The teacher stood over me like an angry giant. Looking back now I’m guessing that he couldn’t have been more 5’8 or 5’9 tall and probably had just graduated from college, but to me the substitute teacher held a position of authority, looked pleased to catch his prey out of the classroom, and like he just might enjoy eating a little kid for breakfast.
He looked down at me stern-faced and asked me: “Why are you in the hall?”
My voice eluded me. I felt like words were flying overhead, all around me like little keys, and I needed to grab the right ones. If I picked the correct ones, the lock barring my entrance would click open and I would be free to go. Pick the wrong one and I would soon have a meeting with the principal and no one wanted to be called to the principal’s office.
The teacher was noticeably upset that I hadn’t responded and asked again, “Why were you wandering the halls. Where are you supposed to be?”
I got even more flustered since I wasn’t wandering the hall aimlessly, but instead doing what had been asked of me. I figured I better try to answer before I got into real trouble. However, when I opened my mouth, instead of telling the substitute that my teacher asked me run a folder down the hall to the school secretary, a stutter came out instead. “I’m s – s – s – supposed t – t – t – t – to take this t – t – t – t – to the o – o – office. My – my – my teacher asked me. Sh – sh – sh – she said I could stop off at the water fount – fount – fountain on my way.”
The substitute looked down at me coldly. I assumed he was weighing my response and whether to believe me. After a minute or so, though, he finally stepped aside and let me pass. I had apparently picked the right combination of words or he heard the fear in my stutter and decided to let me go.
Not like the other kids
As a kid and a few years post college, I stuttered. My stutter was never a full-blown stutter like King George VI, famously depicted in the movie, The King’s Speech, but it was just as deadly. I used to describe it as a stammer with my brain working faster than I could physically process words coming out of my mouth.
For the record, medical professionals describe stuttering as a speech disorder characterized by repetition of sounds, syllables, or words; prolongation of sounds; and interruptions in speech known as blocks. An individual who stutters knows exactly what he or she would like to say but has trouble producing a normal flow of speech.
Most times my speech was fine, but when my stammer came, it came at the most inopportune times, usually when I was intimidated, anxious, or on edge. I seemed to have the most problems sounding words that started with s-, t-, ch-, sh-, and th- and I tried to avoid them as much as possible, speaking in short, quick bursts. When I came across a troubling word, I would often try to switch to another one on the fly. For example, “I have to go to the bathroom” came out in one loooooong, energetic burst, as in “Ihavetogotothebbbbathroom.” I would inevitably try to back track or start again or even avoid saying troubling words altogether, getting myself tongue-tied and making the jumble of words coming out of my mouth sound even more confusing.
I cringed every time I stumbled over a word or phrase, appalled at my body for betraying me. And that’s how it felt, every stinking time, “a betrayal.” I would watch it happen like I was a third party to the conversation, watching from above, and want to shrivel up and cry. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. Most times I would try to start again or move on, hoping that everyone who watched me make a fool of myself would soon forget the moment.
Of course, they didn’t, but that’s what I wanted to happen.
You’re the lucky one
More than 70 million people worldwide and roughly 3 million Americans stutter. It affects people of all ages, but can be especially traumatic for kids. Boys are 2 to 3 times as likely to stutter as girls and as they get older this gender difference increases. Fortunately, most children outgrow stuttering, but for many others, it can persist as a lifelong communication disorder. It’s never really cured, it’s always there.
I was fortunate. Few people came right out and made fun of me to my face, but I could still see the look of confusion and disappointment in their eyes.
I worked with a speech therapist in school from third to fifth grade constantly sounding out troubling sounds and working on pronunciation. In time my speaking got better, but that’s not to say I haven’t had my challenges. In fact, I spoke with someone several months ago who attempted to poke fun of me by saying “just say it” in a not so nice way when I was trying to convey something important. Of course, I’m much better prepared now as an adult to put rude people like that in their place or to simply walk away.
The cringing feeling inside.
I overcame my stutter a couple years after college when I met my wife. For me, the confidence I got from getting my bachelor’s degree and later a master’s, and that my wife instilled in me, naturally helped me become a better speaker and to believe that what I had to say was important. (For the record, I’m not sure why my advanced degrees helped. I assume that somewhere in my tiny little brain, I thought they gave me something that I didn’t have before. I can’t explain it.)
A bad day, a bad moment, though, can still bring back the feelings of frustration.
A recent reminder
So I must admit that I read with interest recently Former Vice President Joe Biden talk about the stuttering challenges he’s faced in his life and continues to face. I haven’t made up my mind on the 2020 presidential election and Biden and I agree on some issues and disagree on others, but I give him credit for facing his stutter head-on.
In the story, Biden talks about how as a kid he used to play out conversations in his head before they happened to prepare himself and to try to avoid the immense shame of his stutter. “I knew the one guy loved the Phillies. And he’d asked me about them all the time. And I knew another person would ask me about my sister, so I would practice an answer,” Biden said.
When I read the piece, I was right there with him. I was magically transported back to elementary school and just trying to get through my day without messing up a word here or there. I would practice conversations so that when the inevitable came I would be able to think quickly on my feet and deal with whatever came up.
The key was having flexibility to wiggle my way around in every possible conversation to avoid the shame and frustration of my stutter/stammer. It was tiring to say the least and probably one of the biggest reasons that I’ve long described myself as introvert.
Continuing into the present day
I still sometimes fall into a panic, worrying about my stutter. Several months ago, I was serving as a lector in my church. I looked down at the small section that I was supposed to read and then back up at the 300 to 400 people in the church and a deep dread came over me.
I felt convinced in that split second of time that I was going to mess-up and embarrass myself with the next line out of my mouth. I feared that the priest was going to have to get up from his seat and awkwardly send in someone to relieve me of my reading duties. If I had more time on the altar, I would have broken out into a cold sweat.
Fortunately for me, I was able to pause at the end of the sentence I was reading. I closed my eyes for the briefest of seconds to calm my nerves, and when I reopened them I read the rest of the reading perfectly — without one mistake. I chalked it up to another life experience and moved on.
Let it go
I became a writer as a young teenager precisely because I believed that I had something to say even if I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth the way I imagined. Saying all that, it’s been quite some time since I’ve faced a noticeable stammering issue in public. I suspect that I’ll be wary of my stammer for the rest of my life, but I know one thing, it didn’t define me then, and, most certainly, doesn’t define me now.