When I was younger, much younger and in grade school, various adults would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Parents, friends of parents, teachers and other “so called” educators asked me the same thing. Of course, being a person who stutters and not wanting to talk, I would just shake my head and say, “I don’t know”; to which I was roundly criticized as being lazy, unmotivated, thoughtless, insolent and my all time favorite, “such a nice boy, too bad he’s stupid. He’s not college material.”
So at an early age, the people who supposedly loved me, cared for me, had professed in no uncertain terms that not only was I unable to speak, which they knew about, but that I was slow of mind.
What they didn’t understand and I couldn’t tell them was The Only Thing I Wanted Was To Not Stutter. Why didn’t they get that?
I am sure if I said that to them, their deniability would be paramount. “You don’t stutter, everybody hesitates, just take a deep breath and don’t let the other kids make fun of you; sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never harm you.”
God, were they wrong!!
Didn’t they know that words were like howitzers; like nuclear bombs exploding and disintegrating your heart every day and reducing you to an embarrassed and humiliated person who began living his life as an apology? I was sorry every time I talked. I was sorry every time I got picked on. I was sorry to have the teacher tell me to slow down, take a deep breath or as the more informed teachers of the day would say, “what’s the matter cat got your tongue? C’mon now, spit it out.”
The more “sensitive teachers” would literally make fun of me in front of the class and then stick me in the corner until I was ready to talk. I never knew what it felt like to feel good about myself; to feel accepted, liked or even tolerated.
I was like the old car parked in the garage, covered in dust that no one ever oiled, greased or changed my spark plugs; used once in a while and then cursed at for breaking down.
Life was wonderful. Every day was a day in hell. Every day was another embarrassment. Every day my goodnight prayer was, “God, can I please die so I don’t have to get up tomorrow and go to school.”
Worse, no one I knew stuttered. I was a freak. I was just FFFFFFFred, nervous, anxious, mentally unstable, different and of course “stupid.”
But, I had one thing going for me. I was a good athlete and could play the four big sports, basketball, baseball, football and stickball. And from these sports I gained some self-esteem and some outlet for my rage and anger.
And when my aggressiveness went over the top (which was a daily occurrence), I could always count on a phone call from the mother or father of the “wronged” child to my parents telling them that I was an animal that should be locked up to which my parents would agree wholeheartedly. My parents, “always on my team” and the first to presume my guilt every time, promised to punish me. Not being able to explain myself or not even given the opportunity to do so, eventually would cement the same results. “Guilty as Expected.”
As a final goodbye note, my parents would apologize and ask the “wronged” child’s parents to understand that I wasn’t “quite right in the head” and they would make sure I would be taught a lesson. The facts just didn’t matter because my stutter just made me always wrong. Ah, the people who love us.
As I got older, my stuttering never got better and I became angrier; striking out at the students in class who made fun of me and once pushing a teacher who made fun of my stutter. My parents, ever so understanding, threatened me with reform school or to call the police. I became very much a “loner,” spending hours in my room reciting poems in the mirror, listening to the Beach Boys singing “In My Room” 5 bizillion times and crying every single time I heard it. All the time. Every time. Crying was the only thing I was getting good at.
I developed a “rep” as someone other kids shouldn’t tease. My “rep” served its purpose; the bullying diminished and I even made a few friends.
In the 9th grade, I had a wonderful teacher. His name was Mr. Cohen, my Home Room teacher, Math teacher and English teacher too. All the other kids were afraid of him. I didn’t scare much anymore, after all I had been through, so I knew that the worst he could do was give me a failing grade and what the heck, my parents expected that anyway. NO point to let them down now, I thought!
But Mr. Cohen was different. He saw my struggles, even dried my tears a couple of times and worked with me to show me I wasn’t stupid. He asked me to write out my feelings and all I could write about was hating myself for stuttering, wishing I was dead, hollering at God for cursing me this way and wishing I had parents that loved me.
He taught me Algebra and I loved it. For the first time I got an “A” in a course. I also got an “A” in English.
Mr. Cohen stayed after school with me and we would play catch in the playground. He bought me egg creams and I loved him because he was the first person who didn’t care if I stuttered and he was the first adult that actually liked me for me.
He helped me to realize that there was more to me than my stutter and that I could read, write, do Algebra and be fluent with him for long periods of time because there was no expectation of when I would finish that sentence.
At the end of the 9th grade, he gave me his old baseball glove, which I kept for many, many years. It wasn’t until years later when I saw his obituary it said he was a 3rd baseman, for part of two seasons with the Cincinnati Reds AAA farm team.
The rest is history.