Stuttering before college

As promised, let’s start talking about the college experience. This may take a few days.

The first important thing to mention is that I graduated high school in 1997. As said before, this was pre-Internet-as-it-is-today. Meaning that things were still mailed (hard copies!) and the phone was useful for communication. (well, for other people anyway)

Two years prior, we’d taken the PSATs. (What do the kids have now, anyway?) So you’d take the PSATs, and get a score back. I think you were supposed to allow your score to be released to colleges. Well, I did that, and there were tons of catalogs that came in the mail. From all over the country. (I did pretty well on the PSATs). I took the SATs later on and did fairly well on those, too.

These catalogs were coming in, and my brother was already off starting his freshman year. His choice of a college was a little more simple than mine for reasons I’ll get into later. So here I was with a pile of catalogs and no idea if I should apply to some of them, none of them or a few of them. Or where in the country should I go? Should I try for a specific program? Do I need to find a college that’s “right” for me? What about money?

My brother had gone to a large state school, and growing up in Pennsylvania, it seemed a lot of my friends were going to Penn State. So I knew I would apply there. I talked to some of my friends and even decided to room with one of them at Penn State. Done deal.

Well, not exactly. I also applied to three other schools and got into all of them — Pitt, Lehigh and University of Rochester. I applied to Pitt because well, it’s another large state school. Lehigh because a friend had applied there. Rochester because um … I dunno. Did I ask any of my other friends where they were going and why? No. Should I? Probably.

Pitt ended up giving me more scholarship money than Penn State. So I decided in the end to go to Pitt. I had no idea what the differences would be.

So here’s where the stuttering comes in.

I really knew absolutely nothing about college. Nothing. It was all very vague, and the expectation from my parents was like, “college, and then medical school, and then become a doctor.” That’s it. No information on exactly how this was to be accomplished because, remember, everybody thought I had my stuff together.

I stuttered, so I was afraid to ask anybody about this. I could have called any of the colleges that had sent me a catalog to find out more. I could have called the friendly folks at Pitt or Penn State to ask them what to expect and what I should bring … and what classes would be like … and what groups to join … and how to pick a major and … and … none of that happened.

I think I had this idea that college would basically be this extension of high school. Classes wouldn’t be that hard, I’d have some friends, and before I knew it, I’d be in medical school.

Had I called up Pitt to ask them about taking Advanced Placement tests, they probably would have told me it’d be a good idea. Did I do this? No. Did I take some of the AP tests? Yes, but I could have taken more. And I probably could have skipped a semester or two.

It’s important to note that in high school I had my brother to tell me what courses to take and in what order. So I didn’t spend a lot of time with (or have any need for) the guidance counselor. In college I would have nobody, but I’d also have this idea in my mind that well, I could figure it out.

I understand that many kids go to college not quite sure of why they are there and what they are going to do. But I was told specifically why I was there and what I would do (by my parents). But nobody ever sat me down and said, “well, how exactly are you going to do this?”

Looking back on those months before college, there sure was a lot of uncertainty. And a lot of things that, if changed, could have made the next four years a lot easier. But I was blissfully unaware of any of this.

Senior Year

In either junior or senior year, I started going to speech therapy again. This was with the school-provided therapist. She was different than before.

I don’t remember much of what we talked about — I think we probably practiced a bunch of words, said some sentences …

But what I do remember very, very well was that she taught me about needing air to talk. For anybody who doesn’t stutter, this is probably not earth-shattering. But for me, it was quite the revelation.

There are often times when I can’t say anything despite trying and trying. Not even a sound comes out. While this is going on, air is slowly escaping. And I need that air to speak. And the less of it there is, the less chance that I’ll be able to say anything. So what did I learn? She said to imagine a balloon that’s filled with air. Then, instead of just letting go and letting the air fly out, slowly let it come out. Hold the opening at a constant size. This is how to breathe, and this is going to help in speaking.

Does it?

Oh yes. It’s the single best thing I can do for my speaking. But I still stutter. Why? Because it’s hard to remember to breathe! No, seriously. I don’t practice this as much as I should. There are often times I’ll just rush into something, run out of air and then be stuck without a sound. Other times I think to myself — breathe — take a breath, a deep one, clear your thoughts, and slowly let out the words. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. To me talking faster (or wanting to talk faster) can sometimes result in more stuttering because of air flow issues, not the words themselves.

But of course since stuttering is stuttering, speaking slowly doesn’t always help. Even if I have the air, I’ve thought of a word I need to say, and then realize I can’t say it. I feel I can’t say it from a few words off.

Senior year definitely had my confidence peaking though. Not only had I learned about this technique, but my classes were easy, friends were great and college was just a few months off. And since a bunch of my friends were in the performing arts, I eventually gave in to peer pressure. By the end of the year, I was up on stage with my buddy doing “Who’s on First.” Two nights, and I didn’t stutter a bit.

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