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.

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.

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?

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