas Director, Bangor Dyslexia Unit, Bangor University, Author: International Report on Literacy Research
Dr. Christof Koch Professor of Computation and Neural Systems,  Caltech - Author: The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach
Dr. Guy Deutscher Professor of Languages and Cultures of Ancient Mesopotamia, Holland; Author: Unfolding Language
Robert Wedgeworth  President, ProLiteracy, World's Largest Literacy Organization
Dr. Peter Leone  Director, National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice
Dr. Thomas Cable  Professor of English, University of Texas at Austin, Co-author: A History of the English Language
Dr. David Abram Cultural Ecologist and Philosopher; Author: The Spell of the Sensuous
Pat Lindamood and Nanci Bell  Principal Scientists, Founders, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes
Dr. Anne Cunningham  Director, Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education, Graduate School of Education at University of California-Berkeley
Dr. Donald L. Nathanson  Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College, Director of the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute 
Dr.Johanna Drucker  Chair of Media Studies, University of Virginia, Author: The Alphabetic Labyrinth
John H. Fisher  Medievalist, Leading authority on the development of the written English language, Author: The Emergence of Standard English
Dr. Malcolm Richardson   Chair, Dept. of English, Louisiana State University; Research: The Textual Awakening of the English Middle Classes  
James Wendorf  Executive Director, National Center for Learning Disabilities
Leonard Shlain Physician; Best-Selling Author: The Alphabet vs. The Goddess
Robert Sweet  Co-Founder, National Right to Read Foundation

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