May 9-13 is National Stuttering Awareness Week. We have to share it with National Women’s Health Week or something like that. Whatever, I’m not mad. It’s fine. Totally fine.
Stuttering is fascinating. A lot of you probably haven’t given it much thought, and that’s OK. In the world of issues that plague mankind, I imagine stuttering falls somewhere between canker sores and stray cats. There isn’t a lot of research money devoted to it; most Speech Therapy programs only devote one class to it. Again, no offense taken.
I don’t even get mad at A Fish Called Wanda. Kevin Kline won an Oscar for a comedic role (which, by the way, never happens and should happen all the time, but that’s another post) where he essentially made fun of Michael Palin’s stutter for the entirety of the movie: “Oh no! It’s K-k-ken c-c-coming to k-k-kill me!” And I thought it was hilarious.
That’s not a very popular opinion in the stuttering community, nor should it be. When you spend your whole life fighting for an issue, you lose the ability to laugh at it. The National Stuttering Association, with no national attention and even less money, is leading a charge to make people (but mostly young boys) feel comfortable with and empowered by their stutter.
This is another place where the Association and I diverge. I never wanted to feel comfortable stuttering; I wanted to hide it. Stuttering really started to hit me right about the time we start developing our inhibitions: late elementary school, early middle school. This is that glorious time when we all begin to learn what is wrong with us and how different we are, aided ever so thoughtfully by our peers. This is when we learn shame. And I was very ashamed of my stutter.
I don’t pretend to know how to tell the story of everyone who has had to deal with this. I can only offer up my experience with this very peculiar, uniquely devastating disorder. So that’s what we’ll do today.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t stutter. I was in speech therapy as far back as I can remember. I was a smart kid, I think. I remember the early years of elementary school as easy ones. But we moved to Texas when I was 9 and that’s when I remember things starting to go bad. I was in a new school in a new town. And I have two very vivid memories that illustrate how bizarre this affliction is.
One day in Geography, our teacher was doing one of those things were she called on one student to start reading aloud from the textbook. That student would read for however long he or she wanted to, then call on another student to pick up where they had left off. So what’s weird about this memory is that I remember killing it. I think I could read a little better than everyone else in the class, and that must have given me some kind of confidence. I was just tearing through the book, column after column. Then I’d call on some dope to read the last word in the section. You know, for laughs. Who is this kid? Was that really me? Because here’s my other memory from that year.
We called it G.T. Gifted and Talented. Every school calls it something different. Some districts have entire schools devoted to the smart kids but we just had one period every day. There was this assignment where we had to go up in front of the class and read a passage from one of our favorite books. I chose The Mouse and the Motorcycle. Ralph S. Mouse (the “S” stood for smart) was bad-ass.
There I was, standing in front of the class with my face buried in the book. These kids knew me. Maybe they knew I stuttered a little, maybe they didn’t. My stutter didn’t rear its head in casual conversation. I think this comes back to comfort and confidence, neither of which were present in me at the time of this particular assignment.
I couldn’t even get one sentence out. “B…..ut Ralph was sh..sh..sure that w-w-w-ith a c……….ool mind and st-st…….steady p….aws he c……..ould m-manage.” I was probably only up there for half a minute but it felt like half an hour. “Can I be excused?” I asked. Then I ran, tears streaming down my face, into the bathroom where I remained for the rest of the period.
THAT’S the kid I remember. Not the weirdly confident one from Geography. The one who lived in constant fear of being called on in class. So how does that happen? How can it just come and go like that? When I’m comfortable, relaxed, and confident, I don’t stutter. Unfortunately, while there are many things we feel between the ages of 9 and 15, confidence is rarely one of them.
It only got worse as the years went on. My fear of stuttering kept me from talking, laughing, and joking in a crowd. Kids just thought I was boring or stupid so they stopped inviting me to things. I was down to just two friends, Matt and Darin. (Interestingly, the more time we spent together, the more they started stuttering. They weren’t making fun of me. They just kind of developed it. I’m telling you, this thing is weird, man.)
When you stutter, you never get to say exactly what you’re thinking exactly when you want to say it. That can be a very isolating way of interacting with the world. If you were to ask the NSA, they would tell you to just go ahead and say exactly what’s on your mind at any time, all the time. If you stutter, so be it. Everyone will just have to wait until you are done. And if they laugh, that’s on them. This is wonderful advice in theory, but it was nowhere near what I was doing at the time. I just wanted to hide it.
So I don’t know what came first: my vocabulary, or the ability to use my vocabulary to get out of a jam. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I think I consciously worked very, very hard to develop my “system.”
Let’s say I was telling a story to someone, the story about the time my dad used rubber bands to wrap wax paper around my cat’s paws and set him loose on the linoleum floor. Sorry Porgy, but that shit was hilarious. If I were telling you that story in person, I would know the trouble words would be “paws” and “paper.” (It’s always the hard consonants for me. Like Google, that one’s still hard. Oh, and you know what else stutterers have a hard time saying? Stutter. Thanks, English language.)
I started to teach myself how to scan my internal script ahead of time, recognize what words were going to give me trouble, and have substitutes at the ready. So, in the above story, “paws” would be replaced by “feet.” Wax paper is kind of a tough one; that’s a very specific product. In that instance, I would have to play dumb. “What’s that thing, it’s like saran wrap but it’s more…like wax…” That was my coping mechanism. And I needed it because I was so petrified to stutter, I just avoided talking. My parents ordered for me in restaurants; I wouldn’t raise my hand in class even though I knew an answer that no one else did.
I started living way up inside my own head. The person I was in my mind was not the one I shared with the world. I knew things that I didn’t share; I thought things that no one knew. You all have a freedom that I bet you didn’t even know you had. You can say whatever you want, whenever you want. You can go from thought to word in milliseconds, with no gatekeeper (of your own construction) stopping every thought and saying, “Wait a minute, fellas. Can we get this one out? Better go over it one more time.” It’s like no one knew the real me. And it was all by design.
Remember what I said earlier about how it seems to be all about confidence? That’s what ended up doing it for me. That’s what saved me. I grew into myself sometime around high school. This debilitating disorder that had essentially turned me into a petrified shell of a kid wracked by nerves and self-doubt just started flaking away bit by bit. I became more confident in myself, which led to me being more relaxed in public. I was less and less afraid to raise my hand or present in front of the class. By my senior year, I ran for and won class president, and I spoke at my graduation. A sweltering gym packed with moms and dads, all of my teachers, all of my classmates. And I nailed it.
That’s what I mean when I say I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve spent some time with the National Stuttering Association over the past few years. I’ve gone to meetings. They’re support groups, really. I see adults sitting around a table in a room free of judgment, and they can’t string one sentence together. Their faces so weathered, so worn, so tired of losing this never-ending battle. I went because I wanted to share my story, but I started to realize that my story was not one that the NSA wanted to hear.
They don’t want to hear about people who were so petrified to stutter in public they did everything within their power to prevent it from happening. They don’t want to hear me say that I still rarely speak in large group settings (meetings with more than three people) for fear of what might come out of my mouth. Their message is clear: stutter, be proud. It’s a good one, really. It is. It’s why I stopped going to meetings.
So yeah, I mastered it I guess. Any of you who have met me as an adult probably had no idea. That’s why I wanted to share this one with you. There’s a lot of things that shape us into who we are. If we’re lucky, they are by our own design. And that makes me one of the lucky ones. My hat’s off to the NSA and all the people who are still struggling with this one, though. It’s a hell of a thing.