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?

Stuttering at the open mic

The second workshop on the second day was Open Mic.

It’s a simple premise, really. There’s the microphone, a room full of conference-goers, and that’s it. So you suck it up, take the mic, and start talking. To a bunch of strangers. About whatever you want.

Deep breath. I’m doing this, I’m doing this, I’m doing this.

I walked in there with someone who I met the first day. After the host explained the deal, my friend stood up and took the mic. Just like that. He didn’t even think about it, he just did it. Again, seriously? This is how people are rolling here?

After he was done, another hand went up, another person got up to speak. Everybody stuttered. Everybody in the audience listened attentively. I sat there in awe. Yes, I had just been to a few workshops where people made comments and stuttered. Or the presenters stuttered. But here are a bunch of people just getting up and putting themselves out there. Strangers to strangers.

About half an hour in, I looked around the room and started doing the math. There were way more people in here than time allowed. There was another open mic event later in the conference, though. I started making excuses in my head. The covert in me made an appearance and started making really persuasive suggestions.

No.

I came here to listen, yes, but I also came here to talk.

I put my hand up after someone finished. Don’t think about it. Just stand up and get up there. Start talking. Stop thinking so much.

I had been doing some thinking while in my seat. What would I say? I would talk about how I told my friends I would be attending a stuttering conference. And how all of them said the same thing — that they knew I stuttered, but it didn’t seem like a big deal to them (or me). But of course it was.

So I got up there. And tried to introduce myself. And stuttered. And then I started in on this little reflection. And stuttered some more. And more. But again, nobody reacted negatively. They just sat there and listened. I kept things short, and then sat back down. That was it. I felt good. I had faced the stuttering head on, and it didn’t do anything to me. I lived through it.

What was becoming a little alarming to me was how badly I was stuttering during the conference. This public speaking attempt really highlighted it. But then I thought, well, I’m definitely out of my comfort zone, I didn’t prepare anything, and I barely do any public speaking to strangers anyway. And oh yeah, you do stutter, and that’s not going to just go away because you think it should.

All in all it ended up being a pretty taxing speaking morning. First making a comment at the bilingual workshop and now this. Between all the introductions from the day before, I had spoken more to a room full of strangers in the past two days than in the past year.

And through it all, nothing negative was happening.

Stuttering in College Part 5

Back to reviewing my college experience. If you want to check out the first few parts, here are the links.

Before College

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

That covers things up to my sophomore year.

During freshman year, I had taken a University Honors College course in chemistry. And done poorly. Well, a B- anyway. Second semester I took regular chemistry. For whatever reason, I was determined to make this Honors College thing work. So for my sophomore year, I took an Honors physics course. Horrible, horrible idea.

This wasn’t some extension of high school physics. This was a deep dive into theory and fast paced. The guy who taught it had founded the Honors College. And here I was, lost in a class of more than a hundred students without anybody to go to for help. I had a pretty solid outing, but ended up getting Cs both semesters. The medical school dream was starting to wither away. A horrid showing in organic chemistry (and its lab) sort of sealed the deal. By the end of that first term, I was searching around for something else.

Since my dad had an engineering degree, he thought I should give that a go. So I signed up for some of the introductory engineering courses. Stuff like basic computer science and engineering analysis — lab stuff. Turns out that if you stutter, you really don’t like talking to people and finding out the exact course to take. I can figure this out on my own!

When I applied for graduation two years later, I found out that I had taken the introduction to computer science course — for computer science majors. That pretty much explained why it was so bloody difficult. I was told that there was a more basic one that all the engineering students took. Right. And remember, if you’re doing poorly in a course, it’s not somebody else’s fault — it’s yours. So figure it out!

My rampant foray into academic mediocrity aside, I was making great progress at the newspaper, though. I was still taking photos, writing the occasional news article, and doing sports as well. All of my friends were at the paper, and none were in whatever major I thought I was in. I spent a lot of hours there. That would definitely explain the deteriorating grades.

While I can’t remember a specific stuttering story from sophomore year, I think the transition from pre-med to engineering is a great example of how my stutter got in the way. I could have sat down and had a long conversation with a counselor, or professor, or fellow student on what courses to take. And in what order. But I didn’t. I did it the hard way. And I never did have that conversation! I was under the impression that I’m in college, so I should be able to figure stuff out on my own. Well, not really. There’s plenty of support systems out there, you just have to ask.

However, I don’t want any of you to think that I acted entirely in a vacuum. Oh no. You did have to have a sign-off from your counselor on courses. The one assigned to me was a really nice professor, but he was also very busy. And I don’t think he knew the exact order to take courses in. Or that some should be taken before others or whatever. For the entire time at Pitt, whenever I visited any professor (very rarely, mind you) I always felt like I was bothering them, that I was taking up their valuable time. That my stutter would drag things out, and things would just take way longer than they should. I felt the same about e-mails. I thought they’d think to themselves — ‘why can’t this guy figure it out on his own? He’s in college!’

Stuttering in College Part 4

Let me wrap up freshman year today with this article — it’s something I talked about earlier. As I said before, the whole of an article may not be what point I want to make, but sometimes I find something in there that’s interesting and applicable.

The negative thoughts took different forms in each individual, of course, but they mostly gathered around two ideas. One set of thoughts was about belonging. Students in transition often experienced profound doubts about whether they really belonged — or could ever belong — in their new institution. The other was connected to ability. Many students believed in what Carol Dweck had named an entity theory of intelligence — that intelligence was a fixed quality that was impossible to improve through practice or study. And so when they experienced cues that might suggest that they weren’t smart or academically able — a bad grade on a test, for instance — they would often interpret those as a sign that they could never succeed. Doubts about belonging and doubts about ability often fed on each other, and together they created a sense of helplessness. That helplessness dissuaded students from taking any steps to change things. Why study if I can’t get smarter? Why go out and meet new friends if no one will want to talk to me anyway? Before long, the nagging doubts became self-fulfilling prophecies.

So my stuttering basically made me doubt whether I could ever fit in or not, and a few bad grades in a bunch of classes made me wonder if I could ever succeed long-term. It would have been nice to have someone there to give me a lot more guidance on all of this.

The counselors who we had there would help in selecting classes and figuring out a rough idea of a major. I wanted to do the whole pre-med thing. But there was never any follow-up. They never asked that we come back to see them and make sure we were making adequate progress. And since I was so good at hiding my stutter, they never said anything about that either.

For whatever reason, during freshman year I also signed up to become an undergraduate teaching assistant. I probably thought this would help my confidence out a little bit and get me some “public” speaking practice. I had done some one-on-one tutoring in high school and enjoyed it. I probably also thought I should do something extracurricular that’s academically-inclined to keep up that whole medical school dream.

Basically at Pitt they had math classes that were also given at the high school level. That is to say if a student wasn’t very strong at math, they still had to take algebra or trigonometry as part of their major. It was also for adult students who had to meet minimum requirements. So the teaching assistants could be undergraduates instead of graduate students.

The deal was that you’d take this single-semester course, and then in the next semesters, you’d be able to have a recitation of your own — going through course material, grading papers, helping the professors proctor exams. The odd thing was that I only remember doing one presentation in front of this class — and I’d be “presenting” during my recitations. I still don’t understand how I didn’t freak out and bolt this course. I mean, it’s public speaking. Weekly. With questions.

Despite all of that, during my sophomore and junior years, I enjoyed doing this a lot. I think along with the student newspaper, it helped keep my confidence in the black despite the heavy anchor of lousy grades.

Alright so next week I’ll take a break from talking about college to getting back to some situations I run into on a daily or weekly basis. Fun simple things like ordering food at Subway and then getting ambushed by friends bringing new people to lunch.

Stuttering in College Part 3

During my senior year of high school, I took photography. I enjoyed this a lot. I wanted to keep on taking photos in some capacity come college time. What I found was at the newspaper, The Pitt News, they had some openings.

I managed to go up to their offices and introduce myself to the photo editor. He was a pretty big guy, very jovial, great sense of humor. I think he had a lot of other things going on in his life, so he was happy to show me around and take some of the load off. He had an assistant editor as well — but he was just as busy with other things.

For whatever reason, I remember that I would just go up to some of the people in the newsroom and happily introduce myself, stutter-be-damned. There weren’t too many introductions to be made, and once I met everyone, that was that. I wanted this to be my group. Joining theatre wasn’t an option, and clearly the academic-inclined groups were too intimidating.

Since I was only going to be taking photos, the stuttering thing wouldn’t be a big issue. I didn’t have to call and interview anybody.

There were basically two types of photos to be taken — news and sports. The problem with taking news photos was that I thought I’d have to introduce myself. And that I was from the paper. And then ask the person what their name was so I could make sure the caption was right. I was definitely not a fan of this. I gravitated more toward shooting whatever sports I could and let the others take news photos. Also, remember, it’s 1997, so we’re still shooting film and processing it in the darkroom.

By the end of my freshman year, there were definitely some strong forces in play. On the one hand, I was still struggling academically since I didn’t have any good friends in any classes. I was still afraid of raising my hand in class or talking to professors afterward. On the other, I had made a great group of friends at the newspaper and was spending a lot of time in those offices. It was basically the confidence thing again. I’d say that by the end of the year, I was slightly positive on the confidence scale.

The older friends who I had at the newspaper basically took me in and, during my freshman year, plotted the next three years out for me. They said that if I stuck around, I could be editor in chief of the paper. It was a simple path — start writing during your sophomore year, then be assistant news editor your junior year. That was the tried-and-true path. And there weren’t many others interested.

Awesome. People are helping me plot out my life, and they want me to succeed.

Now only if I had gotten that kind of help in plotting our my major.

Stuttering in College Part 1

Obviously there’s a lot that went on my freshman year, so I’ll highlight just one main point today. More tomorrow, of course!

I found out quickly how different college classes are than high school classes. In high school, we’d have several tests per semester, a few quizzes, and some easy homework to turn in. In college, there were three exams. If you messed even part of one of them up, you’d already be knocked down to a B for the whole semester. (I had over a 4.0 in high school, so grade expectations were pretty high for college. Oh, and that scholarship I mentioned? That was also GPA-dependent.)

What I also found out is that I wasn’t so smart after all. Pitt has this program — the University Honors College. So I took a chemistry course through it. It didn’t give you any extra boost to your GPA — like an AP course in high school — but it would look nice on your transcript. And remember, medical school! So I’m in this class, and I really don’t understand a damn thing they’re talking about. I’m reading the book (whenever I can) and still don’t get it. Naturally the thing to do would be to approach the teacher and ask for help. Not gonna happen. I stutter. Approach someone else in the class and try to form a study group? Yeah, also not going to happen. But that’s ok! I’ll suck it up and figure it out on my own. Right. Go figure quantum mechanics out on your own. Good luck with that.

I had heard that the path to success was to sit in the front row and ask questions. That was a joke, right? And they had these lovely after-class sort of sessions — those recitations. You’re with a smaller group and can get help with your homework and talk to the professor or her teaching assistant. I’d go to some of these off and on, but I found the idea of asking a question that I already knew the answer to sort of stupid. Naturally I sat in the back of most of my classes and didn’t utter a word.

With regards to stuttering, the real problem wasn’t class participation — there wasn’t a need for that in 200 and 300-student lecture halls — but the fear of asking for help.

Looking back I think the biggest contributions to a really lousy first semester (academically) were the lack of a study group and the idea that I already knew what was going to be covered in a class.

I strongly believe that if someone who stutters goes to college, they should sit down with some kind of “mentor” who either has just gone through college or is going through it — and has a stutter. The mentor would force the student to review what did and didn’t work in high school, and how that would (or would not) translate to college. Also, to encourage the student to talk to the professors privately about the stutter (an e-mail would be fine as well). For example, such a mentor would have pointed out to me that if I had a strong core of friends who are taking the same classes, would I have such a thing in college? No? Then how would I go about making those friends if I had a stutter? The classes are pretty big, and there’s a lot of change from one to another. I distinctly remember on several occasions thinking that I had gone to too big of a school.

How bad was I at making friends in my classes? To this day (13 years on) I only talk to two people who I met in a biology class. (the other college friends who I still talk to were met through other activities which I’ll get to later).

The worst part is that I only realized toward the end of college that a lack of friends in my core courses was really hurting me — since I was afraid of going to professors for help. Even after getting that first report card, I didn’t sit down and think, Ok, what’s going on here? I was doing so well in high school, so what’s the big disconnect?

Eleventh Grade

Confidence-wise, things were on an upward trajectory going into 11th grade. We had a different French teacher (now in French 4) but a lot of the class was on reading and writing and not so much on speaking. I can’t remember if it was French 4 or 5, but we had to memorize the French National Anthem and sing it as a quiz. We got more points if we did it in front of the class. Or we could choose to do it one-on-one with the teacher out in the hallway. I don’t think a lot of people were singing in front of the class, and I don’t stutter when I sing anyway.

What fun I did manage to have of course came from English class. Another book report!

Before the holiday break, we were told in English class that we’d have to do an oral book report. These would start right after getting back from the break. And would anybody like to volunteer to go first? My hand shot up. My friends looked at me like I was crazy. Yes, I’d like to go first. The reasoning was simple — get it over with. There would be two dozen people after me, and so if I stuttered and bumbled through it, nobody would remember.

Now then, did we remember what happened freshman year when we didn’t read the book? No? Outstanding. Let’s do that again. My book this time was Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow. No idea what motivated this choice. (and no, I haven’t re-read this one either. It’s on my list, I swear). I do remember that I actually read about a quarter of this book. It was enjoyable. But again the procrastination/laziness busted in and messed everything up. And remember, I had an entire 2-week winter break to read this thing. And nothing else to do. We weren’t traveling or hosting anybody. At one point I told my brother about this assignment, and he replied simply, “why don’t you just read the book?” Right.

I got far enough into the book to find a quote about “being and becoming.” I knew this was important. But of course it’s a b-word. I’d have to go up and say “being.” And “becoming.” And well, this was going to be plenty unpleasant.

For the report itself, I got through it. I tried to use the marginal amount of confidence that I had. I stuttered through “being and becoming,” I made eye contact, I let my friends’ faces comfort me. I got it over with. When the grade came back, my teacher had written that it was an “honest” report.

On the one hand I think I did a decent enough job, and maybe that’s why it was honest. On the other, maybe it was because my voice was strained the entire time. Did I physically sound more honest? Was that the deal? Since I wasn’t talking about my stuttering with anybody, I wasn’t about to go into this discussion with my teacher. Move on.

During high school I started paying much more attention to how people spoke. (Especially since I had all these book reports to listen to.) As I sat in the back of English class to listen to my two dozen friends do their reports, I started to notice how much they said “um,” or how they raised their voice at the end of every sentence. I wondered if they were doing the same to me. Or, like my teacher, did they just think I was really nervous?

Tenth Grade

In tenth grade, two major things stand out.

One, I had a bunch of friends who were involved in the performing arts — theatre, choir, band. I had missed the boat on the latter two, but still had a chance to go up on stage and try to get involved in a play or musical. But I remember saying to myself, there’s no way I’m going to do that. There’s an audition, and not only did I not know to prepare for something like that (or, heck, how) but it seemed like everybody who was getting parts had their stuff together way more than me. Besides, the productions that were put on were top-notch — I’d only ruin something like that. I was happy enough to be involved in something like stage crew instead. I could still hang out with my friends, but nobody would have to hear me stutter.

The other thing was, of course, another book report for English class. Couldn’t they just make public speaking a class that I could choose not to take? No? Anyway, I actually read the book this time. It wasn’t a classic though. Something about a plane crash and the subsequent investigation. It was fiction, and it was pretty interesting. One of the main points our teacher stressed was making eye contact while we did our reports. I was feeling pretty good about this report, and I don’t remember stuttering much. What I do remember was jokingly asking everybody during the report if I had made eye contact with them. This brought on the necessarily levity to the situation. I got through it, but our teacher wasn’t really happy about me asking people.

Overall I think tenth grade was pretty easy as far as stuttering. I wasn’t going to speech therapy either. There weren’t any more oral reports, and I had a strong group of friends. My brother, who was a senior at this point, would be heading off to college the next year. He and I were getting closer because I realized I wouldn’t see him as much.

The summer after tenth grade I got my first job working retail. This was non-eventful; I didn’t have to cold-call anybody or talk much at all. Just ring people up at the register.

Confidence was rising nicely, but I still had a long way to go.

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.

Eighth Grade

A few quick things before getting into eighth grade —

I noticed there’s the British Stammering Association’s national conference in August over a weekend. Maybe I should go to that, too? I mean, might as well jump into the deep end, right? It’s in Glasgow. I’d probably only need to take one or two days off.

Speaking of which, please note that I’m in Saudi — so our days off are Friday and Saturday. I’ll try to set something up to post on the “weekend,” but may not always get around to it. As a bonus, you’ll get posts on Sunday, though.

Also, please note that this tour of my past is only of the major points that I recall — I’ll still dip into the mental archives now and again to highlight some issues. For example, I haven’t said anything about being raised as a Muslim — and having to learn to read Arabic.

Alright, onto eighth grade. As I mentioned, my confidence is cyclical, so by my last year in junior high, things were going very well. The boat anchor of having to talk in French was being towed along easily by every other class. I had established a solid core of friends, we enjoyed our classes, and my sense of humor was in full swing. By this time, I was watching Letterman on Friday nights and Friends on Thursday nights. My sarcasm was reaching new heights.

In English class we watched Dead Poets Society. There’s a scene in the movie when one of the characters receives a phone call and tells the headmaster in front of everybody. I thought this was great. That year we had a weekly class, something like, CAP, or Curriculum Activity Period. I can’t remember what it was for, but we thought it was useless, so we called it CRAP, or Curriculum-Related Activity Period. Anyway, inspired by the movie, I brought in a little Liberty Bell (that my brother had got on a field trip) and the headset from a telephone at home. Then, during English, I rang the bell and answered the phone. I told my teacher it was God, and that He thought we should cancel CAP.

Fortunately he had a sense of humor about it. He even showed me the paddle that he kept in his closet. Like most of the teachers, he was old school, so that sort of thing used to go down. My heinie was spared, and my confidence was boosted nicely. The other nice thing about school was that aside from French, there wasn’t any class participation. I could engage on my own terms. I could sit in the back of a class and make sarcastic comments under my breath to my heart’s content.

I don’t remember specifically going to speech therapy after sixth grade (although I did start going again in high school). I don’t remember that I even participated in such a decision. Maybe the teachers or therapists or my parents thought that I was doing fine? My grades were very solid. I didn’t have any behavioral issues.

So once again I had reached a relative peak, and once again, I’d be brought down mightily by a whole new experience. High school was up next.

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