A lot of people have been asking me about the short anecdotes at the beginning of my stuttering post two months ago ((No one has actually asked me about them.)), so I thought it would be fun to expand on them a bit.
By including those short snippets in my original essay, my intention wasn’t to garner sympathy or arouse indignation; I just wanted to give a snapshot of some situations in which my stuttering has come into play—and to convey the fact that it’s been an issue over many years of my life. I purposely didn’t flesh out the stories to their conclusions. It would have taken too long and detracted from the overall point I was making. But now—for the first time—all will be revealed!
The bar is crowded. I rest my elbows on the counter as people press themselves around me. The surly bartender finally gets to me and asks what I’ll have. I stare at the beer taps behind him and open my mouth.*
He looks at me and says, “Spit it out!”
My brow furrows slightly. My mouth stays open. After half a second, he moves on to the next person waiting at the bar.*
I can’t speak for other stutterers (pun intended), but, for me, “spit it out” is pretty much the most frustrating thing anyone can say to me when I’m stuttering. Because that’s precisely what I’m trying to do. In fact, as someone who stutters, talking often feels as if I am trying to literally spit out the words that are trapped in my throat. Telling me to “spit it out” is like telling a depressed person, “just be happy!” Not only can they not “just be happy,” but reminding them of this inability just makes the condition worse.
The bartender, of course, didn’t know any of this. He didn’t even know I was stuttering. He just knew he had 20 other people waiting to buy a beer and I was standing there silently, holding him up. After he served another person, he came back to me and I was able to order my pale ale.
It’s my high school baccalaureate ceremony. I stand at the podium in front of a crowd of parents and families. My fellow graduating seniors sit behind me. I’m introducing the ceremony’s main speaker, my favorite teacher. I read my brief remarks off a small notecard in my hands.
After the ceremony, a classmate comes up to me.
“That was really funny,” she says.
“What was?” I ask.
“During your introduction, when you sounded out the words like you didn’t know how to read.”
I said, “I wasn’t being funny. I was nervous.”
She said, “Oh,” and that was the end of the conversation.
Interestingly, my senior year in high school was the period of my life when I stuttered the least—to the point that I didn’t even really think about it.
Until then, I hadn’t been particularly involved or popular at my school. But, thanks to a fun class and some new friendships during my junior year, I was encouraged to become more involved the following year. I signed up for a leadership class (which helped organize all the extracurricular student events), and I even ended up co-hosting one of our annual talent shows. Looking back on it now, it seems ridiculous that I’d ever agree to do that, stutter or not.
I’m sure I still stuttered during this time, but it was definitely minimal and it wasn’t something that defined me. I’ve spoken to people who knew me then, and they say they had no idea I stuttered. I wasn’t trying to hide it; I simply wasn’t stuttering very much. And I don’t really know why. My hypothesis is that, at the time, I just felt comfortable and accepted. The insular world of high school—where, as far as I could tell, I was universally liked and considered funny and nice—provided a safe little cocoon where I could just be myself, which ended up relaxing my vocal chords somehow.
The interesting thing is, I can pinpoint the precise moment when that feeling of safety evaporated; it was during the baccalaureate ceremony introduction. If you want to get psychoanalytical—and I know you do—you could say that it was at that moment when reality really hit me: I was leaving the safe, comfortable world I’d constructed in high school, and now I had to start all over again in the much bigger, more complicated world of college (and the world in general). Or maybe it was just a coincidence. Whatever the reason, I started stuttering more, and more. Since then, the intensity of my stuttering has varied, but I haven’t yet experienced a period like that senior year, where my stuttering was such a non-issue.
I’m in third grade. Our class has a substitute teacher today. I’m getting hungry, so—during a few minutes of free time—I walk up to him.
“H-h-how long until lunch?” I ask.
“T-t-twenty minutes,” he mimics.
I walk back to my desk, embarrassed.
Throughout all my schooling, I wasn’t teased regularly about my stutter. I mean, I’m sure it happened a few times—because it seems impossible that it wouldn’t have—but no instances stick out in my memory. I was teased a few times for other things, but it’s safe to say that, with regard to my stuttering, I grew up in a generally supportive and understanding environment. Which is why the teasing from this substitute teacher, an adult in a position of authority, really caught me off guard.
I don’t remember if other classmates overheard the exchange or if I told them about it when they asked why I was upset, but some of them urged me to “tell on him” to the principal. I said no, because I didn’t want to make a big deal about it—my ego was bruised but not broken, and I just wanted to forget about it and move on.
Later, during recess, a girl in my class ran up to me. She explained that a group of my classmates had reported the incident to the front office on my behalf.
Twenty years later, I’ve come to appreciate how unbelievably caring their act was. These were third graders we’re talking about. When nine-year-olds gather in groups and are left to their own devices, they’re supposed to be—at best—up to no good, or—at worst—exceedingly selfish and devious. But here these third-graders were, showing compassion for a fellow kid, in direct opposition to an adult who should have known better.
My parents were called and, at the direction of my principal, the substitute apologized to me. He was young. (Of course, at the time, he seemed very grown up—as all adults seem to a nine-year-old—but I bet he was only in his mid-twenties.) He was inexperienced. And, just like my high school classmate and the bartender and all the others years later, he probably didn’t immediately realize that I was someone who actually stuttered.
The principal told my parents that the substitute would never teach at my school again. If that’s true, it’s a pretty harsh penalty—but I bet he never made the same mistake again.