Curious about Stuttering

Am I curious because I was just born that way, or did stuttering have something to do with it?

A close friend recently pointed out to me that I am very curious and take great interest in things I don’t know much about as they are explained or shown to me. And that it’s a genuine interest. Yes, it certainly is.

I think back to when I was young, getting absorbed in books for hours and hours. And not just fiction (we’d be given 1″ thick books with all the year’s stories in them, and I’d eat through it in a week). I’d go to the library and check out books on airplanes (Time Life Series!) and read them again and again.

Given the stuttering, I think it’s to be expected, really. It’s a choice — read, or have to … talk with people. I’ll choose the former every time, thank you very much.

But as I grew older, the approach changed. I didn’t have to rely on reading. I learned that I could ask open-ended questions and just let people talk, occasionally prodding them with another query. And if the tables were turned, I could give short to medium answers which always seemed satisfactory. Even if the listener wanted an essay out of me, I’d avoid it all costs. So now it’s become the norm, and something I actually enjoy — conversations are maybe not 50/50, but I do enjoy prodding and poking and finding out more. And I’m getting better at asking all of my questions — not just the ones I can say fluently.

Stuttering and Politics 2

I spoke yesterday about introspection after the election. Trying to see the world from someone else’s eyes and understand that I can’t just shove my views down another’s throat. I have to stop and listen and really digest. And you’d think that would come naturally to me as someone who stutters. I’m not often judged by my speaking, but when I am, I obviously hate it, and I wish others would sit in my shoes for ten minutes and understand my journey.

Today I want to expand on politics and my stuttering. Asking myself, ok, so if you want a particular candidate to win, what are you willing to do? And the answer is, other than speaking to my like-minded friends and family, not much. And yes, I know that’s sad and pathetic.But again, stuttering.

To me, my view of helping a candidate revolves around calling people on the phone or knocking on doors. Talking to people. I understand that campaigning is much, much more than that. There are jobs that don’t involve speaking. But for a long time that’s how I saw it, and that’s burned in. Talking to strangers is potentially confrontational and scary. I’ll stutter — and then I start thinking — ok, the stuttering is fine with me (now in life) but wouldn’t that reflect on my message and my candidate? Hopefully not. 

I’m not sure what I’ll be doing over the next few years, politics-wise. And I also have to ask myself, maybe I’m just not the kind of person to do that, period? Maybe I’m content sitting on the sidelines like so many others. 

I can see how an impassioned voter would be angry at me. I get that. But being angry at me and leaving me doesn’t do anybody any good. I think too often we do that. We need to dig in and find out what the “block” might be. Fluent people can be anti-social, too! And surely there are those who stutter who are saying screw it and cold calling households.

Stuttering and fitting in

So yes, the International Stuttering Awareness Day Online Conference is over, having ended on October 22. But I’ll still post about it if I want to! Today’s post is More Than Just Stuttering Pride by Elizabeth Wislar.

She talks about speech therapy in school:

…I definitely received a message that my stutter was bad and something that should be fixed. I felt like a constant failure because I could not seem to apply the techniques I learned in the outside world.

Thinking back on my own experience with therapy in school, I realize now how much everything was also at odds with each other. And how much “fitting in” was important:

1. My class participation was crap because I didn’t want to raise my hand and stutter, but my friends all laughed when I made jokes on the side fluently.

2. My class participation grades were good despite occasionally stuttering when having to give an answer.

3. My speech outside of school was still stutter-ific despite going to therapy. I didn’t understand that therapy was just that — therapy — and not meant to be a permanent fix. So I thought that with enough therapy it would just go away.

Elizabeth speaks about going to the NSA conference and getting hoarse there from speaking so much. I do the same. Nobody judges! Nobody’s in a hurry! They want to listen to what I have to say. It really is liberating.

And better yet, she speaks about how stuttering is something that goes against the grain of what is normal — so let’s be disruptive and make people uncomfortable.

I want to allow blocks to go on longer than I have to if I see the person I’m talking to looks annoyed or put out. Or better yet, I want to let blocks or repetitions go on longer because I find them enjoyable. Isn’t true subversion finding power and pleasure in the things society finds defective? Let’s do it.

This is who we are, and this is how we speak. I need to be better about this, I think. Just letting some blocks or repetitions go on for a little longer. Make it obvious. Do it often enough to become even more comfortable with the sound of my stuttering voice.

Stuttering and Resilience

If you didn’t already know, those of us who stutter are a rather resilient lot. We have to be. We have to get up every morning and know perfectly well that we haven’t been cured magically overnight. Nor will we ever. We have to pick up the phone again and again, cold calls, strangers, onlookers and prompts for voicemails be damned. And we have to interview for jobs again and again and again and again. And before we interview in person, it’s always a phone call.

So yes, we know very well about bouncing back.

So this is an article about learning to become resilient.

This sums up a lot of what we all know:

Resilience presents a challenge for psychologists. Whether you can be said to have it or not largely depends not on any particular psychological test but on the way your life unfolds. If you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of adversity, we won’t know how resilient you are. It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or the lack of it, emerges: Do you succumb or do you surmount?

The article also gets into stresses — the size and duration. Some are affected by a single large event. Others — like us — get the small, repeated kind. (And yes, I know it may not be very small …)

They go on to talk about what we should really take to heart — we are in control, and it’s our reactions that will shape our outlook and stance on life. I’ve always felt an internal locus of control. I don’t blame anybody else for my mistakes or station in life. I’m calling the shots, and thus, I’m living with the consequences. If there are others who are speaking negatively about me or trying to hurt me, then I either just cut them out of my life or ignore them.

Perhaps most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”: they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements.

They then talk about perception:

One of the central elements of resilience, Bonanno has found, is perception: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow?

More stuttering goodness here. Ok, yes, I had that oral presentation in front of my class, and I stuttered through the whole thing. But will I take that singular event (and be able to remember it 20 years later) or ask myself, ok, for the next presentation, what can I do better to prepare? Did I do everything I could have this time? Rehearse it with myself in the mirror? In front of peers? Did I practice the breathing and other techniques that I went over with my therapist? Did I relax my shoulders and focus on my best friend sitting three rows back, or the salty looking kid in the front row who I don’t like?

I was definitely not good at this growing up because I didn’t have a lot of tools to use for stuttering. I just sucked it up and kept pushing on. Hence my ability to recall a lot of specific events from the past (just read through this blog. No, really, there’s stuff from elementary school in here.)

And this is consistent with the article later on:

Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and over, and drive ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is the biggest thing that ever happened.

So resilience can go both ways — we can build it up or tear it down. It’s our choice with how we react. And with stuttering, we face that choice every time we dare to open our mouth. And every time we don’t, too.

Stuttering and reading

Well, of course the day after I talk about reading simple children’s books, my daughter comes to me with … a real book. It’s some book about a princess, but that’s not important. It doesn’t have any pictures, is well over a hundred pages, and it definitely taking me back to “Bump” in school.

(Did you have Bump? Oh, it’s a special kind of hell for someone who stutters. Basically one person in your class starts reading part of a story out loud that you’re all following along silently to. Then they say, “bump, Rehan.” And Rehan has to pick up reading (OUT LOUD — did I mention that part?) until he’s had enough and says, “bump, Rebecca.”)

Anyway. she asked me to read this book to her. I’m not entirely sure she “gets” the book, but maybe it’s just nice for her to hear me tell a story. About a princess. And it gives  me a chance to practice my reading, tones, pacing, breathing, and accents as applicable. When I first started reading, I was stumbling a bit. And thought, oh no, here we go. We’ve graduated to non-picture books, and I’m screwed now.

But it’s getting better, and I’m trying to really practice speaking out loud. I do stutter very, very slightly on some words. The ones that start with “w” or “l” I tend to drag out slightly longer which of course irritates the crap out of me. But she doesn’t care or notice, and on we go.

When I was very young, I remember reading books to myself and getting completely lost in them. I’d cast the characters, paint a scene in my head, and off they’d go. I’d read for hours on end, this movie going on in my head the whole time.

Well, I’m doing that again, it seems. While reading out loud, I find myself getting lost again in the story, really picturing what’s going on, how people are talking, interacting, moving.And honestly I think it’s helping with the reading and not stuttering as much. I’m not thinking about the words, I’m thinking about the story and characters. Sure, I see the words I know I’ll stutter on, but they don’t feel like as big of a deal. And again, of course, the audience helps. It’s just my five-year-old daughter (and sometimes the other kids if they’re wandering around).

Action for Stammering Children Day 4

I’ve been commenting on tweets from the Action for Stammering Children. You can read my thoughts on Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.

Today’s post is  “Building your child’s confidence by focusing on what he is doing well and praising them, can make them feel more relaxed about their stammer.”

I was very fortunate that my parents never bothered me about my stutter. They never told me to slow down or whatever. They were supportive with regards to me going to speech therapy in school. They also did encourage me academically and when I was involved in extracurricular activities. I think that all helped a lot.

I think that stuttering during school and then going home to pressing expectations would have really crushed me and caused me to completely shut down socially. As it stood, I enjoyed school and became more and more comfortable talking to my friends as the years went on.

I can see how my parents even asking a question here and there would really make me dwell on my stuttering for days and days. I had enough of that when I had book reports and whatever other presentations in school.

All that being said, I do think it’s important that if your child stutters, to get involved more in what they’re doing at school. That way you know when certain things are coming up (presentations!) and can help them — and encourage them — to rehearse. Even if it’s not in front of you, point them toward their best friends for an audience.

It’s also important to focus on the positives as the quote says. We all have our bad days, and once we start thinking about what we stuttered on, we get to, well, I’ll always stutter on that. Which leads to, if I can’t even talk in front of my class this year, how will I do it next year? And the self-doubt mounts quickly and spirals out of control.

We absolutely need someone there to put it all in perspective — a parent to say, what else will you be doing in that class? What else have you done? Is there a report that’s also part of the grade (in addition to the presentation?) Are there more oral reports coming up this year? Did you get feedback from your teacher already, or maybe you’re just being harder on yourself (as we usually are) than you should be?

I think as parents we must also come to grips with the fact that our children may not always want to confide in us. And that’s ok. So it’s also important to keep an eye on your kid’s circle of friends. Who are they spending the most time with? Can they confide in them? Can you talk to that friend about your child’s stuttering? Is that friend strong enough to stand with your child if someone laughs at their stutter?

Action for Stammering Children Day 2

This week I’m going to go through several tweets from the Action for Stammering Children. Here’s yesterday‘s post. These have all been done by children, teenagers and therapists. They all sum up the stuttering experience very well, and I thought I’d add a bit more to them regarding my own experience.

Today’s post is, “Certain situations make us stammer more. Many of us find being put on the spot or under pressure the hardest.” This is meant for teachers by pupils.

I know when I was in school I certainly hated getting called on randomly. I mean, yes, I had the answer, but having to articulate it was pretty stressful. And everybody who stutters has been through The List.

What’s The List? Oh you know. For me it was a spelling lesson. There’s a new chapter for spelling, a list of words, and we’ll go around the room, and everybody will say the word, spell the word, read the definition and/or use it in a sentence.

So let’s see … I’m … 15th … go down the words … yeah, I can’t say that.

I’m not sure how it happened, but I think my French teacher in high school figured out that my stutter bothered me and that I hated having to speak. So imagine this — we had a language lab. You put on headphones and you and everybody else are all on the same “channel.”So the teacher could make us listen to a recording (en Francais!) and then she’d ask us about it. So everybody could hear you answer (en Francais!). So it was the hell of having to speak up in class but with the added hell of basically being on the phone. Fun!

Anyway, the point is that my French teacher was nice enough to click over to me, ask me something for just a second, and then go onto the next person. So grateful.

I know that for most presentations or book reports or whatever I was a total wreck. But I think that was a function of being a young person — waiting until the last minute, throwing something together, not rehearsing, and totally lacking confidence.

So what would I tell my younger self? Well for book reports and presentations that are a few weeks out, prepare and rehearse. Get more comfortable. You’re going to stutter, but the more you know, the more confident you’ll be, and the more comfortable you’ll be with delivery.

And what would I tell my younger self about getting put on the spot? About being asked to read something outloud suddenly? About having to go up to the chalkboard, do a math problem and then talk through the solution?

Well, start with a deep breath. Then take another. Then focus on delivering your answer at your own pace. Just because your friend before you rattled off an answer quickly doesn’t mean you have to. Remember — slow is your friend — your friends want you to take your time — it’ll make class end earlier! But seriously, I do still deal with this in my working life. I’m put on the spot by a senior manager or VP — asking me specifics about a project. Deep breath, some consideration, slow delivery. And in the working world, it’s ok to say you don’t know (when you genuinely don’t know — not when you’re just avoiding) and say you’ll find the information and get back to them.

The stuttering bothered me because I was comparing myself to my fluent friends constantly. But how do they sound when they’re put on the spot? Unsure? Uncertain? Searching for words? Nobody is perfect in those situations time and time again.

And what would I want to tell my teachers if I could go back?

Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t want them to back off on oral presentations or anything. Not at all. That’s not how real life is going to be. But I’d prefer them to challenge me more on it. Ask me — Did you prepare early? Did you rehearse? Did you get a bunch of friends together and do the presentation in front of them?

For stuff on the spot, I’d ask simply that they be patient and maintain eye contact. To control the tone and make sure I’m not feeling rushed. For something like spontaneous group work — where you assign a leader — ask the group to assign one. So if I’m feeling good that day, I can take it. Otherwise I can still contribute meaningfully without the stress of having to present the bulk of the work.

I think also to recognize when I’m having a bad day (speaking-wise) and you’ve called on me. Look, I got up and did the math problem in front of the class. I showed all my work. I wrote it all out in a way that anybody could follow along. When I go in on explaining the first step and can barely say “x,” I’d certainly appreciate lightening up on follow-up questions.

To read more about my experiences in school, you can click here for elementary school, here for junior high, and here for high school.

Thank you, Dave

Obviously the big news last week was Dave Letterman’s last show and retirement.

These days I don’t watch Dave at all. In fact, it’s been a few years since I’ve seen a show. But when he first moved to CBS, I was still in junior high school, and I used to tune in every Friday night.

At around the same time, Friends had also just come out. Between Dave and Chandler, my sense of humor grew. More sarcasm, more outlandish statements, and naturally more confidence.

With regards to stuttering, having the sense of humor and the confidence helped a lot. I had a small group of friends who also watched the same shows and had similar interests and senses of humor.

Through Dave’s influence, I also started writing on my own a lot more. I would write Top Ten lists — lots of them. Some generic, some personal, some for friends, and share them whenever I could. It was a nice outlet to get some attention from friends without having to stand up and speak.

As for seeing Dave in person, that dream came true during my freshman year of college. Two guys from the student newspaper and I (I was the photographer) got tickets and stood in the standby line. For whatever reason, I was ahead of them, and the people from the show came out and asked who was next — I was! So I ran inside. I had the last seat in the far corner of the theatre. I was thrilled.

Junior year of high school, and I was still watching Dave on Friday nights. He had a segment with some “Big Ass” products, I think. In school I volunteered in homeroom to read the morning announcements. Usually the teacher did this, and he didn’t mind if I did it once in a while. So I’d set up little props as well — saying the morning’s announcements were sponsored by “The Big Ass Dictionary.” That all went pretty well until I said our homeroom teacher was organizing a coup.

During college my Dave watching (and general television watching, for that matter) faded. I still made the Thanksgiving shows though — since I was at home for those.

But I’ll always be grateful for Dave and his comedy — his sense of humor came into my life at the perfect time.

Stuttering Mentor

As I think back about my stuttering growing up, I think it would have been helpful to have a mentor to navigate stuttering. Someone who actually stuttered and managed to still move through life confidently.

I think someone who could have explained the iceberg to me as well as challenged me to get out and speak more.

Most “discussions” I had about stuttering were with myself — like, I knew that there were groups out there meeting, but I simply talked myself out of it.

I think what held me back about reaching out for help was that if I did that, then I’d admit that I had a problem. And if I’m having to reach out, it must be a pretty big problem. I suppose I equated it to seeing the doctor. Of course now I know that’s not true. We should reach out for help in all facets of our life — work, play and home.

An older mentor would also have known about the NSA Conference and other groups like Toastmasters. He or she would explain the reality of things like college (you only need a small solid core of friends), looking for a job (how to network), and the corporate world (it’s not necessarily as speaking-intensive as some people make it out to be.)

I think if you’re the parent of someone who stutters, finding a mentor is pretty important. And how would you go about it? I’d think that either through your therapist or through your support group. A monthly support group is nice, but you still have to feel comfortable stuttering the other 29 days.

For me, I’d feel comfortable being that mentor to someone. I imagine it’d happen after I move back to the States.

Stuttering at the Races Part 2

The second part of my “stuttering awareness” at the Bahrain GP this past weekend has to do with photography. When I was growing up, I’d get F1 magazine and spend hours going through its pages, particularly the photos in the front by Darren Heath. They’d include all the exposure information. And they weren’t just shots of cars — they were art. Early morning, late evening shots, practice, during races, the whole bit.

I was getting into photography in college, and I thought that sports photography was something that I could do. I could eventually take those kinds of photos!

But like the engineering for a team, it didn’t come to pass. The stuttering really held back any networking or asking or trying to intern someplace. Or even asking professionals who were at the college sporting events that I did shoot at. I thought I knew what I was doing, so why ask them? But just tagging along for a baseball game or whatever else would have been invaluable.

The thing about stuttering — and being covert — is that it really confines you to your tiny slice of life. You’re afraid to venture out, to ask around, to take big risks. You’ll have to talk and expose yourself! So the regrets are even bigger.

At the race I saw some of the professionals toting around their giant lenses. While I don’t have one myself, I have been able to get a decent camera and lens thanks to the job here. So I got a few decent shots off. But nothing even close to being Darren Heath-esque.

Like I said yesterday, it’s always tricky about reflecting and wondering what could have been. Those photographers also travel a good bit and put in very long hours. How long could I really have done that?

Now, the thing about this post and yesterday’s isn’t to say “woe is me, I stuttered, and my life turned out terribly.” Not at all. My life has turned out fine. I’m able to do a lot of the things that I want. The point is for the younger people out there who stutter. You should recognize how stuttering is subconsciously holding you back from exploring your dreams. Not necessarily pursuing, but hey, at least ask about it and try it out a little to see if you like.

Otherwise you’ll be sitting on the other side in 20 years wondering what if.

Stuttering at the Races Part 1

Missed a few days, but hey, still stuttering even though I might not have posted!

This past weekend (starting Thursday, really) there was the Bahrain Grand Prix — Formula One — over in Bahrain. I’ve been a fan of F1 for 20 years, and this was my first race … finally!

On Thursday they had an open paddock walk for about an hour. It was for three-day ticket holders. I took the camera, took a bunch of photos, and loved every minute of it. Not all the teams were out, and only a few drivers showed up, but hey, still worth it.

Friday was practice, Saturday qualifying and Sunday the race.

Since everything was so well organized, there wasn’t a need to ask around for directions or information. And thus, not a lot of stuttering. But I couldn’t stop thinking about my stuttering the entire weekend. My explanation will come in two parts — today and tomorrow.

The first part is that I’ve got a degree in mechanical engineering. When I was in college, I was an F1 fan. I knew the deal — you had to start small and work your way up (F1 being at the peak). The internet was new in those days, but I managed to find a listing of “minor league” teams in the States. I think back in those days they had CART, IRL and then the smaller series where the talent was coming from.

I’m not sure if I e-mailed the guy, or just cold called him, but I remember distinctly talking to a team manager on the phone. He was out in California, and he said, yeah, sure, there’s something here, but you’d have to help do everything. I wasn’t a great communicator back then. So I didn’t talk about this opportunity with my parents — who could have supported me. Or friends who might be headed out there. I should have also called around to more teams — but again, more phone time.

Based on my success now at my current job (and having progressed through various roles) I think I would have done well in the racing industry. I think those of us who stutter probably have more regrets than most — fluent people make a decision just because; we make one because we can’t say what we want.

On the other hand, I did move to Saudi because my Stateside job at the time required a healthy amount of travel. And being on a racing team is mostly travel for the majority of the year. So who knows how that could have turned out.

It’s just something I was thinking about a lot as I watched the various mechanics working over the weekend.

The long road to stuttering acceptance

As I approach the one-year anniversary of this blog and opening up (almost) completely about my stutter, I thought I’d take a chance to talk more about how exactly I got to this point of acceptance.

This was a very, very long process. And I know it’s not the same for others who stutter. Even when I went to the NSA conference, I met people who stutter more and less than I do. Keep in mind that I graduated high school in 1997, so it was well before the Internet as we know it today.

However, this might at least offer some guidance to those still in school wondering if it’ll get better, or what can be done to make things better. And by “better,” I mean more comfortable, more tolerable, and less stressful on a day-to-day basis.

Elementary school – (Ages 7-11) I was aware that I stuttered, but didn’t understand its implications at all. Did speech therapy, but nobody gave me the big picture. Also, I was fluent during therapy, so that didn’t help. No mention on the homefront about my speech. (pretty much continues to present day, actually)

Junior high school – (11-15) My sixth grade teacher commended me at the end of the year about my accomplishments despite my stutter. This was the first time that a non-therapist recognized it and brought it up. I did more therapy in school, but I was usually fluent during those sessions. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was also growing more comfortable and confident in my environment — and gaining friends who didn’t mind the stutter. This was cyclical — low comfort and confidence going into junior high, riding high on the way out. Going into high school, I was down low again, but managed to work back up by the time I graduated.

High School – (15-18) Definitely knew that I had a stutter, and finally met someone else who did as well. We were in some of the same classes together, and we even looked alike. He was a lot more open about it. Not at all covert. But he and I never talked about it, and I regret that. Through peer pressure, I became more involved in the performing arts (on a very, very small scale) and that did a lot of good for my confidence even though it scared the hell out of me at times. I didn’t stutter when I was on stage doing Who’s on First (two nights!) when I was a senior. I had a different therapist in high school, and she taught me about easy onsets and breathing. These are things that I still try to use today, and it’s made a huge difference.

College – (18-22) At this point I should say that I still wasn’t “thinking” about the long-term effects of stuttering. I didn’t know about job interviews, going to meetings, giving presentations and whatever else the corporate world had for me. My summer jobs had been retail and as a bank teller. Not a lot of talking, and it was easy to be covert. I thought that was normal. Since high school, I have not seen an SLP. During the college I do remember introducing myself to others at the student newspaper, stuttering-be-damned. Once that was done, it was easy to maintain those friendships. And as people came and went at the paper, it was easier for introductions. Academically, I did what was required but never bothered talking to professors or asking for help. It just wasn’t something I was used to.

First job – (22-25) I had problems during some of the interviews only because I didn’t know what to say. But after a while I became pretty decent at just bantering and smiling. That being said, I did get my first job through my dad’s connections, and once there, it was easy to be the young engineer who didn’t know anything. I got used to keeping my mouth shut and trying to absorb as much as possible. During the first five years out of college, I never gave my stutter any thought. And despite the Internet, I never bothered researching it or finding any help groups.

Subsequent jobs – (25-31) I can’t pinpoint an exact date, but I started reflecting a lot more about my stuttering and my life. This probably happened when I found out about the Pagoclone trial. And so I started to keep journals. I think the boredom of corporate travel — hotels and coffee shops helped a lot with this. I thought that I could put it all together into a book. Despite all the writing and thinking, I still didn’t reach out to anybody. The Pagoclone trial wasn’t through an SLP. Through writing and reflecting, I started to realize that my general policy of not-asking and not-talking was entirely stuttering-related.

Moving to Saudi – (31-36) I feel like things sort of “settled down” a lot more in my working and home life when we moved to Saudi. Before that, I was traveling a lot more, worried about general job security, saving whatever money I could, and raising a family. But in Saudi more things are taken care of, and I was able to sit down with my stuttering thoughts a lot more. I came here when I was 31. So that’s how long it took to really start looking around online and finding out more about stuttering.

I realized after a while that publishing a book wouldn’t be feasible. But I was reading a lot more blogs, so I decided that might be the best route. But the stuttering still held me back — in being overt. I was afraid of so many things — that were all imaginary. That if someone found out it might affect my job, what my friends or family might think, what having to talk more about it would do to my psyche. So not until I turned 35 last year did I go ahead with the site.

So what does this all mean? It’s a long journey. I never researched stuttering online because it was bothering me or holding me back (or so I thought). I only researched it because I wanted to share my journey with others. For the longest time I thought it was very personal, something that I should have to struggle with on my own. I’ve found out the opposite of course. I’m not alone, and a lot of other people are going through this.

I think for a long time I also didn’t research stuttering online because I didn’t want to admit to myself that I stuttered. That’s an absurd thing to say, but I think it’s true for the majority of covert stutterers. If I don’t learn about it, it doesn’t exist to me, and it won’t bother me [any more than it does]. Of course I’ve since learned that it’ll actually make you feel better knowing more. And it’s really fun to get together with other people who stutter and connect and tell stories.

I will also say that a lot of things came together at the right time. Working at the same company for a number of years gave me the confidence that stuttering more at work wouldn’t have any negative effect. Also being here gave me the financial means to start attending the NSA Conference regularly.

Do I wish I had come to this point earlier? I don’t know. I’m not sure I would have been ready for it. On the one hand, colleagues have always been good to me, so maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. What about during college or before that? That’s even harder to say — so I’ll go with “it’s complicated.” It’s that idea of, well, had I known and been more aware, would that have had a major impact? I don’t think now it’s going to make any major career impacts, but before it would have been possible. On the other hand, isn’t that true for fluent people anyway? As life goes on, you become more narrow in your pursuits and ambition.

Ninth Grade

The transition from junior high to high school wasn’t as bad as from elementary to junior high. For one thing, I was still running around with a good group of friends, and I had a few classes with them. I was watching more Letterman and making my own top ten lists to amuse everybody. Even French wasn’t as bad since the class was smaller, and we had a different teacher. I do remember goofing off a lot in that class though. That would probably explain why my French grammar is lousy.

What I do remember is an oral book report that I had to do. I don’t recall any during junior high school, and I think I would remember that sort of thing since I remember all the reports I gave in four years of high school.

For whatever stupid reason, I chose The Three Musketeers. I probably should have looked at the names of the characters. I mean, seriously, d’Artagnan? I’m supposed to go up in front of people and say this name over and over again without stuttering? Are you kidding? And the other names, Athos, Porthos, Aramis. I could do Porthos probably. I wasn’t smart enough to a.) pick a shorter book and b.) pick a book with fewer characters who have easy-to-say names.

I’m sure we had weeks and weeks to prepare for this book report. And of course I didn’t really even read the book. I didn’t have the Clif’s Notes, either. I think I must have skimmed a few pages here and there and made up the rest. (Remember, this was all pre-Wikipedia). Actually, maybe I used a children’s version as a crutch? (side note: I have not gone back and read the book. I should probably do that.) Maybe I thought that by not reading the book, I wouldn’t have to do the report …I’d like to also point out that since I’d never done an oral book report before, I didn’t really know how to prepare for it.

As to be expected, the oral report was wretched. Not only was I not prepared (thus no confidence) but those damn names kept on having to be uttered. And all this in front of my friends whose opinions of me was a great concern. In reality, of course, they were probably just spacing out, thinking I was nervous, and well, soon it’ll be their turn and they’ve got other things to worry about.

Two more crappy things came of this — one, another person in the class did her report on The Three Musketeers (and, by the strong narrative she presented, it was obvious she had actually read the thing) and two, in eleventh grade I had to also give an oral report that I also didn’t prepare for. Should have learned my lesson.

The same English class also demanded — near the end of the year — to go up in front of the class and recite a few lines from Romeo and Juliet. I did this pretty well, but managed to forget for a few seconds one of the lines. Fortunately a buddy of mine mouthed the words, and I was good to go. It’s an interesting contrast — having to prepare and memorize — versus half-assing a classic and bumbling through it.

Seventh Grade

What I noticed when making notes on my stuttering is that on the whole, my confidence is cyclical. I’ll expand more on this later, but in short, it meant that by the time I reached fifth grade, I was feeling very good and confident. Then back to zero in sixth. By eighth, I was good again. Then as a freshman in high school, back to zero. College was the same. As I grow familiar with people and the process, things definitely get easier. The point of this is that although a new job might seem intimidating at first, it’ll eventually smooth out. So I shouldn’t let stuttering get in the way of seeking out new opportunities.

Onto seventh grade.

Keeping in mind that since in sixth there were still two other wings of kids who I never even saw, seventh would mean even more mixing and more new kids. We had three “teams” (instead of the wings), red, white and blue. I was on the blue team. I think at this point the school also starting grouping people by their ability. Seventh grade really ended up being a mid-point of confidence. On the one hand, I was developing my sense of humor, having a fun time, and hanging out with friends who I still talk to today. On the other, there was French class.

Our school offered three languages starting in seventh grade — French, Spanish and German. I have no idea why I chose French. French 1 was actually split across seventh and eighth grade. French 2-5 was then offered in high school for grades 9-12.

A person can probably get away with not participating in math class. Or science class. Or maybe even English class. But not French. You were there to read, write and speak another language. At first I thought this would be cool and fun. Then when I opened the book and saw the words for ‘he’ and ‘she’ are ‘il’ and ‘elle,’ I knew it would be a long, long year.

Not only did our teacher speak in French to us, she expected us to answer in French to her. It turns out that I’m extremely self conscious with regards to speaking another language. (Even to this day — I’m in Saudi and barely speak any Arabic and haven’t learned; I also barely speak any Urdu to strangers even though I know a good bit from having it spoken at the house during my childhood).

To handle this, I simply had to work harder on the reading and writing part at the expense of speaking. I would usually know the answer to whatever was being asked, but I sure as heck wasn’t going to raise my hand and offer up a few French words. If called on, yeah, sure. Looking back what makes me sad about this is that I didn’t have anywhere to turn. I didn’t know. Nobody ever said, ‘hey, look, I know you’re unsure about pronunciation and the words, but don’t worry. Just give it a try. Everybody else is in the same boat.’ Also, ‘nobody expects you to be fluent. Just listen to anybody speak a non-native language for the first time. They’re not conjugating anything right.’ Or at least work in a smaller group after school.

You have to remember that in those days you couldn’t just go online and find a local French-speaking family to practice with. There was no online. (Aside: so let’s say there’s no internet and some French-speaking person puts up a flyer at the library. It’d have a phone number, right? What, so I’m cold-calling people at age 12 to learn a language I don’t even want to speak? Right.)

I’m sad because it turns out that even 17 years after high school, I still remember a good deal of French. I could probably get by if you threw me in the middle of France. I know this because I sucked it up recently and spoke French to a French family here in Saudi. But I still hesitate to speak French with them because I’m so self conscious. And I don’t know why — they’d never laugh at my attempts.

I’m curious if any of the other kids felt as self-conscious or not. Maybe they didn’t care, they just threw out the words? Was I more so because I was someone who stutters?

Sixth Grade

Let’s get on to sixth grade. Just to recap, by fifth grade I was feeling very confident and smart. I had plenty of friends, didn’t understand the magnitude or consequences of my stuttering, and assumed life would continue to be all sunshine and kittens.

Not so much.

Our school district is made up of about a half-dozen elementary schools. These then feed into the junior high school, grades 6-8. They then feed into the high school, 9-12.

Sixth grade was divided into 18 classrooms. These were split into three wings. In each of these three wings, the six classes paired up. So you’d have half your classes with your homeroom teacher, then walk across the hall during the day for other stuff. Some classes were in the other wings as well, but most of your life was in just one wing.

I had a problem with both classrooms. First of all, there was no more coddling. Time to grow up and toughen up. My homeroom teacher was a tough guy named Mr. Shull. He could laugh and have a good time, but he was also very serious. The next thing was that I didn’t really know anybody in my class. This was pretty intimidating.

Every morning we’d all stand up and say the pledge of allegiance. To get this started, everybody took a turn saying “I.” Once the person said it, then the rest of the class would join in. I suppose we could debate the merits of this approach, but hey, this was life, so figure it out. Most of my mornings were consumed with counting kids. I’d see who was saying “I,” and then figure out how many more days I had. What made this more complicated is that we were seated in clusters — two by two desks facing each other, and then a fifth hanging on the end. How the counting got around each cluster always seemed to change.

Anyway, the day finally came. I couldn’t hide from it, and as I stood up and put my hand on my heart, nothing came out. I was trying. I didn’t have any breath to say anything, but I was still trying. I could feel everybody waiting. It felt like minutes even though it was probably only a few seconds. Everything was locked up, and there was nowhere to run. I didn’t know to stop and take a breath. Finally, I eeked out the quietest “I,” and the others in my cluster started in on the pledge. Afterward, Mr. Shull came up to me and asked if I had said “I.” The kid standing next to me in our cluster said yes, he heard it.

Across the hall, we’d have spelling class. This was pretty simple, but it turns out sixth grade was determined to show me the wonders of class participation. For each spelling lesson, a student would say the word, spell the word, and then (I think?) read a sentence. Oh what fun! And every week, a new list!

So we’d start off, and I’d look down the row (no clusters in that room for whatever reason), count the number of kids, and count down the list of words. Then I’d start panicking. It almost didn’t matter what the word was. I’d seriously try to calm myself down, but no, it never worked. Saying a word is one thing, having to utter so many more syllables just to spell it was even worse. And those vowels. And hard consonants. And seriously, we could all read, so what was the point of this again?

Starting therapy and the rest of elementary school

In third grade, big changes started happening. I remember getting put into the gifted program (or maybe I was before, but now some of us were also in a separate group during regular class time) and my teacher, Mrs. Baker, telling me that while I did have a stutter, it wasn’t as bad as her uncle’s.

Even though I was being singled out for this, I wasn’t being held back by my stutter. I wasn’t letting it get in my way because I actually didn’t know any better. I was still doing very well in school, and scoring near the top of every test and quiz that was given. I knew almost all the answers in class as well.

While I haven’t asked my parents, I’m guessing this is around the time that the school district started talking to them about my stutter. My parents never talked to me about it anyway. Then in either third or fourth grade, I started speech therapy at school. It was what, maybe an hour or 45 minutes per week.

Like Jack before me, I would leave the classroom and see the therapist, a lady whose name I forgot. We’d sit down and chat, she’d make me say some sounds, some words, some sentences. And for the most part, I wouldn’t stutter at all. I was very comfortable. The nice thing was that nobody ever said, ‘hey, you need to fix this otherwise it’ll ruin your life forever.’ No, it was more of a break from classes to go chat with this nice lady, and that was that.

In fourth and fifth grade, I continued the speech therapy. And the gifted program. Thinking back on it, by fifth grade, I was very comfortable and confident. Knew pretty much everybody in the class, and got along well with them. Never got into any trouble. During a music class (while singing — or, you know, trying to sing) I discovered what anybody who stutters knows — that I didn’t stutter while singing. I thought this was pretty interesting albeit not very useful. My life wasn’t about to become a musical, after all.

I don’t remember the stuttering being a huge problem because we weren’t raising our hands and giving long descriptive answers. It was a quick word or number or whatever. Oral book reports or presentations … yeah, didn’t have those either that I recall. So things were going pretty well.

In our school district, the elementary school ended in fifth grade. Then it was time to get dumped into the junior high school (we called it middle school) for grades 6-8. A much bigger pool of kids, and a lot more uncertainty. But I’ll get to that in a little while. Let’s take a break and talk about how awful the telephone is for the next few days.

Starts with an eye

Aside from reading to the kindergartners in first grade that I mentioned yesterday — and really, I don’t even remember the actual act of reading, just that I did it (I still have the book at my parent’s house) — I don’t recall any speaking out loud in first grade.

But in second grade, that’s when I remembered the stuttering started.

A family friend told me a simple story, the crux of which was, “his eyes were so itchy, he scratched them out.” No idea about the story’s other details …

Anyway, as a seven-year-old, I thought this was earth-shattering stuff, and so, when it was time for open sharing or book time or whatever (I remember we were all sitting on a carpet together) I raised my hands and told his random bit of information for everybody’s benefit. And I stuttered on the word “eye.”

For the rest of second grade, I don’t remember any other “public” speaking. What I do remember is one of the kids, Jack, going to “speech.” The teacher would tell him once a week that it was time for “speech,” and off he’d go. Years later I realized what was up — Jack had a lisp.

My entire elementary school life (and the rest of it, for that matter) was devoid of bullying. Nobody ever said anything negative about the way I spoke. I think the reason for this was because I was somewhat smart, and usually knew the answer to whatever was going on. And I wasn’t afraid to offer up help if anybody asked.

It wasn’t until third grade that I started seeing the school-provided therapist (I think) and I’ll get to that tomorrow.

Karma

I think this week I’ll go back through some quick elementary school stories of stuttering. There’s not as much to say about these since those days are pretty vague. Also, it’s important to date this — times before the Internet and easy information. So it’s something like 1985-6 for first grade …

When I was a teenager and stuttering all the time, I wondered a lot what was causing this. I thought it might be something physical — maybe landing on my back or front all those times playing football in the backyard with my brother. Then, since we were being brought up to believe in God, maybe it was something bad I had done a long time ago that I was being punished for? What exactly could that be?

Ah, that’s right. First grade. During first grade, all of the students had the opportunity to read a story book to the kindergarten class. All you had to do was sign your name up on a list, and then you’d be the person for that week. Well, not being on top of things, of course I forgot about signing up. And the end of the year was coming. If I added my name to the bottom of the list now, I wouldn’t have the chance to read to them. But I really, really wanted to read to those kindergartners! (No idea why). So I simply went up to the list, erased someone else’s name, and put mine on there. (yes, I’m a terrible person) Done! And a few weeks later, I was reading to the little kiddies. I don’t remember stuttering at all in first grade, by the way.

Clearly that must have been the cause of the stuttering! Not only were you devious about signing up, but it was a verbal activity! And now your oral prowess would be compromised for life.

Obviously that wasn’t it, but this is the kind of thing that runs through your young mind when you have nowhere to turn.

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